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Art Deco in San Francisco's Downtown

by Therese Poletti

One day in the spring of 2003, fellow City Guide Bob Bowen and I visited the lobby of the Telephone Building on New Montgomery Street. We were on a trial walk for a revived Downtown Deco Tour, which a few of us had decided to bring back to life after conducting Art Deco Marina for several years. A security guard working for SBC, which then owned the building, kindly allowed us into the inner sanctum.

We stood in the wide lobby of San Francisco’s first real high-rise, with its dark marble walls, occasionally accented by shiny metal trim. A glorious multi-colored ceiling in the pattern of a Chinese quilt brightened the space, and various animal forms seemed to float overhead. Above the elevator doors, hexagons of metal surrounded what were once the Bell Telephone symbols. Along the walls, air vents shaped like triangles formed a zigzag pattern, with what looked like a butterfly inside.

Along the right wall was a large glass case with memorabilia about the building’s history and its architects. A photograph at the center, taken by Ansel Adams, showcased the building’s main designer, architect Timothy Pflueger, looking windblown and rumpled, in profile, a relaxed grin on his face. Looking more closely at the photo, one could see the Telephone Building in silhouette, and surely he was smiling in pride.

This photograph, the beauty of the Telephone Building, and my fascination with the 1920s set off that spark in me, a journalist’s need to know more. As I delved in to get our tour ready for the public, I discovered that Pflueger’s imprint on San Francisco is everywhere.

A search in the phone book revealed that the stock brokerage firm co-founded by Pflueger’s brother Paul still existed. They directed me to other family members. One sent me a book written by his youngest brother, Milton T. Pflueger, called Time and Tim Remembered. I discovered a whole clan of Pfluegers in the Bay Area, including the son of Milton, John Pflueger, who is also an architect and lives in Glen Ellen, where he has his own practice.

After reading Milton’s book, I still wanted to know more about Tim and to place him and the firm in a historical context. Pflueger was an important figure in San Francisco, learning the architectural trade right after the earthquake of 1906 and practicing during one of the golden eras of building, the roaring 1920s. The Miller & Pflueger office managed to stay alive during the Great Depression with more work than most. But Pflueger’s prolific career was cut short, and he died at age 54, two years after World War II ended, his career neatly encompassing the era that we now refer to as the Art Deco period.

After getting the tour started, I explored the idea of writing a book on Pflueger. His attributes were many: he grew up in the city’s working class Mission District and did not attend college, yet he became one of the city’s prominent architects of his era. Some of his landmarks include the Castro Theatre, the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, 450 Sutter, Union Square Garage, and the Top of the Mark cocktail bar. He was also deeply involved in the culture of the city, installing artists’ work both in his buildings and at the World’s Fair of 1939-1940. He was also a founding director of the museum now known as SFMOMA.

I eventually got a book contract with Princeton Architectural Press, through the help of an inspiring and selfless agent, Robert Shepard. Once I was faced with a deadline, I crammed to finish my research. I especially bothered the entire staff in the San Francisco Public Library’s History Room and the newspaper and microfilm room, where nearly every librarian was especially patient with this reporter turned aspiring architectural historian.

San Francisco librarians were not the only ones who helped me; indeed, the project encompassed a wide span of libraries and archives all over the Bay Area and in other parts of California as I tried to chase details on Pflueger’s works in the Central Valley and Southern California. But for nearly two years, I practically lived in our main library on weekends and frequently after work, and always felt welcome in doing so.

Now this labor of love, "Art Deco San Francisco: The Architecture of Timothy Pflueger", has been published and is becoming available in local bookstores.

I hope that local history and architecture buffs will enjoy a few revelations: learning a bit more about the early work of Pflueger’s quiet partner, J.R. Miller, Pflueger’s time at the San Francisco Architecture Club, the trials the architects experienced while consulting on the Bay Bridge, and anecdotes about clients and artists, including Diego Rivera, whom Pflueger hired to paint a mural in the Luncheon Club of the San Francisco Stock Exchange.

Readers will hopefully be drawn to the book by the vast array of photographs, ranging from the gorgeous color work by photographer Tom Paiva to the archival photos of historical San Francisco, many of which came from various collections within the San Francisco History Center unearthed with the help of our great librarians.

Therese Poletti has been a City Guide since 1999 and a journalist for 20 years. She is currently a senior columnist with MarketWatch, a financial news website owned by News Corp.

Photos from Art Deco San Francisco © Tom Paiva Photography. Courtesy Princeton Architectural Press.

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The cover of City Guide Therese Poletti’s new book Art Deco San Francisco features a photo of the interior of the Castro Theatre (© Tom Paiva Photography).

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Photo from Art Deco San Francisco of Pflueger's elegant lobby in the Telephone Building at 140 New Montgomery (© Tom Paiva Photography).

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