VLN: Excursions: Willis Polk in San Francisco 1 2 3 (1908-1913) 4 5


The third decade of Polk's career spanned the years between 1907 and 1913 and coincides with the building boom following the 1906 disaster and preceding the Panama Pacific International Exhibit of 1915.

The architect's commercial work in the Financial District reflects the tenets of the City Beautiful Movement and includes the Italian Renaissance Wells Fargo Banking Hall, one of the most lavish banking interiors in the city, the Mills Building in the Chicago School tradition, its base clad in Inyo County white marble, and the Renaissance/Baroque Insurance Exchange Building.

During this time, Polk remodeled the fire-gutted Connecticut brownstone James Flood mansion on Nob Hill to provide an elegant Neoclassical 20th-century manor house for the Pacific Union Club. His residential work runs an ecclectic gamut from Italian and Spanish Mediterranean designs to modified English Tudor Gothic.

Fuller Company Glass Warehouse Fuller Company Glass Warehouse
1907, North Waterfront, Fuller Company Glass Warehouse
50 Green St., San Francisco.
Willis Polk, George Alexander Wright.

One of the most architecturally interesting of the waterfront buildings is 50 Green Street, built for the Fuller Paint Company in 1907. Here the theme of large first-floor arches is carried almost to a logical conclusion, giving the building a very light appearance. Most fortunately this fine building has been carefully remodeled to provide space for a number of businesses (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 65).

The Fuller Company Glass Warehouse in the Classical Revival style was added to the National Register of Historical Places (Building #01001101) in 2001, with Willis Polk and George Alexander Wright credited as the architects. Historically, the building functioned as a manufacturing facility and warehouse; today it provides office space for various business firms.

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Former Crocker Bank Headquarters banking hall
1908, Financial District, Wells Fargo Banking Hall (Former Crocker Bank Headquarters banking hall, Orig. First National Bank)
1 Montgomery St., San Francisco
Willis Polk.

Willis Polk's Crocker Bank for decades connected one of San Francisco's most prominent names with the financial district's most prestigious address at One Montgomery Street. There is no longer a Crocker Bank (it was absorbed by Wells Fargo in the 1980s), but the little vampires created by sculptor Arthur Putnam still ornament its bronze window trim. In 1983, through an odd, Faustian compromise with the city planning department, the bank building was decapitated, leaving only the white marble and bronze lobby, so extravagant that it seems intended to make the lowly depositor wonder whether he is good enough to keep his money in such a place. In return the city allowed construction of the 37-story Crocker Center (now called Telesis Tower) designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill with their usual egg-crate façade. The adjoining Galleria, supposedly a contemporary version of the famous Galleria in Milan, has a vast arched glass top, offering the ultimate challenge to window cleaners (Alexander and Heig 2002: 371).

Crocker-Citizens National Bank. This Italian Renaissance building, designed by Willis Polk, has been extensively remodeled, including sheathing with terra cotta. The outstanding feature is the rotunda entrance supported by granite pillars (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 281).

A "combination bank and office building" with one of the most lavish banking interiors in the city, but also with an unfortunately remodeled tower above the banking hall facade. The tower was remodeled about 1960 by Milton Pfleuger after the old santstone facing appeared to be in danger of falling off. The original design was a three part vertical composition with a giant order in the upper zone. In 1921 the banking hall and its arcaded base were extended to the north in an exact copy of the original design. This extension made a grand interior even grander with its sumptuous marble furnishings, fluted columns, and coffered ceilings, but it incurred a characteristically flamboyant reaction from Polk who sued the architect, Charles E. Gottschalk, for plagiarism.

Up until the time of its remodeling, the building occupied a key position in what must have been one of the finest intersections of monumental buildings in America. Across Post Street and occupying the Market Street gore was A. Page Brown's flatiron Crocker Building, across Montgomery was Clinton Day's Union Trust Co. Building, and across Market were the Merchant's National Bank Building (M53) and the Palace Hotel (M54), still standing. The tower of the Hobart Building (M45) was visible over the Union Trust. Despite tremendous losses in the immediate area, the Crocker Bank is still an extremely important building at its location. Its arcaded base and columned entrance vestibule form rich street facades in contrast to the newly prevailing sterility of the area. And the tower, despite its remodeling, still displays in its form a knowledge of how to fill a space at an important intersection.

