Category Archives: San Francisco Architecture

“Cupid’s Span”

"Cupid's Span"

You are walking along the Embarcadero enjoying the views which include the Bay Bridge, Yerba Buena Island, Treasure Island, and far off Oakland; ships are docked in the bay, and a multitude of sail boats are racing all around.  Everything seems nice, laid back, and predictable until…you look up ahead and you see a giant, yes giant, bow and arrow sticking half way up out of the ground.  Surprise!  You have just found Cupid’s Arrow.  (You can check that off the scavenger hunt list.

Designed by the international artists Claus Oldenberg and Coosje Van Brugen’s, “Cupid’s Span” was erected in 2003  in the new Rincon Park on the corner of the Embarcadero & Folsom Street.  These same artists created “Spoonbridge and Cherry” in Minneapolis, and “Saw Sawing” in Japan.  They are worth a “google” to check out the images.

This sculpture consists of fiberglass and steel, and it rises 60 feet out of the ground and covers 140 feet of the 1,000 square foot park.

“These urban pieces are treated like something that’s hit the city,” Oldenburg told The S.F. Chronicle (12/23/2002).  “At first there’s the man-in-the-street opinion, but then there’s the more nuanced response. We don’t copy the objects we use, we try to transform them and we hope they go on transforming as you look at them. The idea of endless public dialogue — visual dialogue — is very important to us.”

Needless to say, their bow and arrow hit the mark as far as public dialogue.  As you walk by this brilliant piece of art, you will often hear tourists and residents talk about it and what it might mean.

As more and more people fall in love with this magical city, this modern-day Atlantis, it should come as no surprise that this is the place that Cupid chooses to keep his bow and arrow.



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The Ghoulish Statues of 580 California Street

The next time you are in the neighborhood of California and Kearny, look up.  You will see three ghoulish looking, grim reaper like statues appearing to stare out at this mythical city by the sea.  Were they put there like gargoyles to scare away evil spirits?  Are they a sign of human, and city mortality?

Unfortunately, the real answer is not romantic or whimsical.  These statues were created by Murial Castanis, and the formal title for these artistic statues is “Three Models for 580 California,” but they are more commonly known as the “Corporate Goddesses.”

There must be more story behind the creation of these statues, but at this point it has not been published, and the artist passed away a few years ago.  It does make you wonder what story future generations may attach to these medieval ladies.



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The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

The Bay Bridge is the one you see snaking across the bay from San Francisco, to Yerba Buena Island, and then on to Oakland.  It is an icon of San Francisco, and present in most views of the bay.  After three and a half years of construction, the 8 1/2 mile long bridge was opened on November 12, 1935.  It cost the lives of 27 construction workers during it’s depression era creation. 

The exact location of the bridge was dictated by a bedrock ridge that lies 200 feet below the surface of the bay on the line where the Bay Bridge currently sets.  On either side of this ridge, the water is quite a bit deeper. 

The Bay Bridge noteworthy facts include the following?

1.   The lower deck was originally built for electric train traffic only.  The upper deck was used for two-way vehicle traffic.  This changed in 1958 when the lower deck became refitted for eastbound traffic, and the upper deck was reserved for westbound traffic.

2.  The total coast was $77 million dollars.

3.  President Hoover, a graduate of the Stanford School of Engineering, took a personal interest in this project.  That’s right, President Hoover was an engineer. 

4.  Halfway between San Francisco and Yerba Buena Island, it became necessary to build another island for support.  The depth was to great for divers to work from the bottom up, so they tried something different and built this cement tower from the top down, eventually securing it with large steel pipes once it reached the bottom of the bay.  The tower is the height of a 48 story building.

Residents of San Francisco are well aware of the troubles the bridge between Yerba Buena Island and San Francisco has had in the past 25 years.  During the Loma Prieta Earthquake, part of the upper deck crashed on to the lower deck during rush hour, and more recently the bridge was closed to repair a fissure that was discovered as they began construction on a new bridge that will span the length of Yerba Buena Island to Oakland.  They tried to repair the fissure in a brief amount of time, but when the bridge was reopened, the repair came crashing down on a vehicle during rush hour and caused the closer of the bridge for a week.  As you work your way across this old span of bridge, you can view the new bridge beside it which will replace this ailing section around 2013. 

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The Hanlon House, San Francisco

If you find yourself walking around the Russian Hill/Nob Hill neighborhood on Jackson Street, take a couple of moments to walk by the Hanlon House at 1659 Jackson Street.  It was built in 1881 and moved to its current location after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire.   
It is fascinating to reflect on all the life and conversations that have occurred in this residence.  The 130 year old home began its life during the Victorian Age, when women and men dressed elaborately and kept their parlors over decorated.  It was an age of showy excess, and this house looks like it belonged to that era.  Families continued to live in the house during the times of World War 1 & 2, McCarthyism,  poodle skirts, first moon walk, the Cold War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Summer of Love, and the AIDS pandemic.  Most recently, this house witnessed the advent of accessible technology flood it’s rooms.  It was built around the time that the phone was invented, and now cell phones, computers, laptops, and televisions are used on the premises.
From the looks of this residence, it is not going anywhere anytime soon.  Maybe in the future it will be cars, and not just planes, that the grand old lady will see flying above it’s rooftop and chimneys. 

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Maiden Lane

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Have you been to Maiden Lane yet?  No?  Well, then hail a cab and head down to this quaint little alley near Union Square where high end fashion lives.  Retailers like Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, and Marc Jacobs all have cozy little stores nestled away in this posh alley.  In addition, you will find the Xanadu Gallery which is housed in a space designed by the infamous Frank Loyd Wright.

