A Frank Lloyd Wright mortuary

August 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

The mint and the mortuary — taxes and death — in San Francisco.

By ANDREW DUDLEY
haighteration.com

From an early age, Nicholas P. Daphne showed an interest in the funeral business.

Born in Greece in 1908, but raised in San Francisco, Daphne went to embalming school soon after graduating from Mission High School. He took apprenticeships at a few mortuaries around the city, and worked at the city coroner’s office. In 1938, he opened his first mortuary in the Mission.

During his early exposure to the business, Daphne was struck by how unnecessarily expensive — and gloomy — the funeral services tended to be. With his mortuaries, Daphne hoped to offer something different: funeral services that were not only “fair and low-priced,” as his wife would later describe them, but also, well, cheerful.

“I got the idea after we received so much comment from people in the last 10 years about the morbid atmosphere of most mortuaries,” Daphne told reporters at the time.

His next mortuary would be an attempt to fulfill that vision. First, he found a suitable plot of land — an area just west of San Francisco’s newly built U.S. Mint building, bounded by Church, Webster, Hermann and Duboce Streets. As Time Magazine described it at the time, the parcel was decidedly unremarkable: “His site was a rocky knoll off upper Market Street, its only building a battered shed decorated with an old election poster.”

But Daphne considered the location ideal — and deserving of an architect to match.

So some time in 1944, Daphne made a late-night phone call to 77-year-old, world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

“I’ve got the finest site, in the heart of San Francisco, and I want the finest mortuary in the world. So I figure, I need the finest architect in the world.”

The pitch apparently worked.

Wright began conducting research for the project, visiting various mortuaries “to get the feel of the trade,” as Wright put it. He soon noticed the same thing Daphne had — that the death business is not a happy one. Wright was quoted at the time as saying:

“It’s about time something is done to take the curse off this death racket… A place where you go to see the last of your earthly companions should be a happy place; it should leave you with the feeling that death is no curse, that all is not lost because of it. People will weep, of course, but give them a lift with beauty. Put living things around; flowers that grow, not bouquets that smell.”

Wright also seemed to find a certain poetry in the juxtaposition of a mortuary directly adjacent to a U.S. Mint building, noting: “Hmmm. The mint and the mortuary — ‘taxes and death.’ ”

In January of 1947, nearly three years after Daphne’s phone call, Wright gathered reporters to unveil his plans for the mortuary. And as Time noted, the design was ground-breaking.

“Wright’s plan calls for four mushroom-shaped chapels, to be named the White, Blue, Rose and Yellow Chapels respectively, each with a “Slumber Room” for bodies lying in state. Also planned: a pyramidal structure lopped off at the top to provide a landing field for helicopters, a tall-spired kiosk to serve as a flower booth, and a two-story office building where the bereaved will be consulted, tombstones sold, and living space provided for a four-man night shift… When Wright gets through with it the place will resemble a miniature World’s Fair.”

The mortuary would be a pleasure to stroll around. There would be no steps “for old people to stumble over,” as Daphne put it, but instead ramps would be used throughout the property. No ugly parking lot, either — a tunnel would be cut into the rock for a three-story underground garage. Visual effects including light pastel colors and soft, indirect lighting would be used throughout the site to contribute to its “cheerful” atmosphere.

The estimated cost of the project was $500,000, or more than $5 million in today’s dollars.

Unfortunately, that’s as far as Wright’s designs progressed, and what happened next is not entirely clear. Some reports claim that Wright and Daphne had a falling out, while others speculate that Daphne may have balked at the project’s exorbitant price. Regardless of the reason, within a few months after that 1947 unveiling, Daphne found himself hunting for a new architect.

Read more: “The Frank Lloyd Wright Mortuary That Wasn’t

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