Crocker Bank is presently planning to remove the tower above the grand banking hall and build a new highrise west of Lick Place. A shopping arcade would front on Lick Place and a tower would rise in the southwest corner of the block, displacing the Lick Garage, the Foxcroft Building (R148), the Thompson and Ortman Building (R92), and the Lyons Building (R93). Architects of the project are Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill (Corbett 1979: 104).

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Mills Building Mills Building Mills Building, entrance
1891/1908/1914, Financial District, Mills Building,
220 Montgomery St., San Francisco
Burnham and Root/D. H. Burnham and Co./Willis Polk.

The only surviving pre-fire skyscraper that clearly reflects the great Chicago School tradition from which it sprang; the wall composition recalls Adler & Sullivan's Auditorium Building of 1888. Damaged but structurally intact after the 1906 earthquake and fire, the building was restored and twice enlarged by Willis Polk, who headed the local D.H. Burnham & Co. office. Lewis Hobart's tower respects the original design. The arched entrance with its fine detail leads to a restrained lobby with a graceful branching stair and unusual foliated balusters (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 27).

An excellent example of Chicago School design by one of Chicago's most important firms during the heyday of the early skyscraper. Also, the earliest entirely steel frame building in San Francisco. The Mills Building was one of the tallest in the city at the time it was built and for many years afterwards. Seriously burned in the fire, it was rebuilt and enlarged in 1908 by D. H. Burnham and Co., with Willis Polk in charge. The building was extended again by Polk in 1914 and 1918. In 1931, the 22-story Mills Tower by Lewis Hobart was erected at the rear of the building in an excellent adaptation of the original design. In composition, the building is a three part vertical block with differentiated end bays. Ornamentation is Romanesque, including the very fine massive round entrance arch. Brick walls are ornamented in terra cotta, some of which has been replaced in recent years with stucco in a mutilation of the original. The base, including the arch, is clad in Inyo County white marble. Built around a large central light court, and with continuous corridors on each floor, the building represented the latest in efficient office building planning and was a model for later downtown construction. The building was built by Darius Ogden Mills, founder of the first bank in the West and later of the Bank of California. This is one of the major architectural landmarks of the city. A (Corbett 1979: 205).

The outstanding pre-fire building of the financial district is the Mills Building, 220 Montgomery Street, designed by the famous Chicago firm of Burnham & Root and erected in 1891-92. This ten-story, foursquare brick structure picks up the Richardson Romanesque style in its massive, intricately-carved, arched entrance, in the arches crowning the modified Corinthian pilasters that delineate the vertical line of the building, in the repetition of the Romanesque arches in the ninth-floor frieze, and in the squat columns between the windows of the top story. Yet the building as a whole is a powerful expression of the style that was developing in Chicago in the heyday of Burnham and Sullivan and the young Frank Lloyd Wright.

The Mills Building was built by Darius Ogden Mills, a Forty-niner who parlayed a Sacramento shop into a partnership in William C. Ralston's Bank of California, and went on to become one of the authentic financial moguls of late-nineteenth-century America.

Willis Polk supervised the reconstruction of the Mills Building after the fire of 1906, and was also in charge of the additions to the rear of the building, which he executed in the same style as the original. In 1931 the adjacent twenty-two-story Mills Tower was completed to the design of Lewis Hobart (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 79).

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Pacific Union Club (formerly James Flood mansion),
1886/1908-12/1934, Nob Hill, Pacific Union Club (formerly James Flood mansion),
1000 California St., San Francisco.
Augustus Laver/Willis Polk/George Kelham.

Because it was built of Connecticut brownstone and not wood, [Flood's] mansion survived the 1906 fire that devastated the more ostentatious homes of his neighbors. When the gutted shell was to be restored as the new home of the Pacific Union Club, William Bourn, Willis Polk's great patron who was on the building committee, got him the commission. Polk's sensitive remodeling, which consisted of adding wings and altering the top floor, improved the proportions and changed the architectural character from that of a dry, tightly drawn 19th-century town house to a more free and gracious Neoclassical 20th-century manor house. The interiors, accessible only to members, are the quintessential image of a gentleman's club. The bronze fence surrounding the property is the city's finest; Flood allegedly employed one man just to polish it. West of the 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).

