VLN: Willis Polk: 1 2 3 4 5 6 (1914-1918) 7

Willis Polk slide show

Chronological listing of 10 selected extant architectural works in the Bay Area by Willis Polk (1914-1918).

1913, Marin, Ralston L. White Memorial Retreat ("Garden of Allah")
2 El Capitan Ave., Mill Valley
Willis Polk & Co.

Unlike many of Polk's designs this house has no strong stylistic commitment. Notable for its very large windows and porch openings, it was intended to be covered with vines at the wish of the client (Gebhard, Winter and Sandweiss 1985: 222).

Much more formal in design and purpose is the Ralston L. White memorial Retreat, Two El Capitan Avenue. Designed by Willis Polk, the stately house was built for the son of Lovell White around 1912. It is one of the few Marin mansions that attempted to match the splendor of Peninsula mansions of the day. As always, Polk paid great attention to the interior: this sixteen-room house includes inviting alcoves, a hand-carved mantlepiece with lion's head, and a fine, carved balustrade (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 225, 226).

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Hobart Building
1914, Financial District, Hobart Building (Western view)
582-92 Market St., San Francisco
Willis Polk.

An idiosyncratic design rumored to be a favorite of its designer. The Hobart's eccentricity has become increasingly apparent with age, particularly when compared with its immediate neighbors. Shaped to address its polygonal site, the building had its bare flank exposed when a neighboring structure was torn down; the tower now seems to be peering over its shoulder in embarrassment. The ground floor remodeling is sad. Down the block at 562 and 567 Market are two more Willis Polk Buildings (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 26).

From just about any point of view, one of the most successful tall buildings ever built in San Francisco. Located on a mid-block site, it manages to relate both to the diagonal of Market Street in the positioning of its tower and to the north of Market grid in the shape of its base. Its glass commercial base was designed to play the mundane role that should be retained by any street level space in a commercial area. Its rusticated shaft gives the building an urban character that links it in an anonymous but pleasing texture to its neighbors. And the tower gives it a particular romantic quality that distinguishes if from anything else in San Francisco, or from any other American skyscraper. The tower is the building's finest feature in its distinctive oval-with-flat-sides shape, dense terra cotta ornamental detail, corbeled cornice, and two-leveled tiled hip roof. Its expression of the soaring quality of the tower is certainly less literal than that of New York's Woolworth Building (1913), which was considered the last word on the subject at the time, but it is just as successful in another way. The tower long stood out on the skyline of the city and, although now dwarfed in height, is still a conspicuous landmark in its neighborhood and from Second Street, the location from which it was designed to be viewed.

In composition, the building is a three part vertical design with highly inventive use of Renaissance/Baroque ornamentation. In construction, the building is steel frame with reinforced concrete floors, walls, and roof. Its construction was accomplished in the remarkable time of eleven months, a record which, according to the Pacific Coast Architect, "occasioned much comment and some criticism, it being alleged that it was constructed in a reckless manner, one critic expressing the opinion that no greater crime against the public had ever been committed." In the end, however, the building was constructed on time and under budget and served as "a practical demonstration of the value of a preconceived scheme of construction." The particularly fine glass base of the building managed to survive until about the time this survey was begun, when it was grossly remodeled in a glaring white marble by Financial Savings and Loan. A (Corbett 1979: 81).

One can see an even more interesting attempt to satisfactorily terminate a tower in The Hobart Building, 582 Market Street. This is an instructive example of the lengths to which an architect can go to fit the surroundings and still produce something original and desirable.

Willis Polk designed this building around 1914 and it is said to have been his favorite. The lower bulk of the structure is very plain, so non-committal that it could get along with almost any building on Market Street. Above this basic structure, Polk reared a tower almost as much higher, a tower standing free of the margins of the plot (which is odd-shaped and filled by the lower building), a tower that is finished on all sides in magnificently ornate style unmatched by any of its neighbors. The visual effect of the rays of the setting sun on the rich detailing is one of downtown San Francisco's remarkable sights (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 86).

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Double access ramp
1914, Russian Hill, Double access ramp
1000 block of Vallejo and Jones Sts., San Francisco
Willis Polk.

Willis Polk designed the double access ramp in 1914 when the Livermore family commissioned him to design the houes at 1,3,5,7 Russian Hill Place, built in 1916 (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 67)

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Seacliff House # 1
1914, Sea Cliff, Seacliff House # 1
9 Scenic Way, San Francisco
Willis Polk.

Polk's late Classical style exhibits none of the idiosyncrasies of his early work (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 164)

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House Seacliff House # 2
1914, Sea Cliff, Seacliff House # 2
25 Scenic Way, San Francisco
Willis Polk.

Polk's late Classical style exhibits none of the idiosyncrasies of his early work (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 164)

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Seacliff House # 3
1914, Sea Cliff, Seacliff House # 3
45 Scenic Way, San Francisco
Willis Polk.

