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

By BERNICE SCHARLACH

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.

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.”
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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.

— THOMAS REYNOLDS

The Aesthetes pay a visit

March 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

ART HISTORY | JEROME TARSHIS

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

Paint-out at Alta Plaza

April 4, 2011 § 1 Comment

A group of architects and artists who paint together en plein air once a month will gather at Alta Plaza Park on Sunday afternoon, April 10. The group started painting together 30 years ago, led by architect John Kriken and former SF planning director Allan Jacobs.

Master watercolorist Michael Reardon, who has been a part of the group for most of its history, brings the watercolorists to Alta Plaza, a favorite neighborhood park at the top of Pacific Heights with magnificent views and outstanding architecture. Reardon’s work has been honored by the California and American watercolor societies and the California Art Club. He is exhibiting his series, “The Fountains of Paris,” nearby at the Thomas Reynolds Gallery.

A Pflueger masterpiece

January 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

The newly restored Alameda Theater

We journeyed across a couple of bridges last night — all the way to Alameda — to hear a talk by Therese Poletti, who’s just published a beautiful book on the great San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger called Art Deco San Francisco.

We know Pflueger primarily for his Deco towers in San Francisco — the Pacific Bell building, which was the city’s first high-rise; the Stock Exchange building, with its stunning silver-ceilinged club up top; the Mayan medical building at 450 Sutter — plus the Castro and Paramount Theaters and on and on.

Among his most magnificent works is the little-known Alameda Theater, which recently has been restored to its full glory, with nearly all of its original fixtures and details still in place and fully polished. It’s definitely worth a visit.

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