San Francisco Heritage is celebrating its 50th anniversary all through 2021. Each week we will share a short chapter of our history.
Workers removing terra cotta goddess head from 105 Market Street in 1979. (Heritage Archives.)
by Woody LaBounty
The Young Building at 101 Market Street on the southwest corner of Spear Street, mostly shrugged off the 1906 earthquake. Bricks came off the walls of the 1898 building, but the steel frame, concrete floors, and rich terra cotta ornamentation held together through the quake and fire and went on to witness the rebuilding of San Francisco.
What the building couldn’t withstand was the power of the United States government, being demolished in 1979 for a new Federal Reserve Bank building, a block-long gray ziggurat with a colonnade perpetually shadowing the sidewalk.
Heritage didn’t fight the project, which in addition to demolishing the Young Building (also called the Aetna and Seaboard building during its existence), took down the Lincoln Hotel at 115–21 Market Street, and two other adjoining buildings. Based on ratings, in Heritage’s estimation only the corner Young Building “merited preservation concern.”1
Elevated view east from Market and California Streets, June 23, 1921. The Young Building is shadowed beside the Lincoln Hotel on the corner of Spear Street. (Horace Chaffee photograph, Department of Public Works, OpenSFHistory/wnp26.069.)
Of particular attraction was the façade’s terra cotta. Calling it “among the finest downtown,” the Heritage newsletter in 1979 described the Young Building’s ornament: “Twelve-foot spandrels displayed hoary faces with intertwined dolphins and lush leaves growing from their beards. Heroic goddesses with winged helmets backed by seashells watched from composite capitals as pedestrians strolled five floors below.”2
Fragments of those dolphins and seashells now line the back fence of Heritage’s headquarters at the Haas-Lilienthal House. During demolition, Grey Brechin, Ward Hill, and a team of Heritage volunteers made a field trip to Market and Spear Street and brought back “ornamental treasure.” Grey and Ward loved the baked clay decoration, creating an informal “Friends of Terra Cotta” group at Heritage (complete with t-shirts) and even took a fanboy field trip to the terra cotta factory of Gladding, McBean & Company in Lincoln, California. The historic firm crafted, molded, and glazed the terra cotta for the Young Building and it was responsible for most of the decorative ornament in San Francisco’s downtown. 3
Heritage staff Catherine Joseph, Peggy Lucke, and Ward Hill standing with some of their backyard “ornamental treasure” in 1979.
Over a ton of material was trucked from Market Street to the yard of the Haas-Lilienthal House in 1979. Four decades later, only a few pieces are still in the garden. I don’t know what happened to most of it over the years.
I have mixed feelings about this sort of salvage, tainted by a question/offer which comes up in big preservation battles, sometimes at the very beginning as a sop, other times deep in negotiations, forced upon the developer or agency as a “mitigation measure”: Can we destroy something important in exchange for a token, a reminder of what will be lost?
Plaques or architectural fragments are slapped on the sides of replacement buildings; educational displays are tucked in the corner of new atriums; people-less photos are taken in doomed empty buildings, giving even the most active site a feeling of ancient ruin, and the gray images are deposited for “education and research purposes” deep inside a library.
These are not preservation wins. In some ways they represent more galling losses, totems hung out to mock an effort to save a place of significance, a beautiful building. The instructive plaques usually disappear, the educational tableaus fade to illegibility, and the fragments lose their context almost immediately.
But sometimes salvage, especially done by individuals or organizations, can be a source of inspiration. I remember the late Marty Larkin’s Sunset District backyard in which he expertly created a small tribute to old San Francisco with cobblestones from streets, bricks from the wall of the old Geneva streetcar barn, a bench from the former Academy of Sciences, and a fountain figure from the Fox Theatre. His work, the curation by one man who cared about these places, felt more educational to me than a museum exhibit or a bronze tablet of text.
I get a similar feeling when I look out the back window of Heritage’s offices. The glossy fish scales and scrolling leaves and row of florets beneath our trees provide counterpoint to the successfully saved Haas-Lilienthal House inside which I stand. I am grateful for them as memento mori to preservation losses, as warning and inspiration to keep defending the city’s unique architectural heritage.
Terra cotta floral reliefs from the Young Building now in the Haas-Lilienthal House bakyard.
3. “Terra Cotta Salvage,” Heritage Newsletter, July/August 1980; “Terra Cotta Meets Friends on Tour,” Heritage Newsletter, Summer 1981.