The James Flood mansion at California and Mason Streets, built of Connecticut brownstone and surrounded by the most expensive bronze fence in the city, survives today in altered form as the Pacific Union Club. After the interior burned in 1906, Willis Polk designed substantial changes: he placed curved wings on the sides and added a third floor, replacing the squat tower on the original (Alexander and Heig 2002: 207).

Even before building their Nob Hill mansion, the Floods were well known to San Franciscans, for the genial and handsome pair had once been proud owners of the popular Auction Lunch Saloon on Washington Street. Originally from New York State, where Mr. Flood had built fine carriages, they had moved to San Francisco during the Gold Rush. On the dignified premises of the Auction Lunch, Flood and his partner William O'Brien tended bar while Mrs. Flood supervised the production of those fine collations which San Francisco's saloons always proffered along with the purchase of a nickel glass of beer. No doubt everybody rejoiced for this hard-working trio when Flood's and O'Brien's investments in the Comstock Lode paid off. Flood became the founder of the Bank of Nevada, with headquarters on California Street. Most Californians thought that the Floods had already made their architectural statement some years before when they stunned the Old Guard down the Peninsula at Menlo Park. In the midst of this sacred enclave of "old" San Francisco society rose the Floods' Linden Towers, an immense white frame mansion that resembled nothing so much as a huge wedding cake. Now, with his bold addition to the Nob Hill palaces, Jim Flood had struck again.

"Yielding precedence to none," said the San Francisco Newsletter, "this massive mansion standing on California Street, between Mason and Taylor, is a monument to wealth!" Architect Augustus Laver included every luxurious detail that Comstock silver could buy. This new building stood out in startling contrast to its wooden neighbors, for its walls were of dark, reddish-brown Connecticut sandstone. The house was long celebrated as the only brownstone dwelling west of the Rockies, but its most outstanding feature was a magnificent $30,000 bronze fence. Tradition has it that the Floods retained a servant whose sole duty was to keep this fence polished to a dazzling brightness. Otherwise, the exterior was a model of restraint compared with the appointments within.

Once again, the Newsletter reporter went into paroxysms of delight. The grand entry hall boasted vaulted glass ceilings upheld by enormous, carved caryatids. Naturally, there were the requisite silk-hung walls, acres of jewelled art glass, marquetry floors and sliding doors which could be thrown open to create one vast salon of the entire ground floor. The whole effect was indeed overpowering. (Laver, also the architect of San Francisco's disastrous 19th-century City Hall, did a much better job on the Flood mansion.)

During the 1906 fire, it was hoped at first that the thick stone walls of the Flood house would withstand the flames, but unfortunately the many paintings and furnishings moved from the neighboring Hopkins Art Institute and piled on the Flood lawns by the militia spelled the doom of the Flood house as well. The art works were ignited, and the fire leaped to the mansion. The walls survived, but the interior was destroyed, leaving a masonry shell.

After the fire, the members of the Pacific Union Club purchased the Flood property. Willis Polk, by then one of San Francisco's most prominent young architects, convinced the club directors to spare the ruined walls. By adding a third floor, Polk modified the awkward "millionaire's tower" with an elevated roof line. He also extended the rooms to the right and left of the central mass into rounded wings. Despite the restraint used in the redesign, the sheer scale of the interior is still overwhelming. The imposing house with its bronze fence is the only pre-fire Nob Hill mansion still standing today (Alexander and Heig 2002: 206-09).

Polk also designed a number of buildings for the Spring Valley Water Company and the San Francisco (later Pacific) Gas and Electric Company, as well as the new quarters of the Pacific Union Club, at a time when Bourn was either president of or active in these organizations. Much of the credit should probably go to Bourn for Polk's chairing the Architectural Committee for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (Longstreth 1998: 379 n. 21).

After the [1906] fire, the members of the Pacific Union Club purchased the Flood property. Willis Polk, by then one of San Francisco's most prominent young architects, convinced the club directors to spare the ruined walls. By adding a third floor, Polk modified the awkward "millionaire's tower" with an elevated roof line. He also extended the rooms to the right and left of the central mass into rounded wings. Despite the restraint used in the redesign, the sheer scale of the interior is still overwhelming. The imposing house with its bronze fence is the only pre-fire Nob Hill mansion still standing today (Alexander and Heig 2002: 209).

