29 July 2004

Deco glory

Harris house (photos: Daniella Thompson, 2004 )

Would you like to step inside and look around this house?
Watch this space for an announcement.

25 July 2004

Religion vs. the movies

La Bonita Theater, San Francisco, 1919 (San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

San Francisco’s 4-Star Theater, located in the Richmond District, on 2200 Clement St. at 23rd Ave., began its life in 1912 as La Bonita. Its façade has changed considerably over the years, but not the affection it inspires in the community.

The theater’s lease will expire on 9 May 2005, at which time the operator must vacate the premises. Since 2001, the property has been owned by the Canaan Lutheran Church, which plans to occupy the building.

The theater’s operators, Frank and Lida Lee, have held the lease on the theater since 1992. They claim that had a verbal agreement with Wang Li-fen, the previous owner, to buy the property should Wang decide to sell, and have spent more than $200,000 on renovations, including adding a second screen, new seats, a sprinkler system, and disabled access. The Lee say that they matched Canaan’s offer of $1.2 million, but Wang sold the property to the church.

The Lees have mounted the website save4star.net in an attempt to build up community support.

Canaan Lutheran Church has its own set of problems. Since 1996, it has been sharing Zion Lutheran Church’s facilities at 495 Ninth Ave. Zion agreed to let Canaan use its facility but requested that Canaan make a good-faith effort to find its own property as soon as possible.

A recent article in the San Francico Chronicle covers the story in detail.

20 July 2004

That room off the main lobby

The Café, St. Francis Hotel, c. 1910 (postcard courtesy of Anthony Bruce)

The St. Francis Hotel boasts a grand history, whose beginning is summarized in the hotel’s website:
At the turn of the century, the guardians of the Charles Crocker family announced plans to build the finest hotel on the Pacific Coast. Their vision was to make San Francisco the “Paris of the West.” After studying all of Europe’s grand hotels—from those in Berlin, Vienna, and Monaco to Claridge’s in London to The Ritz in Paris—construction on the original St. Francis Hotel began. Two years and $2.5 million later, on March 21, 1904, the doors of The St. Francis opened.

A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle provides a chronology of the main-floor restaurant, which was just renovated beyond recognition:
1904: The room off the main lobby is a ladies’ and gentlemen’s café. The architecture was inspired by the Cluny Museum in Paris.

1907: The space was restored after the earthquake and fire, and named The Café.

1913 or thereabouts: The space was turned into a reading room holding 4,000 books. Tables and Tiffany lamps gave hotel guests a place to write letters.

1939: The Patent Leather Bar was born. Black patent leather covered the walls, the banquettes and the 60-foot bar that snaked through the room. Ansel Adams’ photographs of the bar still hang in the St. Francis lobby. The ornate ceiling was covered, as were the windows; they wouldn’t be opened for 40 years.

1939 or ’40: Several vases of orchids were spread around the Patent Leather Bar, which had been dubbed the “coffin corner” by the media.

1954: The room became a cocktail lounge called The Terrace Room, with a bar, limited food service and kimono-clad waitresses. It wouldn’t change for 26 years.

1980: The Compass Rose was designed with a sense of “oriental wickedness,” according to media at the time. The name came from the multipointed design on the back of a compass. Embracing cobras made up the bases for cocktail tables. Buddhist prayer screens from Burma provided focal points. Marble covered the stairs, and griffins decorated the bar. The ceiling was lifted to reveal the original design.

Sources: Westin St. Francis Hotel historian Howard Mutz and Chronicle files

According to the hotel’s media representative, “This room has historically changed every 20 to 30 years, so we’re at the 23-year mark with the Compass Rose. The public wants to see another fine-dining establishment, so because we are at the juncture of 23 years, and because the hotel is turning 100 next year, this is all done as part of the natural evolution of change.”

Not everyone is delighted. Every day brings a new lament. One Chronicle reader complained, “More painful than any visit to the dentist are the views of the Michael Mina restaurant and the once-grand lobby.” Another asked, “We mourned the demise of Newbegin’s Books with a glass of champagne at the Compass Rose, but where can we go to mourn the passing of the Compass Rose?” Gerald Nachman was considerably less charitable:
The recent “renovation” of the gorgeous Compass Rose Room at the St. Francis Hotel, to make way for the unstoppable duck-confit mob, occurred with not even a fraction of the controversy over the threatened decapitation of the Doggie Diner head on Sloat Boulevard. [...]

I only hope that those wondrous frosted etched-glass partitions, the carved bar and plush rose banquettes were stored somewhere handy, so that when the buzz-crazed foodies desert the new St. Francis restaurant, as they will for the next fashionable joint, the old Compass Room can be restored to its former beauty.

14 July 2004

Preservation action, 1919 style

The statement above was made in a protest letter that 47 residents of Daley’s Scenic Park addressed to the Berkeley City Council in November 1919. They wrote:
This protest is made at this time, because of the removal of a large oak tree on Le Conte Avenue, near Le Roy Avenue, which tree is now in the process of removal, and which tree was in no dangerous condition, as claimed, and could have been brought back to the normal condition by the application of a small water-drip, as was suggested to the authorities by Mrs Perkins, et al, and as was done in the case of Le Conte and other oaks on the University Grounds with entire success.

