The extant residential projects undertaken between 1897 and 1908 include Coxhead's best-known works.
The superlative English Queen Anne style house commissioned by Irving Scott at 2600 Jackson was one of the first San Francisco homes wired exclusively for electric light. The contrast between the boldly over-scaled cornice, massive Carolean portal, and the otherwise unadorned rustic brick eastern wall is characteristicly ambiguous and typical of the architect's playfully ironic approach to composition: is it merely a lateral wall punctured by a side entrance, or the facade?
A fine example of Coxhead's adaptation of the Georgian to the native Bay Area Tradition frame-and-shingle style, the Julian Waybur house at 3232 Pacific Avenue employs a most surprising design element: the treads and risers of the circulation stair extrude through the simple shingled facade to break up the expected form of the Palladian window which lights the stair hall.
The Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Building on Grant Street and represents Coxhead's most significant contribution to the massive rebuilding effort that took place in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and fire. His intentional use of oversized Renaissance-Baroque details and unexpected juxtapositions of the scale demonstrate his skill at manipulating the Classical vocabulary.
1897, Pacific Heights, James Brown-Reginald Knight Smith house,
2600 Jackson St., San Francisco
The soaring red brick Jacobean-Georgian manor house at 2600 Jackson Street reflects the generosity of Irving Murray Scott, a pioneer design engineer. Scott commissioned Ernest Coxhead to design this residence for his daughter Alice in 1895 upon her marriage to Dr. Reginald Knight Smith, and members of the same family occupy the house today.
This was one of the first houses wired exclusively for electric light in San Francisco. The style is modified seventeenth century English. A long low dormer window, and chimneys on the north and south, break the line of the steep roof. All windows are composed of small leaded panes, while a three-foot-thick brick wall with an arched entrance over the gate extends from the glassed-in portion of the living room on the Jackson Street side (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 26, 28, 29).
Among Coxhead's best-known works of the decade was a house commissioned by Irving Scott as a wedding present for his daughter, Alice, and her fiancé, James Brown. Scott was almost as important a client for Coxhead as Bourn was for Polk. The two patrons had much in common. Scott's ancestors had been members of Maryland's landed gentry since Colonial times. Scott moved to San Francisco in 1860, where he played a central role in building the Union Iron Works into the West Coast's largest shipyard. He also served as president of the Art Association and of the Mechanics Institute, as a regent of the University of California, and as a trustee of Stanford University. Scott was seen as the epitome of the industrial titan and the munificent civic leader, but he was never afraid to defy convention. An avid connoisseur of art, Scott collected works by Rembrandt, Murillo, Holbein, and Hogarth, beside which he hung canvases by Virgil Williams, Jules Tavernier, Julian Rix, and other San Fransicans. He chastised his fellow citizens for indifference to local painters and to American art in general. To Scott, Coxhead was more than a provider of plans, he was an artist who deserved support. The patrician and his architect became friends, and Coxhead produced some of his most imaginative work for Scott.14
Scott was a hard-nosed pragmatist as well as a sophisticated patron, and Alice, who shared her father's devotion to art, was no less demanding. At least seven preliminary schemes were developed before one was finally accepted in mid-1895.15 Initially, Alice wanted to have the design look like an English half-timber house, but after several studies this idea was abandoned when her father insisted that masonry construction be used to safeguard against fire. A series of new proposals was developed, and the house was reduced in size to compensate for the added expense of the materials. Scott then demanded that the stair hall be eliminated--a difficult stipulation, since in order to utilize the sloping site to best advantage, Coxhead's design placed the floors at levels different from the fronting street. Still later changes were made when Scott decided that his daughter's choice of exterior treatment would cost too much. Coxhead used these constraints to his advantage. The final scheme is by far the strongest and most original.
The exterior combines some of the informal, picturesque qualities of English Queen Anne with the mannered exuberance of contemporary English work (Fig. 154). A few boldly scaled elements stand out amid the placid elevations to make the house seem grand. Between rows of small, leaded windows a heavy cornice gives horizontal emphasis to an otherwise unadorned, vertical mass. A large corner bay protrudes as if it were added at the last moment, yet it also expands the perceived size of the house. On the side elevation the bay wall continues, dipping to enclose a service court where the main entrance and stair hall were originally to have been. The composition is fragmentary, offering a subtle allusion to the changes that occurred during the design's development, as if the imposing facade had been chewed away bit by bit to leave a craggy residue (Fig. 155). Coxhead indulged in similar play on the east front, which was to have been the side elevation. Here the entrance is heralded by a huge Carolean portal, whose appearance and placement are unrelated to the other elements nearby (Fig. 156). The portal is at once a centerpiece and an afterthought, as if to express defiance at having been relegated to the side street. The ambiguity is furthered by having this element frame an open vestibule, with the front door placed to one side. The configuration is borrowed directly from Shaw's 42 Netherhall Gardens, as it was at the Murdock house, but the contrast between void and elaborate surround is new.