Polk's late Classical style exhibits none of the idiosyncrasies of his early work (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 164)

This house at 45 Scenic Way, is one of a distinctive trio designed by Willis Polk in 1915 (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 135).

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1915-17, San Mateo, Filoli house
86 Caņada Road, Woodside
Willis Polk.

Bourn came from a distinguished family of New England sea captains. His father had acquired a considerable fortune through shipping concerns in New York before coming to the West Coast in 1850. Bourn was the consummate entrepreneur, hard-driving, tough, innovative, and determined to make his business ventures successful beyond all predictions. (He named his country house in San Mateo County, which Polk designed in 1914-1915, Filoli--fight, love, live.) After the turn of the century, he became a leading figure in the development of utilities throughout the region, serving as president of both the San Francisco Gas and Electric and the Spring Valley Water companies. Bourn also had diverse cultural affairs, an early promoter of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, president of the San Francisco Music Society, and a staunch supporter of local artists even before such patronage became fashionable. During the 1890s, Bourn and Polk became good friends. Directly or indirectly, the businessman was responsible for a large share of Polk's work over the next twenty years.21 Bourn not only had the resources to commission important projects, he had the interest and confidence to let Polk pursue unconventional solutions (Longstreth 1998: 176)

Although the house is predominantly modified Georgian in style, other major architectural traditions are also represented in its design. The arched window heads of the first floor, the French doors, the exterior brick laid in Flemish bond, and details of the trim are from the Stuart period, while the tiled roof is in the Spanish tradition. This eclecticism reflects a Golden Age in California's history, free from the conventional rules of design and exuding a pride in creativity and expression.

The floor plan is U-shaped, with the servant's wing on one side of the front courtyard and the ballroom on the other. The long Transverse Hallway runs north to south, parallel to the valley in which the house is set. Both the rooms of the house and the formal garden are organized along this axis. The residence, which connects to the garden wall, was sited to one side, preserving the valley floor and the grand vista to the north towards Crystal Springs Lake.

The house contains 36,000 square feet of interior floor space on two floors and a mezzanine. The spacious major rooms have ceiling heights of seventeen feet, while the ballroom ceiling is twenty-two-and-a-half feet high. There are forty-three rooms and seventeen fireplaces (Filoli).

William B. Bourn, President of the Spring Valley Water Company and inheritor of the great Empire Mine of Grass Valley, created in his estate, Filoli, on Canada Road, near Edgewood one of the most triumphantly sumptuous of all the Peninsula's great houses. It was built in 1916 from a Willis Polk design, styled after the Provincial Georgian architecture most often seen in the Tidewater area of Virginia. The mansion (whose odd name is an acronym contrived from the three things Bourn considered most important: Fidelity, Love, and Life) contains some 18,000 square feet of living space in its two stories. It is constructed of red brick with a white dentil course at the tiled roofline and a row of windows set in round arches on the main floor.

The main house is surrounded by sixteen acres of gardens, terraces, and orchards laid out in an elegant formal framework by Bruce Porter and Cheseley Bonestell; this landscaping is diverse yet superbly integrated, comprising cutting beds, vegetable rows, small fruit and other orchard areas, wildflower plantings, vines and collections of specimen plantings--all part of a sensitive Italian-French-based system of parterres, terraces, lawns and pools. Miss Isabelle Worn supervised the gardens and plantings to their present perfection.

Like Ralston's mansion at Belmont, Filoli stands as an impressive model of the architecture peculiar to the age of conspicuous consumption, when a man's home was expected to reflect his station in life (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 193, 195, 197).

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1916, Russian Hill, Townhouses
1, 3, 5, 7 Russian Hill Pl., San Francisco
Willis Polk.

The Livermore family commissioned [Polk] to design the houses at 1, 3, 5, and 7 Russian Hill Place, built in 1916. The plan of the block is scenographic, with the ramps converging on a central access to the heart of the block, while the flanking side streets, Russian Hill Place and Florence Street, are lined with houses that define a keyhole view and shield the block's interior. Polk's Russian Hill Place houses make two important contributions: on the Jones Street side they form a subtly articulated wall closing off the street and on the upper side they become cottages lining a brick-paved country lane. Polk's use of overscaled Classical detail is particularly effective here (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 66)

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130-50 Sutter St.
1917, Financial District, Hallidie Building
130-50 Sutter St., San Francisco
Willis Polk.

Credited as the first use of the glass-curtain-wall, the facade of this building is more curtainlike than almost anything since. The elaborate cast-iron cornice, which resembles a Victorian window valance, contributes to the impression that the glass grid is a curtain. The fire escapes recall pull cords (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 26).