All the great mansions but one were destroyed in the fire of 1906. The survivor was the Italianate-Baroque brownstone palace of James C. Flood, which was gutted, but stood with its shell intact. Bought by the Pacific Union Club in 1909, it was remodeled by Willis Polk and is today one of the architectural landmarks of San Francisco.

The Flood Mansion, at 1000 California Street, was designed by Augustus Laver and built during 1885-86. Flood, not to be outdone by the magnificoes of New York, ordered the building constructed of Connecticut sandstone. As one of the four proprietors of the "Big Bonanza" of the Virginia City mines, he was quite able to afford a reputed $1,500,000 on the house.

As it stands today, the house that Flood's mining millions financed is a much handsomer building than the long-departed homes of the other Nob Hill millionaires. In part this is the result of good initial design, but at least as much credit should go to Willis Polk, who restored the building, as to Augustus Laver. To accommodate the Pacific Union Club, Polk added the impressive wings on either side, and incorporated a third floor by raising the floor line four feet (at the same time removing the central tower in front). A close look reveals these changes as flaws in the majesty and proportions of the building, yet the general effect is a structure more pleasing than the original (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 66-67).

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Arthur Conan Doyle house
1910, Pacific Heights, Arthur Conan Doyle House,
2151 Sacramento St., San Francisco
Willis Polk.

Willis Polk allegedly remodeled this house, which was briefly the home of Arthur Conan Doyle (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 87).

Conan Doyle and his wife visited San Francisco in late May and early June of 1923 during the author's second lecture tour in the U.S. They stayed at the Clift Hotel. Conan Doyle was on the premises for a few hours when he visited his associate, Dr. Abrams, then owner of 2151 Sacramento (Hank Donat).

This florid adaption of the French Baroque Revival would seem to point to a date between 1900 and 1910 rather than in the '80's. Both the plan and facade of the stucco building are unique (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 291).

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c.1910, Presidio Heights, House
3255 Pacific Ave., San Francisco
Ernest Coxhead; rem. Willis Polk.

Evidently designed by Ernest Coxhead around 1910 and subsequently remodeled by Willis Polk (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 97).

The facade interest of this substantial stucco house is concentrated on the expansive living room window with its Corinthian pilasters, iron railing, and dentil molding. (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 285).

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Alice Griffith house
1912, Presidio Heights, Alice Griffith house
2820 Pacific Ave., San Francisco
Willis Polk.

(Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 99).

Miss Alice Griffith, founder of the Telegraph Hill Neighborhood Association, had Willis Polk design this grand house following the plan of an Italian palazzo. The materials used (stucco and tile), the arches, and the formal garden give a Mediterranean look to the house (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 285).

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Insurance Exchange Building
1913, Financial District, Insurance Exchange Building
433 California St., San Francisco
Willis Polk.

Two buildings [Merchants Exchange Building, Insurance Exchange Building] with similar wall compositions and surface treatment (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 28).

A very fine street building with a facade designed to relate to the Merchant's Exchange Building (F32) across Leidesdorff, also by Polk. A two part vertical composition with a giant order over a remodeled base, and a shaft consisting of courses of variously detailed terra cotta panels. Ornamentation is derived from Renaissance/Baroque sources. The giant order picks up the rhythm of the columns on the Merchant's Exchange and the Bank of California (F28), and the shaft improves on the textured wall of the Merchant's Exchange. The building exemplifies the aims of the City Beautiful Movement in its simultaneous success as urban architecture, achieved through form and composition, and as an individual building, achieved in the quality of its details. The handsome 2-story interior exchange space has been subdivided and remodeled. Steel frame construction. A (Corbett 1979: 197).

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Napthaly house
1913, Presidio Heights, S. L. Napthaly house
2960 Broadway, San Francisco
Willis Polk.

A delightful pink Mediterranean villa (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 96).

Designed by Willis Polk for S. L. Naphtaly, this is a stucco adaptation of Spanish city architecture. It is built around the traditional central courtyard (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 253).

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1913, Presidio Heights, Catherine Hooker house
3277 Pacific Ave., San Francisco
Willis Polk.

(Gebhard, Winter and Sandweiss 1985: 43).

Willis Polk was commissioned by Mrs. Catherine Hooker to build this grand residence, patterned on palazzos she had seen in Italy. The tile roof, high arched windows, and tall chimney of the stucco house all combine to give the effect of an Italian loggia (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 285-86).

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