Inside, the layout of major spaces did not change significantly during the course of development, except for the removal of the stair hall and the reduction in room size. However, these modifications were sufficient to alter the initial straightforward sequence of spaces, so Coxhead employed devices he often used in his rustic city houses--circuitous movement, abrupt changes in dark and light zones, and elements set at a small scale--to create a sense of expansiveness. The stairs rest in a barrel-vaulted tunnel framed with heavy plaster garlands, affording a dramatic transition from the entry level to the main floor. A window floods the small landing with light near the top, where the stair then turns and spills into the living room. Here, the atmosphere is dim, restrained, and tranquil, with dignified Georgian paneling to complement the eighteenth-century furnishings. On one side, however, light pours in through two bay windows, and a great fireplace framed by panels with carving done in the manner of Grindling Gibbons stands right in the middle (Fig. 157). The chimney piece itself is unorthodox, with floral carving around the hearth, a carved drop placed in the middle of each panel, and a small, conventional center panel that is entirely out of scale with the rest of the ensemble. The oversized hearth, which suggests medieval precedents more than classical ones, exemplifies Coxhead's technique of freely manipulating motifs and scale to create a context quite different from that found in either historical or contemporary English work. (Longstreth 1998: 198-202).
Just east of the [George] Gibbs house, on the northwest corner of Jackson and Pierce, stands one of the most arresting dwellings in Pacific Heights. Built in 1896, it was one of the first houses to create a mood of "countrified elegance" in the city. Irving Scott, president of the Union Ironworks, commissioned Ernest Coxhead to design this house as a wedding present for his daughter, Elizabeth.
Although the term "Queen Anne" was tossed about loosely in Victorian times, this house is an example of the true English Queen Anne style of the early 18th century. Of tapestried red brick, it commands the corner with a high gabled roof and towering chimneys. On the view side, overlooking the Bay, is a huge bay window; the other windows on the street sides are smaller, grouped in pairs, with lead mullioned panes. In contrast to this rustic informality, the massive front entry, with clusters of Corinthian columns, upholds a handsome curved pediment and an elaborate carved cartouche overhead. The lack of any further embellishments on the entire façade, other than a heavy stone cornice above, further dramatizes the effect. (See page 259)
Within, handsomely paneled rooms are dimly lit by the grouped windows, creating a tranquil mood. In the living room is a huge open hearth, surrounded by panels bearing carved Grinling Gibbons garlands. The fine collection of 18th-century paintings and antiques further heightens the feeling of an ancient English country house. Here one sees the happy result of cooperation between an excellent, innovative architect and a client with good taste (Alexander and Heig 2002: 305; 307).
1897, Pacific Heights, Julian Sonntag house,
2700 Scott St., San Francisco
(Longstreth 1998: 425).
1898, Pacific Heights, Florence Ward house,
2535 Laguna St., San Francisco
Houses for Florence Ward on the SW corner of Broadway and Laguna streets were demolished; the house on the adjacent Laguna Street property possibly by Coxhead (cf. California Architect and Building News, July 1898) (Longstreth 1998: 426).
1899, Pacific Heights, Sarah Spooner house,
2800 Pacific Ave., San Francisco
Other mannerist devices are used to counterpoint eighteenth-century reserve in the residence Coxhead designed in 1899 for Sarah Spooner, a rich Philadelphian who had recently moved to San Francisco and devoted much of her time to collecting art (Fig. 152). In its form, the house comes very close to an ideal project presented in Robert Morris's Rural Architecture (1750) (Fig. 153). The facade treatment bears much greater resemblance to the engravings in such books than to buildings of that period. The wall is emphasized as a planar surface. From a distance the smooth clinker bricks offer an even texture similar to that of an engraver's hatching, and the brown sandstone trim is treated in a similar brittle fashion. The windows are isolated, with thin, dark sashes that make each unit read as a single void. Then, in total contrast, rusticated quoins articulate the corners, turning into striations over the bay fronts and bulging out into banded columns at the entrance. Tension is created by a serene particularity on one hand and an exuberant baroque plasticity on the other. Thus, favored devices of Coxhead's contemporaries in England confront Morris's pattern-book Georgian, which former schoolmate Reginald Blomfield had just denounced as "weak and pretentious" in his influential book on English Renaissance architecture.13 The irony of combining sources that were considered stylish and banal in London would not be caught by most observers on the West Coast; however, Coxhead developed a more obvious tension between the house and its setting. When viewed frontally, the facade is reserved, even prim, and its planar austerity predominates. Yet when approached from the street, the house becomes a restless series of receding forms that taunt the pedestrian classicism of its neighbors (Longstreth 1998: 197-98).
