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”

Big Alma’s museum

January 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

The California Palace of the Legion of Honor | Photograph by Steve Whittaker

The California Palace of the Legion of Honor | Photograph by Steve Whittaker


Patriotism — pure American patriotism — was the way Alma de Bretteville Spreckels convinced her Teutonic husband to spend a million dollars for French culture. Her goal was to introduce French art to America, and she knew her friend the Parisian dancer Loie Fuller’s goal was to erect a shrine to Auguste Rodin, the great French sculptor. But she packaged those aims inside a red-white-and-blue flag. The museum she proposed to build in San Francisco — the Palace of the Legion of Honor — would be a memorial to the California boys who gave their lives defending their country.

How fervently her husband A.B. Spreckels bought the package is apparent in the statement he delivered to the Board of Park Commissioners when he made his formal offer at their meeting on January 5, 1920. He declared it was the purpose of “my wife and myself to contribute to the beautification of our native city something not only beautiful in itself, but also something devoted to patriotic and useful ends: something which might be dedicated as a suitable memorial to our brave boys who gave their lives to their country in the Great War, and also lend itself, as a home of art and historical treasures, to promoting the education and culture of our citizens, and especially the rising and coming generations.”

Along with his offer to build a museum, A.B. sent a check for $320,000 “to be used for and to insure the completion of the building.” He noted that “upon completion of the building it is the intention of Mrs. Spreckels to offer to you as a nucleus of the art treasures to be housed therein a valuable collection of sculptures and other works of art by famous artists.”
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A Frank Lloyd Wright mortuary

August 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

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


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.”
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Dirk van Erp and the Swedenborgians

June 3, 2012 § 1 Comment

Swedenborgian minister Rev. Junchol Lee admires the unusual Dirk van Erp chandelier.

LUXURY WEEK arrives this month at Christie’s in New York, and the Rev. Joseph Worcester might be rolling in his grave at the news that his beloved Swedenborgian Church will be auctioning a historic lamp from the former parsonage next door. It is estimated to fetch from $40,000 to $60,000.

But he would be pleased the proceeds will be used to restore the church’s stained glass windows designed by Bruce Porter, a key player in Worcester’s circle of artists and writers who helped create the church and garden on the corner of Lyon and Washington Streets in San Francisco. Also to be restored are the church’s iconic square-legged chairs with rush-bottom seats — said to be designed by legendary architect Bernard Maybeck to Worcester’s specifications — which inspired the Mission-style furniture that followed.

The dignified home at 2121 Lyon Street was built for parishioner Gertrude Bowers in 1894 at the same time the church was being built next door. It was intended as a parsonage, but Rev. Worcester preferred to stay in his simple wood-shingled home at the top of Russian Hill. In 1900 the residence was bought by acclaimed artist William Keith, another key member of Worcester’s circle. Keith also bought the lot beside the church on Washington Street, which is now the Swedenborgian Parish House.

In 1910, shortly before Keith’s death, he sold the residence to Isabel Baldwin, who in 1921 sold it to the Eloesser family. It remained in that family until Nina Eloesser died in December 2010. The family had arranged for the house to be deeded — at long last — directly to the Swedenborgian Church.

The church has just begun to renovate 2121 Lyon Street. But before the work could begin, the distinctive copper and mica chandelier had to be removed from the dining room. It was thought to be from the San Francisco studio of Dirk van Erp, one of the most celebrated craftsmen of what came to be known as the Arts & Crafts movement.

The Swedenborgian chandelier

Collectors and the major auction houses came calling when news of the rare and unseen van Erp chandelier began to circulate. Church officials decided to put the lamp up for auction at Christie’s in New York alongside a thicket of Tiffany lamps, many from the collection of the Eddie Rickenbacker saloon in San Francisco.

Christie’s is promoting the lamp as “property from the Swedenborgian Church,” circa 1910, “originally in the home of the painter William Keith, a friend of Dirk van Erp, until his passing in 1911.” Technically that’s more or less true, but after connoisseurs arched their eyebrows, Christie’s revised its online description to make clear that the lamp comes from property owned by the Swedenborgian Church, not from the church itself.

Likewise, while William Keith owned 2121 Lyon, it was never his home. He lived across the bay in Berkeley. Keith probably knew nothing of the lamp since he sold the house in 1910, the same year van Erp opened his studio in San Francisco.

And no one can prove definitively the lamp is by van Erp. It does not bear his distinctive windmill mark, nor was van Erp known to make chandeliers. But the lamp bears all the hallmarks of his studio’s work, and specifically that of his nephew and chief assistant August Tiesselinck, who did make chandeliers, and for a time had his own copper shop on Sacramento Street near Fillmore.

It seems likely the chandelier was added to 2121 Lyon after the Eloessers bought the residence in 1921. Van Erp continued to operate his copper shop through the 1920s, and the Eloessers also had two copper and mica table lamps marked with the van Erp windmill. In addition, van Erp created hand-hammered copper desk sets featuring the monograms of both Herbert and Nina Eloesser.

None of that diminishes the uniqueness or the desirability of the lamp. Arts & Crafts collectors and enthusiasts will be watching closely on June 14 during Luxury Week at Christie’s.


The Aesthetes pay a visit

March 4, 2012 § Leave a comment


To the serious collector of ironies, the Aesthetic Movement of 19th century England has much to offer. Surely one of the most ironic things is that the business community may well have become aware of a need for something new and different sooner than most English artists did. Putting it in a nutshell, England’s traditional hostility toward what was merely artistic had begun to hurt the bottom line. During the 18th century beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in England, the lowering of prices made possible by machine production gave English products an enormous competitive advantage. But then time passed, foreigners began to catch up, and competition was no longer based on price alone.

By the second quarter of the 19th century, it had become clear that French producers were — not literally, perish the thought — eating England’s lunch. What England needed was at least a saving remnant of artists and designers who didn’t mind being like the French or Spaniards or Italians in having a taste for merely beautiful things. Although regrettably associated with loose morals, un-English taste could bring in money.

Enter, in a somewhat disorderly queue, the Aesthetes, whose hits and misses are handsomely displayed in “The Cult of Beauty: The Victorian Avant-Garde 1860-1900,” a traveling exhibition that opened February 18 at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor.
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The case of the missing mural

August 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Study for The Commonwealth | Arthur Mathews

Arthur Mathews — the leading artistic figure in San Francisco at the end of the 19th century — was prolific, even in his creation of murals for public spaces. In addition to a 12-panel mural tracing the history of California for the State Capitol in Sacramento, Mathews in 1924 designed The Commonwealth to appear above the bench in the barrel-vaulted courtroom of the California Supreme Court in San Francisco.

In the 1950s the courtroom was given a more up-to-date dropped ceiling and the mural was removed. Then after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the courtroom was remodeled once again and the original barrel vault was restored to its original glory. But the Mathews mural could not be found. In a new article, San Francisco lawyer Ray McDevitt tells the story.

Read more: “The Commonwealth: A Lost Art

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