VLN: Bay Area Public Art: 1 2 (1896-1909) 3 4 5 6 7 8

S F Public Art slide show

Chronological listing of selected Bay Area Public Art (1896-1909).

Mechanic's Monument (Western view) Mechanic's Monument (South view)
1894-95, Financial District, Mechanic's Monument
Battery-Market-Bush Sts., San Francisco.
Douglas Tilden, sculpt.; Willis Polk, arch.

Polk designed the base of this heroic sculpture by Tilden, a deaf mute who was an internationally known artist. James Donahue gave the monument in memory of his father, Peter, who in 1850 started the state's first ironworks and machine shop, established the first gas company for street lighting in the city in 1852, and later initiated the first streetcar line. Bronze sidewalk plaques note the original shoreline of Yerba Buena Cove (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 32).

Several months after the unveiling [of the Admission Day Monument], Tilden was entrusted with a much larger commission from James Donohue for a monument in memory of his father, which [James] Phelan administered. After about a year's worth of preliminary studies, Tilden again sought Polk's assistance. Phelan was skeptical: "That agreement with Polk is all right," he advised the sculptor, "if his services are worth Two Hundred and Fifty Dollars..., but I would not pay it until his work is performed." Phelan's response may have stemmed from an animosity toward Polk. But the civic leader also seems to have believed that an architect's talents were unnecessary for such work, and he was probably oblivious to the academic movement's idea that a union of allied arts was essential to creating monuments of aesthetic integrity. The personal and conceptual gap that existed between the businessman-politician, who so ardently crusaded for civic improvements, and the architects, who were the most capable of embodying his vision, was San Francisco's misfortune (Longstreth 1998: 231-32).

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Admission Day Monument
1896-97, Financial District, Admission Day monument
Montgomery and Market Sts. (N.E. corner), San Francisco.
Douglas Tilden.

[James] Phelan's attitude toward architecture is revealed by his role in erecting two commemorative monuments. The first he financed himself in 1896 to honor California's admission to the Union and to demonstrate locally the virtues of civic art. Douglas Tilden, recognized as the region's most talented sculptor, was charged with the design. Tilden asked Polk to collaborate, and Phelan acquisced to the partnership but gave Polk scarcely any credit for his contribution (Longstreth 1998: 231).

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City of Paris rotunda
1896-1905, Union Square, City of Paris rotunda
S.E. corner Stockton and Geary Sts., San Francisco.

Replacing a revered landmark, the 1896-1908 City of Paris store by Clinton Day and Bakewell and Brown, this design [Neiman-Marcus] preserves the latter's great stained glass rotunda but not in its original central location (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 7).

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Robert Louis Stevenson monument Robert Louis Stevenson monument
1897, Chinatown, Robert Louis Stevenson monument
750 Kearny St., San Francisco.
Bruce Porter and Willis Polk.

Polk and [Bruce] Porter involved the Guild [for Arts and Crafts] in sponsoring a fountain dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson, a project patterned after those of the Fairmount Park Association in Philadelphia (1871) and the New York Municipal Art Society (1893), organizations established to donate works of civic art to their respective cities.

The fountain was conceived by Bruce Porter upon hearing of the writer's death. Porter took the idea to Polk and shortly thereafter sculptor George Piper was brought in to collaborate on the project. In the tradition of the best commemorative work by McKim, Mead and White and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the monument gives focus to its setting without being obtrusive. It also avoids the appearance of an architectural fragment, achieving an active interplay among the pedestal, inscription, and sculpture, between the broad, low basin of water in front and the ellipse of poplar trees that enframes the ensemble. The proposed location in Portsmouth Square, amid the tawdry Latin Quarter once frequented by Stevenson, was intended to demonstrate the relatively new idea of adorning many portions of the city rather than just a few select places. Some observers felt that this would be the most artistic monument ever erected on the West Coast. Although the cost was only $2,000, to be raised through public subscription, it took more than three years to reach that goal. Many San Franciscans refused to donate unless the monument was erected in Golden Gate Park, defeating one of its primary purposes. A major portion of the funding was eventually secured from Stevenson admirers in the East. Adding insult to injury, the board of supervisors then rejected the design on aesthetic grounds. Infuriated, Polk introduced minor revisions and succeeded in gaining the board's approval. Sixteen months later, in October 1897, the monument was unveiled (Longstreth 1998: 233).

