The gargoyles of San Francisco : medievalist architecture in Northern California 1900-1940

The gargoyles of San Francisco : medievalist architecture in Northern California 1900-1940

By James Harvey Mitchell, Jr.

Master’s Thesis, San Francisco State University, 2016

Castellated main entrance to San Quentin Prison. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Abstract: After the fire and earthquake of 1906, the reconstruction of San Francisco initiated a profusion of neo-Gothic churches, public buildings and residential architecture. This thesis examines the development from the novel perspective of medievalism—the study of the Middle Ages as an imaginative construct in western society after their actual demise. It offers a selection of the best known neo-Gothic artifacts in the city, describes the technological innovations which distinguish them from the medievalist architecture of the nineteenth century, and shows the motivation for their creation. The significance of the California Arts and Crafts movement is explained, and profiles are offered of the two leading medievalist architects of the period, Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan. The thesis concludes with a discussion of the ill-fated attempt to create a museum for medieval arts in the City, inspired by William Randoph Hearst’s donation of a monastery building imported from Spain.

Introduction: In the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake and fire which destroyed at least eighty per cent of the city, San Francisco experienced a profusion of building activity continuing without interruption until the slow slide into the Great Depression started in 1929. No stranger to idiosyncratic architectural styles, the city constructed in only three decades a wide variety of buildings incorporating medieval designs and ornamentation.

“Moorish Palace” architecture was chosen to contain a massive National Guard armory; a Gothic cathedral built of poured concrete which included a scaled-down replica of the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris was undertaken on Nob Hill; a Masonic Temple arose at Van Ness and Market disguised as a trecento Italian palazzo; and the stones from a monastery imported from Europe by William Randolph Hearst, planned for reassembly in Shasta County but then left abandoned in Golden Gate Park, were gathered to house a never-realized San Francisco Museum for Medieval Art.

Meanwhile the celebrated California Arts and Crafts architects Julia Morgan and Bernard Maybeck, working out of their offices in downtown San Francisco, created massively composed designs for the medieval halls of the Hearst residential palaces at San Simeon and Wyntoon, as well as designing elaborate medieval fireplaces and arched wooden ceilings to decorate the interiors of dozens of well-to-do homes in the Bay Area.

Click here to read this thesis from San Francisco State University

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