Palace of the Legion of Honor

The Palace of the Legion of Honor is probably among George Applegarth's best known works.  It also is illustrative of much of his work.  It is not especially original in appearance, being a three-quarter scale replica of the Palace of the Legion d'Honeur in Paris.  But, to my mind, in a much grander setting.  On the other hand, the building incorporates less obvious innovations.  For example, the walls are thicker than normal and honeycombed with flue tiles in a largely successful attempt to stabilize internal temperatures despite the rather broad daily climate swings that result from its location above Lands End and the Golden Gate.

Applegarth was the favorite architect of Alma De Brettville Spreckels, who commissioned the work.  While financed by public subscription and raised as a World War One Memorial,  its collection was anchored by Mrs. Spreckels collection of original Rodins, including a casting of "The Thinker" which stands in its forecourt.  Today, it holds most of the city's collection of Classical and European art.

While the front of the building is best known, being the entrance to the museum, it can be worthwhile to amble around the structure and see the details at the back, as well as the views of the city and the "Gate" and the Memorial art dotting the grounds.

Hibernia Bank

Despite the evident neglect, and a recent, much publicized tagging,  this grandest of bank temples by Albert Pissis still shows why it was considered his masterpiece; marking as it did his transition from residential designer to creator of grand public buildings and his graduation from journeyman to master of his craft.

Richard and Robert Tobin, born in County Tipperary, emigrated to San Francisco from Chile.  Richard read law with a local judge and was admitted to the bar in 1853, the same year that he married.  In 1859, the brothers formed a Savings & Loan Society that catered to the Irish community.  Eventually it was re-chartered as a Bank.  In the 1960's it was absorbed into Security Pacific Bank of Southern California, which has also since been bought by Bank of America.  A suburban branch of the bank is remembered as the site of the armed robbery involving Patty Hearst.

The Tobins are one of the oldest wealthy families in California.  Richard's son, Richard Montgomery Tobin, was a US Ambassador to the Netherlands.  Another descendant, Agnes Tobin, was a poet of note and a celebrated translator of Petrarch and Dante. Tobin & Tobin, Richard's Law Firm, had a sesquicentennial some years ago.  The Tobins also intermarried with the DeYoungs and were involved in the ownership & management of the Chronicle for some time.

I first encountered the building in the 70's when it was no longer a bank but was serving as a Police Station.  Since then, it has changed hands a couple of times but just sits neglected.  Recently there appears to be some effort to revive it.  With a new Federal Building nearby and internet firms - including Twitter - moving in, the neighborhood may be moving in a different direction.  Plans have cleared city approval, and work seems to be underway.

Anglo-California National Bank

Another bank temple by Albert Pissis was the one for the Anglo-California National Bank.  The bank was formed around the turn of the 20th Century when two earlier banks, one with English connections and the other French, were merged owing to changes in the California regulations regarding foreign banks.  The new institution was under the direction of Herbert Fleishacker who would become a philanthropist of note. 

Eventually, the Anglo-California merged with Crocker Bank and a few mergers and sales further on, is now a part of Wells Fargo.

The building, like the Borel Bank, is a victim of "façadism" - retaining only the shell of the building to minimally satisfy preservationist intentions. The structure has been gutted, given a sky-light and now serves as the forecourt for a big corporate tower. 

Antoine Borel Bank

A type of architecture that has quickly become obsolete in our era is the bank temple.  In the nineteenth century, banks felt a need to communicate such values as probity, stability and solvency to their clients by building offices resembling classical temples.  Albert Pissis created several.

Antoine Borel arrived in California from Switzerland in 1861, joining his brother Albert who was already here, operating as a commission banker for Swiss clients.  Albert would soon return home, but Antoine remained until his death in 1915.  The Borel bank was what is now known as a "private bank", conservatively investing wealthy depositors' funds in stocks and bonds rather than commercial loans.

Borel served many years as the Swiss Consul in San Francisco and was also on the boards of several large local companies, such as Spring Valley Water Company and California Street Railway, and participated in the restructuring of the Bank of California after its 1874 failure.  He married locally and was survived by five daughters and a son.  Descendants are prominent in banking, real estate and other businesses, mainly in San Mateo County.

The building was completed in 1908, a perfectly proportioned two story Corinthian Facade on a narrow 27 foot front.  In recent years it has since been clumsily incorporated into a much larger office tower.


