Slideshow: SAN FRANCISCO ART DECO: Highlights from 20 Interviews (2009)
The peninsula city of San Francisco is one of the most stunning architectural destinations in the United States. The gorgeous man-made, technological wonder of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges link the city to Marin County to the north and Oakland and Berkeley to the east. But San Francisco proper, with its sprawling uphill and downhill streets, quaint neighborhoods and trademark cable cars, has always been a postcard-picture-ready town.
Like Chicago after the great fire of 1871, San Francisco was rebuilt from the ground up in the months and years following the devastating earthquake of 1906. As the residents dug out of the ashes and rubble that leveled most of the downtown area, architects flocked to the city to help with the rebuilding effort and to make a name for themselves.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that a hometown architect by the name of Timothy Ludwig Pflueger, a self-taught German-American from the Mission District, would go on to define the Art Deco era for the next three decades, designing some of San Francisco’s most cherished buildings. Yet even to many San Franciscans, Pflueger is not that well known. He died young (of a heart attack) at the age of 54, in 1946. But thanks to the efforts of journalist Therese Poletti and architectural photographer Tom Paiva, Pflueger’s work has been compiled in Art Deco San Francisco (Princeton Architectural Press), an exhaustive and thoroughly informative treatment of his life and work.
Influenced by Mayan and Asian art, as well as the early modern architects of his generation, Pflueger came to define excellence in San Franciscan Art Deco. His first job was at a picture-framing shop, but just as the construction boom was getting underway, he got a lucky start as a draftsman right out of high school. “From June 1906 to January 1908, San Francisco spent $90 million on reconstruction,” writes Poletti, “averaging $104 a minute and completed a building every hour and forty-five minutes.”
Ending up at the firm of Miller & Colmesnil — later renamed Miller & Pflueger — he would later embark on some of the city’s standout masterpieces, among them the Castro Theatre, the Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Tower (San Francisco’s first official skyscraper), the San Francisco Stock Exchange (both of them), 450 Sutter Street and the flagship I. Magnin store (now Macy’s) in Union Square. Endlessly prolific in his short lifetime, Pflueger ended up designing over 25 private homes, a handful of schools, several neighborhood theaters (including the Alhambra and the Paramount in Oakland) and a variety of signature cocktail lounges, including the Top of the Mark at the Mark Hopkins Hotel and the Patent Leather Bar at the St. Francis Hotel.
“Pflueger was among the earliest architects in the Bay Area to break free of the Beaux-Arts style and classical references,” writes Poletti in the book’s epilogue, “bringing instead a sense of modernity, urbanism, and a touch of sophistication to a growing metropolis on the West Coast.”