The Deco’s in the Detail – Art Deco Features in the San Francisco Financial District

by Lachlan Finlayson

The west coast of the USA has long been synonymous with Streamline Moderne and Art Deco architecture, and although many fine examples have sadly been lost over the years, there’s still plenty to enjoy. Globetrotter, Art Deco admirer, and regular ADSUK contributor Lachlan Finlayson explores San Francisco’s financial district, camera in hand….

During a lengthy connection between flights in San Francisco recently, I was able to travel to the nearby Financial District, enjoy the architecture, take some photographs and return to the airport for my ongoing flight. The area boasts some fine examples from the period, including offices, residential buildings, public infrastructure, and recreational facilities.

The Art Deco buildings in the Financial District tend to be substantial in size and are often hemmed in by later structures, which can make them challenging to fully appreciate (and photograph) from street level. However, it is possible to admire the decorative features on the lower levels of the facades and around entranceways. Some of these are even open to the public and are worth visiting to see their attractive and feature-filled lobbies. The buildings I visited appear to be well maintained, well-loved and cherished by San Francisco’s population.

Rincon Annex Post Office (1940)

Rincon Annex Post Office (101-199 Mission Street)

The original Rincon Annex was designed by Gilbert Stanley Underwood in a Streamline Moderne style and was completed in 1940 for the US Post Office as a mail-handling facility. The exterior is decorated with stone relief friezes of dolphins and eagles. Decorative metal grills feature over the windows and above entranceways. The interior lobbies are worth visiting. On display are items and documents related to the history of the Post Office.  The walls are dominated by ‘social-realism’ artwork including murals depicting San Francisco’s role in the history of California.

Shell Building (100 Bush Street)

The Shell Building is a twenty-eight story office tower, designed by George W. Kelham, built in 1929 and is considered to be a key ‘Cisco landmark. The tower is clad in stone, blending some Gothic, Moderne and Art Deco elements.

The main entranceway and lobby area is particularly attractive. Decorations seem to be greatly influenced by the interest in Egypt at the time, due to the relatively recent discovery of King Tutankhamen’s Tomb in the 1920s.  Brass screens at the main entrance of the building have a lotus flower pattern as well as a dominant Shell Pecten symbol. The lobby is spectacular, especially the multiple elevator doors and surrounds which contain intricate floral and geometric designs, with a gold-coloured finish.

The Shell Oil Company occupied the building until the 1960s, but it now serves as offices for multiple businesses.

The Stock Exchange Tower  (155 Sansome Street)

Designed by the firm Miller and Pflueger under the direction of Timothy Pflueger, the eleven-storey Stock Exchange Tower opened just one year after the stock market crash of 1929. The Tower housed the brokers who worked on the trading floor of the adjacent Pacific Coast Stock Exchange.

Pflueger, one of the first California architects to incorporate European Modernism into his work, believed that great art should be an integral part of great architecture. He is responsible for numerous Art Deco buildings in San Francisco, and commissioned a number of the era’s most renowned artists and craftsmen to work on both the exterior and interior of the Stock Exchange Tower.

Progress by Ralph Stackpole

The stunning sculpture above the entrance is entitled ‘Progress’ and was carved by Ralph Stackpole, an artist and sculptor who frequently worked with Pflueger. At the time, the background decorative symbols were said to represent rain, water, electricity and power. A huge male figure in high-relief dominates the sculpture with smaller male figures said to represent the role of progressive labour.  Immediately underneath ‘Progress’, inside the entranceway, is another lovely sculpture, this one being a stylistic depiction of an eagle with its wings spread.  Above the main ‘Progress’ sculpture is a medallion, with a modern depiction of a male figure plus images of engineering and construction.

Stylistic Depiction of an Eagle within the SET Entrance

Stackpole’s friend the artist Diego Rivera created a stunning mural inside the building. Newspapers at the time referred to the incongruity of selecting an artist of Rivera’s leftward political leanings to create a mural in “the citadel of capitalism.” The Tower and much-loved interior and exterior artwork is now home to The City Club of San Francisco.

Pacific Coast Stock Exchange  (301 Pine Street)

Designed by architect Milton Dyer, this neoclassical style building was originally completed in 1915 for the US Treasury. It was remodelled to be part of the Stock Exchange in 1930 by the firm Miller and Pflueger, who were also responsible for the design of the adjacent Stock Exchange Tower. Apart from the colonnade and the front steps, very little remains of the original buildings design.

Pacific Coast Stock Exchange  (1915-1930)

Most notable are the two spectacular external sculptures on either side of the building entrance. These were created in Yosemite granite by artist and sculpture Ralph Stackpole, a frequent collaborator with the architect Pflueger during the 1930s. These consist of grouping of female and male figures, respectively named Agriculture and Industry.  Above the colonnade are two large medallions, similar to the one on the adjacent Tower. Again in a modern style, depicting  female figures and images of railways and shipping. The tenant of the building today is a fitness company.

Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office (130 Montgomery Street)

Originally occupied by the Title Insurance Company, this small office block dates from 1930 and was designed by the O’Brien Brothers with Wilbur Peugh. The polygonal entrance is tomb-like and is said to reflect Egyptian influences that were popular at the time. The upper corners of the entrance apparently depict Scarab beetles which were sacred in ancient Egypt. Above these are two stunningly modern sculptures, depicting dynamic human figures.

Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office

Interestingly, these sculptures seem to be the same design, or at least, based on a series of sculptures by Rene Chamberlain in the lobby of the Channin Building in New York City. Furthermore, the nearby James Lick Middle School, another San Francisco Art Deco building from 1930, also has a series of exterior sculptures, very similar to those of Chamberlain’s in NYC.

Currently the building is occupied by the Hong Kong Economic & Trade Office.

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1886 to 1957)

While in the area I popped into the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to see seminal 1940 mural Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera.

Rivera was a prominent Mexican painter, and his large frescoes helped establish the mural movement in both Mexican and international art. Rivera visited the US regularly, gaining several large commissions, including this one in San Francisco by the architect Timothy Pflueger for his yet-to-be-built Pflueger Library.

His work also influenced artists such as Ralph Stackpole, who’s work greatly enhances Pflueger’s building designs. Indeed it was Stackpole who recommended Rivera to Pflueger.  Rivera and his wife, the artist Frieda Khalo, apparently stayed with Stackpole during their time in San Francisco.

This giant five section piece was created some ten years after his first trip to the US and was the last mural he made there. In the centre, Kahlo is depicted, as is Rivera himself as well as a gentleman in a brown suit, carrying architectural plans; one Timothy Pflueger.

The museum is exhibiting the piece until January 2024.

Part of ‘Pan American Unity’ by Diego Rivera

I hope you have enjoyed this brief tour around some of the highlights in the area. If you’re able to visit yourself, I would highly recommended it, but if not, the internet contains abundant information on San Francisco’s Art Deco architecture and design. One book I also found particularly useful and  interesting is ‘San Francisco Art Deco’, 2007, by Michael F. Crowe and Robert W. Bowen

1 thought on “The Deco’s in the Detail – Art Deco Features in the San Francisco Financial District

  1. Bucharest also has art deco architecture!

    Liked by 1 person

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