Before the 1906 earthquake and fire, this little street was known for its “red light” activity.  One can only imagine all the whoring, opium dens, and general crime that found it’s home in these short blocks.  The fire destroyed all of the buildings and left piles or rubble, but a jeweler saw potential in the mean little alley and transformed it to its current glamour by first changing the name from Morton to Maiden, and then courting businesses that would help the little lane to compete with the Maiden Lanes in both New York City and London.

Get up, catch a cab, and go window shopping in Maiden Lane.  While you are down there, you might as well stroll over to Union Square for some light shopping, and then you can end the excursion with a cup of tea in Chinatown.  



Source:  Wikipedia

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Chinatown: San Francisco

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Mission Dolores Cemetary and Gardens

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If you are religious during this season of Lent, consider spending some time in Mission Dolores and especially the adjacent gardens and cemetery.  Founded in 1776, the Mission survived many obstacles including the 1906 earthquake.  The structure itself is simple by today’s standards, but very ornate for 1776.  When you visit, you will exit onto the gardens and nearby cemetery.  This cemetery is very old and therefore has very unique graver markers.  It definitely reinforces that fact that “to dust we shall return.”

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Historical Sunday: The Castro Theatre (1922)

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The Iconic Castro Theatre

If you are looking for an authentic 1920’s moving-going experience, then you don’t have to look any farther than the Castro Theatre.  Designed by a self-taught architect named Timothy Pflueger, this is one of the few remaining examples of a “Jazz Age” movie palace.

Unlike other movie houses, the Castro Theatre escaped the deformation and destruction that usually occurs to buildings as they are forced into the modern age.  This is probably due in large part to the fact that it has had the same owners for the last 89 years.  Originally built by the Nasser brothers, sons of Syrian immigrants, the theatre still remains in the protective hands of this family.

What makes it so special?

  • The live organ music that greets everyone as they enter the theatre adds a special touch to the afternoon matinee or evening entertainment.  If you sit real close to the front, you can watch the organist as his hands and feet artfully move across the beautiful pipe organ.  
  • The ornate decor is phenomenal.  From the massive classical murals, to the small paintings on the glamorous light fixture and surround, each detail of the decor was painstakingly designed.
  • They play everything from old movies, silent movies, sing alongs, and recent blockbusters.  They also host live performances by iconic celebrities.   

If you are a movie buff, you need to take the time to visit the Castro Theatre and take in the history.  Breathe in the “Roaring 20’s” and imagine the flappers attending the theater for the first time on the arms of their dapper escorts.  



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Historical Saturday: Grace Cathedral’s Labyrinth

Grace Cathedral, S.F., Meditation Circle 2
Grace Cathedral’s Labyrinth, San Francisco

On a recent outing I came across Grace Cathedral in Nob Hill.  Ever since I read about it in Armistead Maupin’s “More Tales of the City,” I have been curious to see this structure that was the site of such gruesome drama in his novel.  The church itself is very unique and ornate, but the thing that caught my attention are its simple labyrinths.

Grace Cathedral has two meditation labyrinths, one inside made of limestone and one outside made of terrazzo stone.  The mazes are not just unused affectations of the past; they are being used everyday by people trying to calm their mind so that they can truly see themselves and the world around them.  Pilgrims have found comfort and self-awareness though the use of labyrinths from ancient Greece and Rome to present day.  Across many religions, cultures, and eras, there is evidence that people walked the labyrinth.  This is a perfect example of the intersection between history and the modern world.  As I toured the Cathedral, I observed several people walking their way through the paths deep in their own thoughts and meditation.

According to the Cathedral’s website, there are three stages of the meditation walk.  They are listed below:

  • Purgation (Releasing) ~ A releasing, a letting go of the details of your life. This is the act of shedding thoughts and distractions. A time to open the heart and quiet the mind.
  • Illumination (Receiving) ~ When you reach the center, stay there as long as you like. It is a place of meditation and prayer. Receive what is there for you to receive.
  • Union (Returning) ~ As you leave, following the same path out of the center as you came in, you enter the third stage, which is joining God, your Higher Power, or the healing forces at work in the world. Each time you walk the labyrinth you become more empowered to find and do the work you feel your soul reaching for.    – Grace Cathedral’s Website

When you come to San Francisco and find yourself with a gap in your schedule, take some time to visit Grace Cathedral and walk the labyrinth.  If you live here, set aside an hour on a Sunday afternoon, trek up Nob Hill, and perform this simple and ancient ritual.  I hope your time on the path brings you inspiration, guidance, or some new kernel of self-awareness. 



Grace Cathedral, S.F.,  Outside Meditation 1
Grace Cathedral’s Labyrinth, San Francisco

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History in the Making: The New San Francisco Public Utilities Commisssion Building

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People strolling along Golden Gate Avenue near the Civic Plaza will be witnesses to the birth of the most sustainable urban office building in the United States.  The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission Building, designed by KMD architects, has a number of energy efficient elements including solar panels and a built-in wind turbine.  For more information, click on the following link:

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I decided to document this historic event by taking these pictures of the construction process.  As I stood there watching the workers hoist wood and hammer in beams, I couldn’t help but wonder what the future held for this structure.  Will it be around for 100 years, or will it be declared tacky in 30 years and destined for the demolition ball?  Will it be published in books as an example of cutting edge design, or will it be the laughing stock of the city and dubbed the ugly duckling?  Will anything noteworthy ever happen in this building?  As I sat there and pondered its future, I also couldn’t help but wonder how it will die.  What will be the last thing that will be housed in this building before it’s declared obsolete and destroyed in order to make room for something newer and more exciting?

If you find yourself in the area, it’s worth a detour to watch this colossal building reach for the sky.

 A sketch of the finished product



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