One that got away

November 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

Frank Lloyd Wright's design for 830 El Camino del Mar in San Francisco.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s design for 830 El Camino del Mar in San Francisco.

FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT designed no homes built in San Francisco — only the V.C. Morris Gift Shop on Maiden Lane, thought by some to be a warm-up for his circular design for the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

It turns out, however, that Wright also designed a home for the Morrises in Sea Cliff, overlooking the Golden Gate. It was never built. But drawings show what might have been.

Read more: “A Frank Lloyd Wright house in Sea Cliff

Still teaching its lessons

October 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Photograph of the Swedenborgian Church by Laurie Passey

The Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco is a National Historic Landmark.


My earliest memories of the Swedenborgian Church are from about 1957. I would have been three years old. I remember the welcoming fire behind the hearth and the home-like atmosphere of the sanctuary. And there were the welcoming people, too: Rev. Othmar Tobisch and Mrs. Tobisch, and Jane Sugden — “Miss Jane,” as we called her — who taught my sister Kathy and me to sing. I recall especially the sound and feel of the rush-bottomed chairs that my little backside swam around in.

Our father died in 1959, so most of our childhood memories of the church are connected with our mother, Phyllis Bosley. The church became our home away from home. Kathy and I were there four or five times every week for one reason or another: children’s choir practice, adult choir practice, Thursday night supper or to help Miss Jane with a project.

I don’t recall exactly when I became interested in the church building as a potent physical object, but I do remember why. Sitting at the back of the church waiting for a wedding to conclude so I could blow out the candles and sweep up the rice (Mr. Tobisch paid 75 cents per wedding), I picked up a copy of the little pamphlet written in 1945 on the 50th anniversary of the first service. It described historic features of the church, practically all of which — and this is what captured my complete attention — remained decades later exactly as they were described. It seemed incredible that a place might be so loved as to be left unmolested for so long.

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Warming up a special place

March 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

Renovating the historic Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco

Renovating the historic Swedenborgian Church in San Francisco

MOST RENOVATIONS and facelifts aim to make things look a little younger and fresher. But that was not the case with the work just completed at the historic Swedenborgian Church at Washington and Lyon streets in San Francisco.

On February 16, the congregants entered through the garden and past a crackling fire in the massive fireplace, just as they always have, as they returned to their sanctuary after the first major renovation in the church’s 119-year history.

The restored dove window from the outside

The restored dove window

“It’s so toasty in here,” said office manager Dana Owens, who supervised the project. The fireplace was the primary source of heat until radiant heating was added during the renovation underneath the refinished wooden floorboards. Discreet lighting was tucked into the madrone trees and rafters that support the roof. The stained glass windows were restored and the thick, rounded wooden doors were refinished.

The Swedenborgian Church, built in 1894, is the birthplace of the Arts & Crafts movement in the United States. Its simple handmade maple chairs with tule rush seats were the inspiration for all Mission-style furniture that followed.

On March 16, the Swedenborgians will launch a monthly lecture series on the art and architecture of the unusual church, which is a National Historic Landmark.

Reinstalling the stained glass window above the altar

Reinstalling the stained glass dove window above the altar

Read more: “Arts & Crafts movement started here

Timothy Pflueger’s San Francisco

February 28, 2014 § Leave a comment

Timothy Pflueger's 450 Sutter Street in San Francisco

Timothy Pflueger’s 450 Sutter Street in San Francisco

“HE NEVER WENT TO COLLEGE, yet Timothy Pflueger became one of the San Francisco’s best-known architects of his era,” says Therese Poletti, Pflueger’s biographer. “His work is stunning and original. He did not resort to the oft-used motifs of the Jazz Age and Moderne period. Instead, he found his own inspirations — often influences that tied back to the city of San Francisco, such as the Asian figures in the canopy ceiling of the Castro Theatre. Pflueger said he got the idea for them when he was walking around Chinatown.”

“He also brought artists into almost all of his projects, starting very early on in his career. Thanks to Pflueger, who first hired Diego Rivera to paint a mural in the San Francisco Stock Exchange Luncheon Club (now the City Club), San Francisco has three murals by Rivera, two of which can be seen by the public.”