Polk's most famous commercial design is the Hallidie Building at 130 Sutter Street (1917). The all-glass façade, generally recognized as the introduction of the glass curtain wall which has become a cliche of modern architecture, was actually an effort on Polk's part to create an attractive façade within a low budget, and quickly. the glass façade was hung, curtain like, away from the actual structural frame of the building, in a separate frame of elaborate cast iron, with ornate fire escapes at either side. The ornamental iron fretwork relieves the cold severity of an all-glass wall, and the result is highly decorative. The Hallidie Building was commissioned by the University of California, and has always been painted in blue and gold. It was renovated in 1979 by Kaplan, McLaughlan and Diaz, architects (Alexander and Heig 2002: 339).

More than "the world's first glass curtain walled structure," for which it is well-known, the Hallidie Building is a superb work of urban architecture. Like the best such architecture anywhere, it is drawn from its surroundings, and in turn, it speaks to and ennobles them.

Within a radius of two blocks, there are at least half a dozen earlier buildings which can be viewed either as prototypes or sources of inspiration for the Hallidie Building. Foremost among them is the Bemiss Building of 1908, at 266 Sutter (R235)--a glass front building in the bare minimum of an iron frame with a cantilevered historicist cornice. The Rose Building (W. & J. Sloane Co.) of 1908, at 216-220 Sutter (R231), is one of the best extant representatives of a once-common San Francisco compositional type which placed on implied masonry "architecture" above a 2- to 4-story glass curtain wall base. The best of the local architects, including the Reid Brothers, in the case of the Rose Building, and Polk himself, in the case of the Frederick's Building (278-298 Post, R168), had worked with this type. For the remarkable cantilevered Gothic cornice, Polk need have looked no further than 200 Kearny (at Sutter, R97), of 1908 in the same block, or the Flatiron Building of 1913 (540-548 Market at Sutter, M37). Moreover, the building is in the traditional three part compositional format with differentiated end bays, defined humorously by Gothic fire escapes.

The building responds to its environment by taking common elements in its neighborhood and recombining them in a new way which overwhelms the others in the intelligence of its conception, but still relates to them in its constituent parts and in the working out of the idea. As it is executed here, with the glass curtain wall hung a foot beyond the reinforced concrete structure of the building, it is as beautifully and clearly expressed as any glass curtain wall built since. The composition is arranged like so many of its neighbors--which are also curtain walls, but whose implied masonry walls lend better visual support to the ever-present fire escapes and cornices. The unusually overscaled iron cornice, here heightens the contrast of structure and ornament which is present everywhere in San Francisco--and heightens the joke.

While he makes fun, however, Polk simultaneously utilizes these same vernacular elements to relate the building to its neighbors in the traditional way. He recognizes the contradictions in the architecture he teases, but he also recognizes its strengths. As the last building built on the block, the Hallidie tied a diverse group together into a superb whole. In addition to the relation of its design to the architecture of the downtown area in general, it related specifically to its block in scale, massing, height, color, and structural expression in a complex dialogue. For all his outrageousness, Polk was too sensitive to the city and too much a part of the traditions of the day ever to have purposefully designed a building out of harmony with its setting. The building is very much related to the larger body of Polk's work, the best of which always responded to the vernacular in inventive ways--whether in shingled houses or traditional office buildings. The building is named after Andrew Hallidie, inventor of the cable car, and it was built by the Regents of the University of California. A (Corbett 1979: 170).

The Hallidie Building, 130 Sutter Street, appears to outdo the most extreme recent designs, though it was built in 1918. But in fact the shimmering, all-glass facade is a curtain hung in front of a building of quite conventional architectaure, a building in which the "real" front wall is visible a few feet behind the facade. Built by the University of California as an investment, the building was named for Andrew S. Hallidie, inventor of the cable car and a Regent of the University. As a further reflection of the building's ownership, the ironwork was originally painted blue and gold.

While it is questionable to what extent architect Willis Polk may have anticipated the wave of the future in the building, there can be no doubt that it is smashingly effective. The integration of exterior fire escapes into a pattern of almost Victorian decorative ironwork cannot fail to delight anyone, and the pure lightness of the glass facade has rarely, and barely, been matched in any other building (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 85).

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Four townhouses
1917, Nob Hill, Four townhouses
831-49 Mason St., San Francisco
Willis Polk.

An urbane row that continues the spirit of good taste and deference to its neighbor buildings (Woodbridge and Woodbridge 1992: 61).

At 831-849 Mason Street, across from the Mark Hopkins Hotel, are four town houses designed by Willis Polk in 1917 and built in collaboration with Mrs. John Proctor. At the time, these town houses were proclaimed a "new style." The ground floor and second stories of these houses are indeed elegant, and deserving of emulation as a "new style," but the upper stories trail off to a very flat and ordinary appearance (Olmsted and Watkins 1969: 75).

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