In one of the Montgomery Block's rooms, architect Willis Polk and artist Bruce Porter designed the memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson which stands today in Portsmouth Square. They first sketched the plan on a tablecloth during lunch at the Palace Hotel, and then took the tablecloth with them to Porter's studio to finish the concept (Alexander and Heig 2002: 57).

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Pacific Union Club (orig. James Flood mansion): Fountain
1900, Nob Hill, Fountain of the Tortoises
1000 California St., San Francisco.
School of Taddeo Landini.

Copy of Rome's Fontana della Tartarughe, designed by Giacomo Della Porta (successor to Michelangelo) and Taddeo Landini in 1583. Discovered by Mrs. William H. Crocker at a villa outside Rome, the copy was purchased, first installed in her peninsula home before being presented to the city in 1954. A second copy of the fountain exists at Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus Headquarters at Sarasota, Florida. Located in Huntington Park at Taylor and Leavenwoth Streets (Civic Art Collection).

West of the [Pacific Union] Club is Huntington Park, where stood the David Colton house later purchased by Collis P. Huntington, who gave the land to the city after 1906. This oasis features a replica of the Tartarughe Fountain in Rome minus the tortoises. To sit in the park on a sunny day is to feel on top of the world (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 61).

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Goethe and Schiller
1901, Golden Gate Park, Goethe and Schiller
E. of Morrison Planetarium, San Francisco.
Ernst Reitschel.

East of Morrison Planetarium, Golden Gate Park. Two heroic sized figures of the German poets and friends walking together, Schiller holding a scroll, and Goethe holding a wreath. The figures stand on a pedestal of red Missouri granite. A reproduction of this monument is also in Weimar, Germany (The San Francisco Arts Commission 1989: 60).

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Dewey Monument, Dewey Monument Dewey Monument
1902, Union Square, Dewey Monument
Post to Stockton to Geary to Powell Sts., San Francisco.
Robert Aitken, sculptor.

Union Square has been the heart of San Francisco's shopping and hotel district since well before the 1906 earthquake leveled its first commercial buildings. Laid out in 1850 during the mayoralty of John W. Geary, the informal grassy plot, then the heart of a residential district, acquired its name in the 1860s when pro-Union rallies were held there. Its civic status was further assured by the erection of the monument to Admiral Dewey's 1898 victory over the Spanish at Manila Bay. The 95-foot high column was designed in 1901 by Robert Aitken, sculptor, and Newton Tharp, architect. The monument survived both the 1906 disaster and the 1942 transformation of the square into the first-ever under-a-park garage, designed by Timothy Pflueger in cooperation with the city park department. Built in wartime, the concrete structure was meant to double as a bomb shelter. Its covering has minimal but effective landscaping and room for people and for seasonal floral displays that contribute to the square's festiveness (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 5).

In those years [1892-1906], before the Mark Hopkins Art Institute [today the California School of Fine Arts] was consigned to the flames in the 1906 holocaust, the building served as the center of San Francisco's artistic and Bohemian life. The grand rooms of the first floor were a perfect setting in which to display collections, while the rooms on the upper floors were converted into studios. Here the beautiful, statuesque young Alma de Bretteville posed for painters, photographers, and sculptor Robert Aitken, who used her as a model for the figure atop the Dewey Monument in Union Square, never dreaming that she would eventually marry Adolph Spreckels and give the city its finest art museum, the Palace of the Legion of Honor (Alexander and Heig 2002: 206).