The complete letter, with additional signature pages, can be seen here. On the same page there’s a rare photograph of the oak tree circa 1910, shortly after Le Conte Avenue had been graded as part of the Hillside Club Street Improvements in the Daley’s Scenic Park tract.

13 July 2004

Free tours of Maybeck’s masterpiece

Photo: Joseph Stubbs

Friends of First Church is a non-profit, non-denominational volunteer organization dedicated to assisting the First Church of Christ, Scientist with the restoration and preservation of its building (Berkeley’s only National Historic Landmark, designed by Bernard Maybeck) and with education about its architecture and history.

A free architectural tour is offered on the first Sunday of every month. Tours start at 12:15 pm and last about 45 minutes. This is a very special opportunity to see the fabulous interior. Everyone is welcome.

07 July 2004

Le Conte Memorial Lodge centennial

Le Conte Memorial Lodge (photo: Stephen Joseph)

In 1905, the book A History of the New California: Its Resources and People, Volume I was published, providing information on diverse topics such as “pioneer days, agriculture, mining, irrigation, manufacturing, railroads, education.” Chapter XVIII was dedicated to the State University and informed:
On December 1, 1868, a number of professors were elected, among them the illustrious John Le Conte. The others were Professors Kellogg, Fisher, Joseph Le Conte—afterward world-famous—and others. Professor John Le Conte arrived in California in March, 1869, and soon thereafter he arranged the courses of instruction, set the requirements for admission, and issued a prospectus for the coming year. On June 14, 1869, in the absence of the president, Professor John Le Conte was appointed to discharge the duties of the office of president. Later his brother, Joseph Le Conte, became one of the strongest and most beloved professors of the university, to which he was devoted unto the day of his death. Much of the fame of the university is due to his illustrious career.

The University of California’s first professor of Geology and Natural History, Joseph Le Conte was an avid mountaineer who made many trips to the Sierras. He recorded his impressions in The Autobiography of Joseph Le Conte, which is published online complete with illustrations.

A close friend of John Muir, Joseph Le Conte co-founded the Sierra Club in 1892. Two years following his death, the Club erected the Le Conte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite Valley. The charming lodge, now a National Historic Landmark, was designed by Bernard Maybeck’s brother-in-law John White, who in 1924 would design the Hillside Club on Cedar Street in Berkeley.

Le Conte Memorial Lodge is celebrating its centennial amid controversy. Last year, U.S. Rep. George Radanovich (R-Mariposa) introduced a bill (H.R. 2715) calling for the removal of the Lodge from Yosemite National Park. Radanovich calls it a “special use,” while the Sierra Club believes that what lies at bottom is pure vindictiveness. The bill passed the House Resources Committee on a 21-to-20 vote last fall but has been stalled ever since.

The Sierra Club provides full information on the case, including links to news stories and editorials in the press.

The Bancroft Library sells A Yosemite Camping Trip, a journal of a trip to Yosemite in 1889, written by the professor’s son Joseph N. Le Conte, who accompanied his father on this trip. The account is illustrated by photographs taken with an early Kodak camera.

01 July 2004

Landmark into parking in St. Louis

Century Building, downtown St. Louis

Built St. Louis is an extensive website “dedicated to the historic architecture of St. Louis, Missouri—mourning the losses, celebrating the survivors.”

These days, Built St. Louis is attempting to save the Century Building (which is listed in the National Register of Historic Places) from demolition.

The marble-finished Century Building is to be replaced with a 1,062-car parking garage. From Built St. Louis:
The garage’s purpose is to provide parking for the landmark Old Post Office, directly east of the Century, when Webster University moves in. Meanwhile, a larger lot to the north of the Old Post Office currently stands vacant. Yet, the garage will not be built on this obvious and far more inviting site. The vacant lot will instead become an “urban plaza,” in the name of providing new residents of downtown with a park and green space.

Downtown St. Louis is not short of green space. And who is going along with the developer’s plan to demolish the Century Building? None other than the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which issued the judgment that “demolition of the Century would be an unfortunate but necessary tradeoff for the long-term benefit of the Old Post Office and its neighborhood.”

Thousands have already signed the online petition to save the Century Building, which is not the only historic building threatened in downtown St. Louis.

T. Robert Yamada, 1925–2004

T. Robert Yamada, who passed away on 23 June, was general manager of the Books Unlimited Co-operative and a founder of the Berkeley Historical Society, where he served as president for four terms. Bob served on the board of the Berkeley Historical Society for 21 years and on the board of the Japanese American Citizens’ League from 1982 to 1994. He was also a trustee of the Berkeley Public Library for 14 years and served as president from 1986 to 1987. When he retired from the library board, Loni Hancock, then mayor of Berkeley, proclaimed 26 March 1987 as T. Robert Yamada Day.