Arrival in San Francisco – terracotta of the downtown Commercial District

I found myself quite sad as I first walked around the area where I’m staying in San Francisco. It was September 11th and I was trying not to think about the horrors I had woken up to in this city 10 years ago.

Walking around the Union Square area you are surrounded by terracotta. But  focus is necessary as this area is still a centre of commerce and the historic buildings are tucked behind a layers of C21 shop fronting and and the distracting glitz and glamour of designer brands. Not to mention the swarms of well dressed shoppers that seek them out. The shops, that is, not the terracotta buildings.

Slightly overwhelmed (and cold!) on arrival, I had decided to follow a tour that I had photocopied copied from Michael Stratton’s travel archive. This map had hand written notes of the odd gallery and additional sight along the way, which I was excited to find. So for the first time, dispite our very similar studies, I found myself certain I was following the very same path he had in 1988, studying the same buildings and, I hoped, taking similar photographs. I was slightly dismayed when I could not find the Gallery he had marked FLW gallery. I’m using the same abbreviation for Frank Lloyd Wright, so I was very disappointed to find nothing of the kind in the area. My initial feelings of excitement and anticipation turned slowly into sadness again, perhaps enhanced by my suppressed melancholy of the day and general tiredness. I  trudged my path through the shoppers and it became clear and visible how much time had passed between him and me and how unfair life is in that we were denied the opportunity to meet. I thought about all the people that have remembered him fondly too me throughout my Fellowship and the resulting kindness I have received from otherwise strangers. Again I rallied to think positively. And felt it strange I mourn the death of someone I have only encountered since their passing.

Determined to make the best of my day, I cheered myself up with some fantastic terracotta! I’m sure you’ll see what I mean… and I didn’t have to look far at all, terracotta is just what this place is made of, this tour didn’t span more than 5 blocks.

Here is a small sample of my afternoon:

I will identify all of the buildings in time. If you are are ultra keen and need to know now, please leave me a comment and I can assist you.

Initial observations:

  • The scale of this area is around 3-5 storeys. We will look at the early skyscapers in another district.
  • The styles combine victorian, italianate and neo classical elements. Both pre and post 1906 earthquake.
  • The sheer amount of terracotta continues to  astound me. As I said before,  it is all around, and in this area specifically the terracotta buildings are less visually interrupted with other types of building types and styles.
  • There appears to be more damage at lower levels that has not been repaired, or has been visisbly been repaired by patching, here than I have seen in other cities. Do remember this is an earthquake zone.
  • These buildings are from 1880 to 1920, so quite a bit later, as terracotta spread across the country from Chicago.
  • On an aside, I have been noting that throughout its use in the USA terracotta is finished to appear stone-like. Until the 20sthat is when we get the the beginnings of an exploration of colour which booms in fantastic brightly coloured glazed façades (I have some fine examples to show you, from Oakland, come back in a few days to see those!) In the UK we moved away from stone-like finishes as architects decided to design buildings on the merits of the clays material qualities resulting. More red clay and unglazed terracotta buildings are visible across metropolitan areas in England as a result. Nearly all terracotta is glazed here, even if it is just with a slip of the same colour of the clay body to give all of the blocks an even colouration and do away with the natural variation in clay bodies that results from firing. Interesting, no?

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