San Francisco Architecture of Timothy Pflueger
By Therese Poletti
New Yorkers thinking of San Francisco most often imagine Victorian row houses with ornate redwood details. But Deco connoisseurs visiting the city will find some fabulous Art Deco too, with the best examples of the style designed by one architect, Timothy Pflueger.
Though not as well-known as his New York colleagues, in the San Francisco Bay Area Pflueger was the region’s Art Deco master, and most of his work is extant and landmarked. A native of the city, born in 1892 to German immigrant parents, Pflueger lived a Horatio Alger-like life. As a young teenager, he found his education disrupted by the devastating 1906 earthquake. But with his artistic talent Pflueger easily found work in a city looking to quickly rebuild. Eventually he became a draftsman, working during the day for San Francisco architect James R. Miller and attending high school at night. He learned his trade in Miller’s office and in classes at the San Francisco Architecture Club, one of the many clubs around the country that educated young aspiring architects who could not afford college.
Like many other Deco-era architects, he turned to popular styles, the traditional Beaux Arts and Spanish Colonial revival, for his first projects. Pflueger’s earliest solo building was the Castro Theatre (1922), today a landmark of the Castro District. The theater’s typical 1920s eclecticism includes Spanish Baroque details on the exterior and an auditorium ceiling evocative of the canopy of an outdoor Roman amphitheater. The elegant Castro, which brought first-run movies to the growing Eureka Valley neighborhood, put Pflueger on the map. He was mentioned in local press accounts, which included a photo showing his hair slicked and parted down the middle in the style of the day.
Lobby of 140 New Montgomery. Photo: Therese Poletti
Aerial view of 140 New Montgomery.
Photo: ©Tom Paiva Photography
Just two years later, Pflueger became Miller’s partner and the small firm tackled its biggest project yet: a 26-story office tower in San Francisco’s South of Market district for Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co. Pflueger and his draftsmen wanted to design something modern for the fast-growing telecommunications company, and they found inspiration in Chicago’s 1922 Tribune Tower competition––not the winning neo-gothic tower by Raymond Hood and John Howells, but rather the runner up, Eliel Saarinen’s set back tower design, the more deserving design, according to many critics. The Telephone Building, as it became known, soared 435 feet high, the tallest building in the city for two years.
Completed in 1925, a year before New York’s Barclay-Vesey building was finished, the Telephone Building is the West Coast’s earliest Deco, its verticality towering over more horizontally oriented office buildings. The San Francisco Examiner dubbed it a “shimmery, gleaming monument to Talk.” The white and grey speckled terra cotta of its façade evokes the granite in the Sierras near Lake Tahoe. Much of its ornament refers to modern communications, with a massive Bell System logo over the front archway and a series of small “baby bells” across one ornament course. Tubes beneath the big Bell may suggest the pneumatic tubes once used for inter-office communications, or as one employee speculated in an in-house newsletter, the receiver stem of the then-popular Candlestick office phone. Open books with wings on the second ornament course suggest faster communications in the pre-television, pre-internet 1920s. The setbacks are decorated with long-stemmed, angular lotus-like flowers. The thirteen-foot high eagles that crown the building seem ready to take flight at any moment. Inside, the stunning lobby is an unusual surprise of black marble walls, bronze metal details including bells over the elevator doors, and a plaster ceiling carved with a repeating pattern of two Chinese mythological creatures, a fenghuang and a qilin. The fenghuang is a Chinese mystical bird, the symbol of the empress and of good fortune, but it is also similar to the western phoenix, which became a symbol of San Francisco rising from the ashes of 1906. The qilin, a hooved magical creature, is seen walking on clouds, an auspicious omen of prosperity and success. The references to Chinese mythology and other Asian themes were bold and unusual in an era during which the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act banning Chinese immigration was still in effect. The ceiling and other Chinese and Asian touches in the building, now known as 140 New Montgomery, show a clear appreciation of a culture deeply engrained in San Francisco’s history.
After the success of the Telephone Building, Miller & Pflueger won several large projects. The late 1920s and early 1930s were an especially busy, prolific, and chaotic time. Another major skyscraper designed by Pflueger, the 450 Sutter Medico/Dental Building, opened two weeks before the stock market crash in October 1929. Its temple-like lobby was an ode to the Maya, with detailed metal work in the ceiling and elevator doors covered in Mayan imagery––perhaps because the Mayans were known for early dentistry, or perhaps because of press coverage of Charles Lindbergh’s discovery of Mayan ruins in the Yucatan.
In the early part of the 1930s, a major movie palace commission from Paramount Publix led to Pflueger’s best-known work. The Paramount Theatre in Oakland, just across the Bay from San Francisco, was an amazing feat of concentrated high style on a small lot. According to Michael Goodman, at the time a draftsman in the Miller & Pflueger office, the theatre’s tropical forest or jungle theme was inspired by William Henry Hudson’s Green Mansions, a 1904 book about a man’s journey into the jungle in Venezuela; Pflueger kept a copy on his desk during the project. References to exotic plants, birds, and vines range from the emerald green canopy of light in the grand lobby to the parrots over the auditorium entrances and the colorful carpet’s pattern of leaves and vines inspired by French artist and textile designer Sonia Delaunay. Inside the auditorium, bas-reliefs in metallic leaf depict warriors ready for battle along the side wall and Poseidon, Greek god of the seas, under the proscenium––all designed by sculptors Robert Boardman Howard and Ralph Stackpole, just two of a huge crew of local artists Pflueger hired to embellish the theater. One nod to California: the giant mosaic along the 120-foot high neon sign, with cowboys, dancers, and other Hollywood players suggesting the movie industry.
Lobby of 450 Sutter. Photo: ©Tom Paiva Photography
During the Great Depression, Pflueger’s office worked on publicly funded projects including schools and the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge, for which he served as one of three consulting architects. Though prevented by cost restrictions from including art on the bridge’s concrete anchorage and approaches, Pflueger had more success with the schools, commissioning a huge mural on the life of George Washington, for George Washington High School, painted by Ukrainian social realist Victor Arnautoff. Pflueger’s most significant contribution to art in San Francisco came from Diego Rivera, whom he hired to paint two stunning murals, one at the San Francisco Stock Exchange Tower and another originally at the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939–1940 but later relocated to City College of San Francisco.
Pflueger’s subsequent work included more movie theatres, glamorous bars in the post-Prohibition era, and department stores in the post-war boom––best of all, the I. Magnin Company’s flagship store in San Francisco’s Union Square. Sadly, Pflueger never saw the clean white marble Modernist building completed––in 1946 he died of a sudden heart attack after a swim at the Olympic Club. Fortunately for the city of San Francisco, Pflueger’s legacy lives on today.
About the Author:
Therese Poletti is the Preservation Director of the Art Deco Society of California, author of Art Deco San Francisco: The Architecture of Timothy Pflueger, and a volunteer with San Francisco City Guides, for whom she leads the Downtown Deco walking tour. She blogs on Pflueger and all things Deco at Blog.TimothyPflueger.com.
Article originally published in the Art Deco New York journal, Vol. 3, Issue 2, Winter 2018. View a digital version of the full journal here.
Paramount Theater Auditorium. Photo: ©Tom Paiva Photography