California Casket Company

Here is another building I can find little information about.  There can be little doubt what business the original proprietors were engaged in, but the name is so generic that any web search is thorny with ads and I can get nowhere.

Construction commenced in 1905 and in 1906 it was nearly complete but yet to be occupied.  Fire damage delayed completion until 1909.  There are aerial photographs of the devastation of 1906.  Then, as now, it stood somewhat aloof from its neighbors.  Today, it sits in that peculiar no man's land that is Mission Street between 5th and 6th, although it is barely a block south of the Chronicle Building and around the corner from the old Mint. 

Despite the evident neglect on the otherwise pretty facade, it is in active use.  I have found entries for dozens of tenants -- some current, some past -- including a theatre company, a "Taxi School" and the San Francisco Chefs Association.

White House Department Store

Once one of the biggest department stores in the city, the firm officially known as Raphael Weill & Co. was born as Davidson & Lane in June of 1854.  Weill joined the firm the following year and became a partner upon Lane's retirement in 1858. In 1863 they moved from quarters on Sacramento to the Lick block on Montgomery.  Then in 1870 built their own building at Post and Kearny. 

In 1885 Lane retired, and Weill continued with his brother, Henry Weill, Eugene Gallvis and Albert Roullier as partners.  All four were French by birth and Jewish.  Weill was legendary for his generosity. When the city - including his store - was destroyed in 1906, he donated 5000 dresses and ladies' suits to the relief effort.  When a number of his staff were drafted in WWI, he kept them on his payroll at half wages for the duration.  His was one of the first firms to offer vacation and sick pay. He was also a founding member of the Bohemian Club, in which he was very active, and served for a time on the Board of Education.

The store's name appears to stem from a resemblance between the Kearny store and the Grand Maison de Blanc in Paris.  After the fire, Alert Pissis was hired to design the new building at Grant & Sutter.  He chose a Beaux Arts design with Federalist overtones, probably more than coincidentally recalling the President's house in Washington DC.

The Store closed in the 1965, a victim of changing times.  The building, however has survived.  In another example of adaptive re-use, the first floor continues in retail as the flagship of the Banana Republic Stores, and the upper floors now serve as a parking garage.

Lane Library


In the same block as Temple Sherith Israel, at the corner of Sacramento & Webster, is the Lane Library, built in 1912.

The library is currently known as the Health Sciences Library and affiliated with the adjacent California Pacific Medical Center.  It began as part of the Cooper Medical School, which merged with Stanford University in 1908.  It was endowed by a gift from Dr. Levi Cooper Lane, one of the founders of the Cooper School.


It was vacated in 1959 when Stanford moved the Medical School to Palo Alto.  Then, in 1970, after some years as little more than a storage facility it was renovated and rededicated as a library for both the Medical Center and the University of the Pacific School of Dentistry.  Today, it is a state of the art facility although little changed from its original design,


Temple Sherith Israel

While one struggles finding the story in some buildings, others have abundant stories.  One such is Temple Sherith Israel.

To begin with it is one of the oldest synagogues in the United States, and is one part of the oldest congregation in California.  It split almost immediately from the other, Temple Emmanu-el.  The latter chose to follow the prayer practice of its largely Bavarian congregation, while Sherith Israel chose to observe the practice of Polish Jews from Posen.

The building was commissioned in 1902 and consecrated in 1905.  Pissis, a Catholic, no doubt secured the commission because of his acknowledged ability and reputation as well as his influential connections in the Jewish Community.

In the aftermath of 1906, Sherith Israel was one of the few undamaged public buildings in the city.  It therefore served for a time as venue for the city's Municipal Courts.  It was here that the graft trials of Mayor Eugene Schmitz and political Boss Abe Reuf were held, and Reuf convicted.

For many years the building has been covered with the pink paint that can still be seen around the dome, in the mistaken belief that it would inhibit the natural flaking - known as "spalling" - of the Colusa Sandstone cladding.  Actually, by trapping moisture against the surface, it has accelerated the process.

The recent work on the building - removal of the old paint, cleaning and restoration, and state mandated seismic upgrades - has revealed some interesting information about the original design team. 

Some of the stained glass was created by painter Emile Pissis.  It is the only known collaboration between the two Pissis brothers.  These works are also among a small handful of surviving works of any kind by Emile.

Additionally, the frescoes in the building were done by Milan born Attilio Moretti, a prolific designer of religious sanctuaries and memorials who died in 1915.  It is believed that the frecoes here are his only surviving work of this type.