Close Mobile Menu

His Castles Outlive Their Kings: How Cal’s Architect Shaped and Scraped the Skyline

November 2, 2015
by Cirrus Robert Wood
Image of Panama-Pacific International Expo

Think of the San Francisco skyline. You’re probably imagining a series of gradual boxes punctuated with a single pointed pyramid. If you’re thinking more expansively, or perhaps you have regular access to a helicopter, you would include the bridges at the bay and the Golden Gate. If you’ve spent a great deal of time not just looking at the city but actively studying its movements, then you’ll even include the traffic and the air planes and the fog and, up on Twin Peaks, the lurking scaffold of Sutro Tower.

George Kelham
George Kelham

Now, by piece, un-imagine the city. The cars and planes, and even the fog, are easy to get rid of. With little additional effort, you can excise Sutro Tower as well. It’s never in the tourist postcards anyway. Take out the bridges—both of them—and Treasure Island too, because on this stroll backwards we want a bay with only ferries and fishing boats. Take out the Transamerica Pyramid (In its place you can put back Montgomery Block, if you want, though extra credit will not be given to those who do) and stop some time around 1930.

It was the Depression, but it was also the height of the great American skyscraper race. Back east architects were vying to raise the tallest, most dazzling structures—the Chrysler Building, 40 Wall Street, Empire State, Tribune Tower. On the West Coast the same race was happening, with only slightly less ballyhoo, between the three architects who would define the look of San Francisco for more than 50 years: James Miller, Timothy Pflueger, and the supervising architect of UC Berkeley, George Kelham.

Like music and literature in 1960s Haight-Ashbury, and technology along present day Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley, there was in the 1920s and 30s San Francisco an extremely localized flourish of culture sprouting up along Market Street, nearly all of it architectural.

In this period of creative engineering, Kelham would see his greatest works finished: the Shell Building and the Russ Building—and on the UC campus, what might be his most beloved, Bowles Hall and International House. He also was responsible for the Federal Reserve, Edwards Stadium, the San Francisco Public Library (now the Asian Art Museum) the Standard Oil Building, Hills Bros. Coffee, and significant buildings on the campuses of both Stanford and UCLA.

Most of his buildings have outlasted the original tenants—in at least one case, somewhat regrettably, given that pedestrians along Embarcadero used to smell only the scent of roasting coffee. But the buildings remain, albeit now crowded by higher neighbors. When Kelham’s masterwork, the Russ Building, was completed in 1927, it was tied with design firm Miller & Pflueger’s Pac Bell Building over on New Montgomery as the tallest structure in the city. Both are an impressive 30 stories of tiered terra cotta glaze, both are on the list of California Historical Landmarks, and there are today in San Francisco 34 buildings taller than either one.

There’s an idea that an architect is duty-bound to challenge the expectation of the observer and push the era’s aesthetics forwards. But Kelham was not one of those artists who made his time; rather he reflected it. His style evolved over every decade with the pace of the greater culture. He had a quality more important than innovation: reliability.

Russ Building in San Francisco
San Francisco’s Russ Building

There are no buildings, pavilions, lecture halls, lawns, or even park benches with his name on it, even on the UC Berkeley campus, where he was supervising architect from 1927 to 1931. One gets the sense the obscurity was almost a deliberate choice. Go back just a bit further, to 1915 and the Panama Pacific International Exposition. As supervising architect of the fair, he had this to say: “I am a great optimist about the exposition; for in the past year I have seen the work of different architects brought into a harmonious scheme…This has been one of the most interesting parts of the work—to see it carried on by a group of men, each willing to lose his personality in design for the common good.”

The event most associated with Kelham is also the one notable work of his that no longer exists. The designs of the Pan Pacific Expo—largely by other architects, though coordinated and approved by Kelham—showcased the style he liked best. Bold shapes, classic contours, Italianate lines, marble and glazed terra cotta. Buildings that changed mood with the light. Structures that had heft, sure, but also panache.