1900, Civic Center, Apartment house for Irving Scott,
840 Hayes St., San Francisco
Appears to be extant and heavily remodeled (Longstreth 1998: 426).
1900c, West Mission District, Duggans Funeral Service,
3434 17th St., San Francisco
Coxhead previewing the Postmodernists in this interesting distortion of Classical elements (Woodbridge & Woodbridge 1992: 139).
1902, Pacific Heights, Julian Waybur house,
3232 Pacific Ave., San Francisco
The 3200 and 3300 blocks of San Francisco's Pacific Avenue are a superb showcase of the urban phase of the Bay Area Tradition. There are buildings by Maybeck, Polk, and Coxhead, as well as work by lesser designers and anonymous contractors. These houses, mostly of redwood shingles, create that distinctive San Francisco ambience resulting from the union of urban form and rustic materials. The most fascinating group is the row of five houses lining the north side of the 3200 block. The steeply sloping triangular site is forty-five feet deep at the upper end. The top house, which is the widest, is by an anonymous builder. The next two houses are by Ernest Coxhead, and the remaining two are by William F. Knowles. The lowest of the Knowles houses, occupying the very end of the triangle, is only three and one-half feet wide at its narrowest point. From just below this house it is possible to look up and see the entire complex cascading down the hill like Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase. Although the front facades maintain a reasonably precise plane, the backs are an amazing collection of bays and boxes extruded into space bootlegged from the Army Presidio, whose wall defines the property line. Of the five buildings, the two Coxhead houses are architecturally the most sophisticated.
One of these was built in 1904 for the San Francisco artist / craftsman / dilletante Bruce Porter. The other, the more interesting of the two, had been built two years earlier for Porter's sister and her husband, Julian Waybur. Both facades present simple shingle planes which serve as a backdrop for careful concentrations of Georgian-derived ornament. The Porter house is rather straightforward, but the Waybur house is Coxhead at his most playful. Above a squat, heavily pedimented entrance, the treads and risers of the circulation stair are pulled through the facade, distorting, in a mannerist fashion, the expected form of the Palladian window which lights the stair hall.
Coxhead seems to have had a thorough understanding of both the possibilities and limitations of urban life: of all the Bay Area designers he was probably the only one to whom these cramped and impossible sites were a congenial problem. Even on less cramped sites, Coxhead's buildings do not expand into the out-of-doors. If there is a garden, the house is carefully designed to take maximum advantage of its views, but sometimes actual access is not really provided for (in at least one case it is necessary for the gardener to get to the garden through the window of a service room).
A comparison of Coxhead's Waybur and [Bruce] Porter [3234 Pacific Avenue] houses with some designs of [Albert] Farr's in the next block of Pacific will show both the resemblances and the differences. The clean-cut window openings with no obvious exterior moldings and the large areas of unbroken shingled wall seen in both Coxhead's and Farr's designs would appear to derive from vernacular sources. Coxhead uses this vernacular element as a backdrop against which various elements (Georgian details manipulated in unorthodox ways; giant windows for light and views; unexpected contrasts of scale) create a complex series of cultural and esthetic cross-references (Beach 1988: 30, 31, 32, 34, 69, 71).
Exact design date unknown (Longstreth 1998: 426).
Polk, Coxhead and Maybeck were soon designing rustic city houses out in the "new" Pacific Heights, as well as in other towns around the bay. While Maybeck liked to use Gothic or medieval elements in his designs, Polk preferred to juxtapose handsome Georgian details with his redwood shingle surfaces. Some of the most successful examples of this style are to be found along the Presidio Wall, in the 3200 block of Pacific Avenue. This row of shingled houses, ingeniously planned to conform to the hallow, irregularly shaped lots--the narrowest end is only 16 feet deep--are a credit to the ingenuity of their designers. Ernest Coxhead, an English Beaux Arts graduate who designed numerous shingled houses and rustic churches, was the architect of 3232 and 3234 Pacific (Alexander and Heig 2002: 336).
