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Frank Lloyd Wright and Nick’s Merchandise

by Susan Saperstein

As with a lot of research, this article began as a hunt for something else: Why is there a city street only existing enclosed in the Safeway parking lot on Market Street in San Francisco? Named Reservoir Street, it is near the San Francisco Mint on Hermann Street. I discovered that this location was once a reservoir in the mid-1860s, built as part of the plan to develop what are now the Castro and Noe Valley districts. Then I came across the gem that the area behind the Safeway and adjacent to the Mint was a proposed site for a Frank Lloyd Wright designed mortuary.

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Frank Lloyd Wright at work in his drafting room, photo courtesy of Getty Images.



In the 1940s, Frank Lloyd Wright was approached about designing a mortuary complex for Nicholas Daphne. Wright spoke about a phone call to him in August 1944: “Nicholas P. Daphne called me after midnight a year or so ago to say that because he had the finest lot in San Francisco he wanted the best architect in the world to build a mortuary on it. Nick asked me if I had ever built one. I said no, and I thought that was my very best qualification for doing one. So he gave me the job.”

Daphne told Wright that traditional funeral homes were too gloomy, and he and wanted to create an uplifting experience. Daphne followed up with a letter outlining what he wanted: “eight funeral chapel and ‘slumber rooms’, display rooms for caskets and monuments, storerooms, a flower shop, offices, three apartments and a penthouse, a parking garage, grounds with waterfalls and ponds—and whatever else Wright might think of for inspirational beauty.” (Daphne, no stranger to excess, named his daughter Daphne Daphne.)

The property he bought was an entire block in San Francisco bordered by Church, Hermann, Webster, and Duboce Streets. From the beginning, the two men never really agreed on the cost and the terms of the contract. Daphne thought it should cost about $80,000 (over a $1,100,000 in 2018 dollars). And although Wright insisted his fees were 10% of the completed cost of the project, he never gave him a cost estimate.

Several months later, Wright came to San Francisco and toured the block with Daphne and saw the new U.S. Mint on the hill next to the property, Wright said, “We’ll make the Mint look like a morgue and the morgue look like a mint.”

At the time, he was creating structures based on curves and circles (Think Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Marin Civic Center.) A San Francisco Chronicle article in 1947 photographed Frank Lloyd Wright at the Planning Department, as they fed him chocolate cake (Has anyone had cake served for their San Francisco building project?) The article described his mortuary drawings looking like the recent Disney film Fantasia.

In the next few years the two men corresponded by telephone and letter. It appeared that Wright kept asking Daphne if he had the money to do this project, and Daphne kept trying to pin him down on the exact cost. At one point Wright wrote, “I had to research a good deal and that nearly got me down. I would come back home, now and then, wondering if I felt as well as I should. But then Nick had a way of referring to the deceased as ‘the merchandise’ and that would cheer me up.”

Correspondence in the next few years consisted of Daphne wanting some changes, and Wright demanding money before talking with him. Wright bristled at the suggestion of changing his designs. Daphne also wanted Wright to design his house in San Mateo and the same issues occurred. His wife Virginia said, "He was a charming gentleman, stubborn as a mule, figured there were no other architects in the world except himself." Between the mortuary and the house, Daphne relayed that he thought Wright’s designs were “a great piece of architecture [but] will not be workable.” This so enraged Wright that he wrote back, “If the undertaker does not believe I am practical, how can I work with him. He doesn’t want an architect. Let him get a grave-digger instead.”

On a trip to Palm Springs California, Daphne saw buildings designed by A. Quincy Jones and had him design the new building. Jones later worked on designs for Joseph Eichler homes. Daphne also chose another architect for the San Mateo house who got along much better with Mrs. Daphne.

The mortuary was built in 1953 in the style of mid-century modernism—using redwood, brick glass, and combining indoor and outdoor rooms. It was demolished in 2000 even though preservationists mounted a campaign to save it. The San Francisco Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board ruled "The architectural integrity of the building's design had been compromised by the alterations." The board stated that the Daphne Funeral Home was not qualified for the National Register of Historic Places, and was not significant enough to delay the construction of low-cost housing units financed by the City of San Francisco.

Nicolas Daphne died in 1990. He helped break the monopoly of price-fixing in the funeral industry and advised Jessica Mitford for her book: The American Way of Death.

Sources:

  • The Eichler Network, eichlernetwork.com
  • Pacific Coast Architecture Database, pcad.lib.washington.edu/
  • Frank Lloyd Wright and San Francisco, Paul V. Turner

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    Frank Lloyd Wright’s mushroom shaped mortuary buildings, photo courtesy of San Francisco History Center SFPL.

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    Daphne Funeral building on Church Street, 1953; photo courtesy of San Francisco History Center SFPL.

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