Officially, the exposition celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal. Ostensibly, though, it showed the resurgence of San Francisco after the devastation of 1906, when the city had been so thoroughly wrecked by earthquake and fire that the year itself could stand as a byline for catastrophe. Naturally, city planners were eager to restore a gilded-age image of a city where riches were made. The names alone ring with early 20th-century optimism (“Fountain of Energy” “Court of Abundance”) while others signal a shift away from dreamy idealism and towards the pragmatic (“Palace of Horticulture” “Varied Industries Palace” “Food Products Palace”)

Gazing at photographs, hardly any of the buildings would look out of place now. They’re stylistically consistent with much of what Kelham and other designers would create as they defined the growing city. But it would be difficult if not impossible to imagine their functions co-existing peacefully with contemporary San Francisco. It would take a lot more than ‘palace’ to soften the unpalatable appeal of a clinical term like ‘food products.’

Of all of them, only the Palace of Fine Arts remains, although sticklers for authenticity might point out that the current palace is only a replica. The original, like most of the rest of the fair’s structures, was made of a wooden frame swaddled in staff, a building material composed of burlap layered with plaster. Staff is relatively lightweight, easily molded, and aesthetically pleasing, as well as slightly more durable than papier-mâché. Like costume jewelry, it gives the appearance of grandeur from afar. Considering the theatricality of the exposition, the choice in material was both fitting and obvious.

And then you learn that unlike previous world’s fairs, the organizers and Kelham had no intention of having the structures removed later. Nor, for that matter, of maintaining them. Instead the idea was to let them fall apart naturally, in situ, over the course of months and years. They would become a different kind of attraction altogether as they slipped into disrepair, something like Sutro Baths is today. A remnant. A ruin. What they used to call “a curiosity.” Ironic given that the city had, less than a decade before, been more or less in ruins. City regulators wisely vetoed the idea.

Of course, the fair was a great success regardless. And Kelham would go through the remainder of the decade and all of the 1920s drawing up plans for banks, dormitories, libraries, and skyscrapers from his residence at Berkeley.

International House
International House on the UC Berkeley campus; photo by Cirrus Robert Wood.
Bowles Hall
Bowles Hall dormitory (later to be nicknamed UC Hogwarts) on the UC Berkeley campus.

The Russ Building might not be the most prominent building in San Francisco anymore, but even now you’d be hard pressed to find one with more verve. Much of what we take for granted in a modern skyscraper was innovated here—an in-house parking garage, a multiplicity of business tenants, reliable elevators. Tame though they now seem, these were great strides for the 1920s.

Remarkably, what was then the tallest structure on the West Coast took only ten months to build. Thirty-one stories, 435 feet, 1,370 offices, 20 elevators, four of which were built for automobiles—and all of it open and operational five months ahead of schedule. Granted, that was more through the collaboration of engineers than the work of a single designer, but for comparison, what will soon be the new tallest structure in San Francisco is presently in its third year of construction.

Within the Russ Building, a worker could find any needed thing, and many an unneeded one as well. A stock exchange, a bank, a coffee shop, a tobacconist, optometrist, dentist, and the somewhat mysterious ‘chiropodist.’ The aim, as stated in the original brochure put out by property management, and which you can almost hear in the half-shout of 1930’s radio, was to provide ‘’every service and facility business and professional men find advantageous.”

The interior has been thoroughly modernized, however, for the needs of the many small law firms and CPAs that now make up the majority of tenants. There’s still a coffee shop on the first floor, but a visitor today would look in vain for the in-house surgeon or the public stenographic bureau. (The chiropodist presumably has gone extinct) The brochure is excellent reading just the same, riddled with superlatives more fitting to a naval aircraft carrier than an office high rise: “commanding,” “formidable,” “authoritative,” “enduring.”

Shell Building in San Francisco
San Francisco’s Shell Building; photo by Cirrus Robert Wood.

Kelham’s designs, where they are small, are Romanesque, intimate, stylish, inviting. Where they are large, they are grand, swaggering, Babylonian. It feels cheap to use a word like “timeless,” but it’s worth pointing out that nearly all the companies for which he drafted blueprints have vacated or gone belly-up, while the structures emblazoned with their crests enjoy historic status. There are alumni associations dedicated to the things he designed. His name hasn’t been lost so much as overshadowed. Perhaps the work was not particularly daring, but it is certainly sturdy. George Kelham’s castles outlived all their kings.

Share this article