1902, Presidio Heights, Bruce Porter house,
3234 Pacific Ave., San Francisco
The next two houses, 3232 and 3234 Pacific Avenue, were built in 1902, at the same time as 1 Presidio. This pair was designed by architect Ernest Coxhead, who here adapted the Georgian theme to the native frame-and-shingle style. Bruce Porter, well-known San Francisco artist, writer and critic, is thought to have contributed heavily to the design of the houses, one of which was built for his brother-in-law, Julian Waybur, the other for himself.
In the Waybur house (3232) the interior staircase and its landings are employed for a most unusual external decorative effect, the form of the stairs being carried right through the Palladian window above the elaborate doorway.
In Porter's own house (3234) one finds the same plain front with the same simple but elegant window pattern highlighted by an imaginative central decorative device, in this case two pairs of Corinthian pilasters and a pattern of narrow windows that is artfully repeated at the entrance level and in the central third-floor window. A number of new ideas were incorporated into this house when it was built: floor-to-ceiling "picture" windows, all built-in wardrobes, and what may have been the first roof garden in San Francisco (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 143).
A talented amateur, Bruce Porter, contributed to the First Bay Tradition in architecture, stained glass, and landscape design. His own house, designed for him by his friend Ernest Coxhead, is ... at 3234 Pacific Ave. (Woodbridge & Woodbridge 1992: 100).
Bruce Porter, Polk's artist friend, contributed strongly to these designs [3232 Pacific St. and 3234 Pacific St.]; he lived at 3234. He also had a hand in designing 3203 Pacific, across the street from this wedge-shaped row. Eli Sheppard, owner of the House of the Flag on Russian Hill, built this house as a wedding present for his daughter. When the engagement was broken, Sheppard sold the house to Bruce Porter, who in turn commissioned Willis Polk to remodel it. Polk changed the entire structure while maintaining its rusitc appearance. Later Sheppard's daughter became Mrs. William Hilbert, and with the help of Bruce Porter designed her own rustic house at 3343 Pacific. Bernard Maybeck designed 3233 Pacific a few years later. This block of houses facing one another across Pacific Avenue is one of the most arresting areas in San Francisco. Most of the houses predate the 1906 fire, and thus dramatically mark the end of the eclectic Queen Anne style, dominant in San Francisco architecture until the turn of the century.
This change from Victorian to Beaux Arts architecture must be mainly attributed to the three men--Polk, Maybeck and Coxhead (Alexander and Heig 2002: 336-37).
1907, Union Square, Continental Hotel,
119-139 Ellis Street, SE corner North Fifth., San Francisco
Coxhead and Coxhead.
One of the few executed commercial designs of the Coxhead office, distinguished by an exuberant cornice. In composition, a three part vertical block with differentiated end bays and modified Renaissance/Baroque ornamentation. Like so many buildings in this area, the building functions well as a part of the urban fabric. Brick Construction. B (Corbett and Hall 1979: 124).
1908, Union Square, Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Building,
333 Grant Ave., San Francisco
Although superficially in the style of other urban buildings of the period, this stands apart from most in its self-conscious, mannered treatment of ordinary details. Most of San Francisco's downtown buildings use historical ornament in a purposefully "correct" way, in a way designed to achieve contextual objectives, as a decorative veneer, or unconsciously, merely as the prevailing style of the time. Few attempt the sort of assertively, intelligently "incorrect" use of detail achieved in this building. The oversized details and the unexpected juxtapositions of the scale of parts of the facade result in a complexity of design that manages to be successful in several ways at once--from its function as a part of the urban fabric to its interest as an isolated object. In composition, the building is a three part vertical block surmounted by an attic, with a giant order in the shaft. Its ornamentation is Renaissance/Baroque. It is a steel frame structure clad in Colusa sandstone. The rich plaster lobby ceiling is hidden by a drop ceiling, but is still intact. This was one of at least three designs by Coxhead for the Home Telephone Co., for which this was originally the headquarters building. A (Corbett and Hall 1979: 136).
A facade composed of boldly scaled Classical elements in projected and recessed forms. Coxhead's skill at manipulating the Classical vocabulary is nowhere better shown than in the entrance composition, where an elegant portal with a swan-necked pediment is fused with an arch tied at the top by an outsized keystone to the belt cornice above. Don't miss the giant columns' capitals (Woodbridge & Woodbridge 1992: 15).
The headquarters of the Home Telephone Company was Coxhead's only significant contribution to the massive rebuilding effort in San Francisco24 (Longstreth 1998: 304).