40 Fabulous Photos of Pflueger’s San Francisco

Pflueger's 140 New Montgomery Street

Timothy Pflueger’s 140 New Montgomery Street

WHAT YELP’S NEW HEADQUARTERS, the recently renovated landmark 140 New Montgomery designed by Timothy Pflueger, could teach the city’s tech scene. READ MORE: “A 26-Story History of San Francisco

THE McALLISTER TOWER APARTMENTS at 100 McAllister Street in San Francisco — now the dorm for UC’s Hastings College of the Law — got its start as one of the strangest hotel schemes in San Francisco history. The church-hotel combo was the brain child of Rev. Walter John Sherman, who built a “superchurch” with a hotel on top. Timothy Pflueger’s firm designed the building in a neo-Gothic style with an Art Deco twist. Miller & Pflueger was fired and Lewis P. Hobart was brought in to finish the hotel, though he essentially kept Pflueger’s design.

John Louis Field, filmmaker

February 10, 2014 § 1 Comment

BEFORE HE TURNED his attention to photography, John Louis Field was a noted San Francisco architect and also a filmmaker. Two of his architectural documentaries exploring cities and what makes them successful places were broadcast nationwide on public television.

In “The Urban Preserve,” from 1976, Field weaves a rich visual tapestry of vibrant urban places, most in Italy, some in the U.S. As both filmmaker and polemicist, he has a point of view. “Cities are alive,” he argues. “They can flourish and grow, or they can shrink and even die. But while they live, they constantly change.”

He presents especially beautiful images of the Milan’s Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (above) and Orvieto Cathedral (below) before concluding: “It is essential to preserve a city’s life that we save the great monuments, and that we still allow for contemporary expression — because together, they are the accumulation of history that is a part of our root and one of our ways of sensing who we are.”

FAREWELL: “Two of our finest

Brunelleschi’s dome

February 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

Photograph by Dave Yoder for National Geographic

Photograph by Dave Yoder for National Geographic

IN CREATING THE MAGNIFICENT Duomo in Florence, a hot-tempered goldsmith named Filippo Brunelleschi had to contend with highly placed adversaries, led by the scheming Lorenzo Ghiberti. Brunelleschi was the project’s conceptual and operational leader from the start, yet he and Ghiberti received the same yearly wage of 36 florins.

Brunelleschi’s biographers tell an amusing tale about how he finally outmaneuvered Ghiberti. In the summer of 1423, just before a wooden tension ring was to be laid around the dome, Brunelleschi suddenly took to his bed, complaining of severe pains in his side. When the baffled carpenters and masons asked how they were to position the enormous chestnut beams that made up the ring, he essentially delegated the task to his rival. Ghiberti had installed only some of the beams when Brunelleschi, miraculously on the mend, returned to the work site and pronounced Ghiberti’s work so incompetent that it would have to be torn out and replaced.

Brunelleschi directed these repairs himself, complaining all the while to the overseers that his co-superintendent was earning a salary he didn’t deserve. Though this account may be tinged by hero worship, archival records at year’s end do name Brunelleschi the sole “inventor and director of the cupola,” and later his salary rose to a hundred florins a year, while Ghiberti continued at 36 florins.

Read more in National Geographic

Mies in San Francisco? Almost

December 13, 2013 § Leave a comment

A 1958 rendering of the Mies van der Rohe towers proposed for the foot of Russian Hill.

A 1958 rendering of the Mies van der Rohe towers proposed for the foot of Russian Hill.

LUDWIG MIES VAN DER RHOE was among the 20th century’s most revered modern architects, known for such meticulous landmarks as the Seagram Building in New York.

What wasn’t known until this year is that in 1958 he designed two towers intended for San Francisco — a pair of dark metal slabs that would have stood at the base of Russian Hill, filling a block that now is a city park.

That location was second choice. The first site the team coveted was a block on Marina Boulevard across from Fort Mason. But the developer was outbid by Safeway, which built the supermarket that opened in 1959 and still does a brisk business.

When he was 74, Mies was in San Francisco for a convention of the American Institute of Architects. He was to receive the group’s highest honor, its gold medal. His hosts took him to the Buena Vista cafe and insisted he try an Irish coffee, the house specialty then as well as now.

“He was skeptical, but he agreed,” one remembered. “One taste led to another, and pretty soon the guy famous for not being talkative — we couldn’t stop him.”

Read more: “Planned high-rises near the bay never made it big”

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