Sculptor Robert Aitken, an instructor at the Art Institute for whom Alma [de Bretteville] had previously posed, asker her to model for a monument he was planning in memory of President William McKinley. The president had been the victim of an assassination attempt in Buffalo a few months previously. He lingered a week, but on September 14, 1901, McKinley died. San Francisco, like the rest of the country, mourned his tragic end. They remembered his visit in May, when he had christened the new battleship Ohio, and broke ground in Union Square for a monument to Admiral Dewey, the hero of the naval engagement in Manila.

When all the necessary funds were in, it was announced that a contest would be held to select the design for a statue for President McKinley. While most sculptors struggled to get the best likeness of the president, Aitken had other ideas. Where was it written that a memorial, to be fitting, had to be a portrait statue: A great man, the sculptor reasoned, was not honored because of his height, or the shape of his nose or his head. He was honored for the mental and spiritual attainments that made him a leader of men.16

To exemplify those attainments, Aitken used Alma ... to pose. His concept was simple: a bronze figure of a woman, typifying the Republic, dignified and graceful, on a pedestal of granite. In her outstretched hand he placed a palm, denoting work well done, a tribute to the memory of the beloved president. In her other hand he gave her a trident, the three-pronged fork which was the scepter of King Neptune, king of the sea.

Thus, Aitken created one statue that performed double duty: it acknowledge both the martyred president, and the admiral whose victory at Manila Bay earned him the right to be called King of the Sea. The Citizens Committee chosen to judge the contest picked the sculpture of the voluptuous Alma, her body covered only by a diaphanous drape, as the winner from a field of six entries.

Alma's statue in Union Square would come to stand for more than a memorial to the two men whose names are carved on the granite pedestal. It became symbolic of the woman who was the incarnation of San Francisco. Like the city itself, she sprang from humble beginnings; like it, she was beautiful and uninhibited and aspired to noble things (Scharlach 1999: 13;16).

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California Volunteers' Memorial California Volunteers' Memorial
1903, West Mission, California Volunteers' Memorial
Dolores St. at Market St., San Francisco.
Douglas Tilden, sculptor; base, Willis Polk.

A superior equestrian statue by the city's greatest outdoor sculptor, this is perfectly placed at the head of Dolores's stately row of palms, although the surrounding buildings don't give it much help. Gilbert Stanley Underwood's mighty fortress for the U.S. Mint (1937) destroyed the scale of this important intersection (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 136).

The city's finest equestrian sculpture, once located at Van Ness and Market and now nobly sited at the head of Dolores, but overwhelmed by auto and supermarket signs (Gebhard Winter Sandweiss 1985: 105).

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1903, Financial District, Seascapes
465 California St., San Francisco.
William Coulter.

The Merchants Exchange (rebuilt after the fire) served as a local model for later buildings in the financial district: the Matson and PG&E buildings on Market Street. An interior, sky lit arcade leads to the old Merchants exchange hall, attributed to Julia Morgan. Mimicking a Roman basilica, the hall is lavishly detailed and bathed in a natural light. The seascape paintings are by William Coulter. In the old days, merchants assembled in this hall where news about the ships coming into the harbor was transmitted to them from the lookout tower on the roof (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 28).

No observer bent on taking in the most glorious buildings in the city should overlook the Merchants' Exchange, at the southeast corner of California and Montgomery Streets. Built in 1902 on the design of Daniel Burnham and Willis Polk, it was one of the tallest buildings in San Francisco, standing out in post-fire photos as a gutted pile above the ruined financial district. Julia Morgan designed a handsome new interior after 1906, and the building was splendidly restored in the 1960s. In the bank at the end of the lobby visitors may enjoy the superb maritime murals by William Coulter, a leading artist of his time. The paintings had been plastered over for decades (Alexander and Heig 2002: 371).

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Jessie Street Substation
1905, Union Square, Jessie Street Substation
222-26 Jessie St., San Francisco.
nm; architect, Willis Polk.

(Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992:18).

A pediment with a most unusual group of cherubs shouldering rolls of cable and acting as custodians of cornucopia overflowing with gears, insulators, and sundry industrial paraphernalia used in the generation and transmission of electrical power (Personal observation).

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add = Additions; nm = No Mention; rem = Remodelled; rest = Restoration