San Francisco is not noted as a city for its art deco architecture, though many consider the Golden Gate Bridge with its moderne detailing to be one of the high points of the style. Designed by Irving Morrow, architect, and Joseph Strauss, chief engineer, the dramatic bridge opened in 1927 and was the longest clear span in the world until 1959.
Perhaps the relative lack of art deco architecture is a result of so much of the city being rebuilt after the earthquake and fire of 1906 in classical style with an odd flare of gothic. There are some highlights such as the Shell Building designed by George Kelham in 1929 and the Stock Exchange Tower in which the City Club probably still has the best art deco interiors remaining in the city including a stunning mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera. His first in the USA, this was commissioned by American artist Ralph Stackpole and was controversial at the time due to the incongruity of a Hispanic artist of Rivera’s political leanings being commissioned to create a mural in “the citadel of capitalism.”
Today, the centerpiece of The City Club, Rivera’s mural covers the wall and the ceiling of the grand stairwell of the Club with a central figure of Calafia, the Spirit of California, for which tennis professional and Olympic gold medalist Helen Wills Moody was the model. The fresco also includes portraits of carpenter James Marshall, whose discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill started the California Gold Rush, horticulturist Luther Burbank, an engineer, a merchant and a farmer panning for gold. Youth and its dreams are represented by a boy holding an airplane, for which the model was Ralph Stackpole’s son Peter. This is one of four Diego murals in the Bay area including at UC Berkeley and the San Francisco Art Institute.
One of the most charming buildings, and one which is easily accessible, is the former Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building designed by William Mooser Sn and Jr and built in 1939 as a joint project of the City of San Francisco and the New Deal Works Progress Administration (WPA). Sadly this recreational use did not last long before impact of the Second World War and the building was occupied by troops from 1941 to 1948, after which it became home to the San Francisco Maritime Museum and the country’s first Senior Center, whose activities have ensured the long-term sustainability of the building. The design of the building is almost unique in San Francisco – perhaps more a style seen in Miami – streamlined with the horizontal crisp lines of an ocean liner. The building is a showcase for art created during the 1930s by Sargent Johnson and Hilaire Hiler with their dazzling murals covering the interior walls and those of the ocean-facing balcony.
The building was closed for three years from May 2006 for an extensive overhaul to the roof, the windows and doors, installation of a discrete new lift and conservation work to the murals. Today it is a pleasant surprise to discover the building along this part of the bay in San Francisco, displaying a series of murals which are good examples of the fusion of art and architecture from this era and a subdued naturalistic contrast to the richness of the City Club.