Home -> John J. Newbegin -> The City of Domes -> Chapter 1

Previous Page Home Up One Level Next Page


The View From the Hill

"The best way to see the Exposition, in my opinion," said the architect, "is to stand on the top of the Fillmore Street hill and look down. Then you will find out what the architects were up to. The finest point of observation would be at the corner of Divisadero Street and Broadway."

The next day, as we stood at that point, the Exposition stretched out beneath us like a city of the Orient.

"When the architects first discussed the construction they knew it was to be looked at from these hills. So they had to have a scheme that should hide the skylight and avoid showing lack of finish on top and that should be pictorial and impressive from above. One of the problems was to make the roof architectural. Now as we look down, see how stunning the effect is - like a Persian rug."

"And the color helped there, too, didn't it?"

"Of course. And notice how skilfully the architecture and the coloring harmonized. As the Exposition was to be built on low, flat ground, it had to be lifted up. One way was by using the domes. The central portion of each of those palaces was lifted above the main surface of the roof to introduce a row of semi-circular windows to light the interior like a church. And the domes, besides being ornamental in themselves, gave spring to the towers. The big tower provided scope for the splendid archway that served as an approach and set the standard for the other arches."

It was plain enough that the top of the Exposition had not received the praise it deserved. "Think how crude that scene would have been if it had presented a straggling mass of roofs. And even as it is, with its graceful lines, if it were lacking in color it would seem crude. Perhaps it will help us to realize how unsightly most of the roofs of our houses are, and how unfinished. There's no reason in the world why they should be. The Greeks and the Romans had the right idea. They were very sensitive to lack of finish. They felt the charm of decorated roofs. See that angel down there that keeps recurring at the points of the gables. What a pretty bit of ornamentation. The Greeks used it to suggest the gifts of the gods coming down from heaven. 'Blessings on this house.' I suppose the wreath in the hand used here was meant to suggest the crowning of the work. It explains why the figure is called "Victory." By the way, it has an architectural value in giving lightness and grace to the roofs."

The builders, we could see, had cleverly adapted their plans to the conditions. "The effect might so easily have been monotonous and cold, and it might have been flat and dreary. It was a fine idea to lift the central portion of each of those main palaces above the surfaces of the roofs to introduce the semicircular windows in the domes. It helped to infuse the scene with a kind of tenderness and spirituality. And see how the two groups on top of the triumphal arches, the Orientals and the Pioneers, contribute to the soaring effect and to the finish at the same time. The Romans disliked bareness on the top of their arches. They wanted life up there, the more animated the better. So they put on some of their most dramatic scenes, like their chariot races."

The expert proceeded to point out the architectural balance of the buildings. The severe and mighty Palace of Machinery, impressive in its long sweep of line, at one side made a dramatic contrast with the delicately imagined and poetic Palace of Fine Arts on the other. In front of the walled city, between the long stretch of garden, stood two harmonious buildings, the Palace of Horticulture, with its glorious roof of glass, and the Festival Hall, closely related in outline, and yet very different in detail. And the garden itself, with its dark, pointed trees standing against the wall, and with its simplicity of design, made an agreeable approach to the great arched entrance under the Tower of Jewels. "Those banners down there, shielding the lights, are a stroke of genius, both in their orange color and their shape. And those orange-colored streamers, how they add to the spirit of gaiety. The trees have been placed against the wall to keep it from seeming like a long and uninteresting stretch. And observe the grace in line of the niches between the trees. Even from here you can feel the warmth of the color in the paths. The pink effect is made by burning the sand. Only a man like Guerin, a painter, would have thought of that detail. I wonder how many visitors down there know that the very sand they walk on has been colored."

Around the Tower pigeons were flying, somehow relieving the mechanical outlines. Was the disproportion between the great arch, forming a kind of pedestal, and the outlines above due to mathematical miscalculation or to the interference of the ornamentation? We finally decided that the proportions had probably been right in the first place. But they had been changed by the Exposition authorities' cutting the Tower down one hundred feet, thereby saving $100,000. A matter of this kind could be reduced almost to an exact science. Besides, though the ornamentation interfered with the upward sweep of line, the effect of flatness was made by those horizontal blocks which seemed to be piled up to the top. If the outline had been clean, it would have achieved the soaring effect so essential to an inspiring tower, creating the sense of reaching up to the sky, like an invocation.

Thomas Hastings had a sound idea when he made that design. He wanted to do something Expositional, exactly as Guerin did when he applied the coloring. Now there were critics who said that the coloring was too pronounced. It reminded them of the theater. Well, that was just what it ought to remind them of. It had life, gaiety, abandon. The critic who said that the orange domes provided just the right tone, and that this tone ought to have been followed throughout, didn't make sufficient allowance for public taste. He wanted the Exposition to be an impressionistic picture in one key. But one key was exactly what Guerin didn't want. His purpose was to catch the excitement in variety of color as well as the warmth, to stimulate the mind. He succeeded in adapting his color scheme to architecture that had breadth and dignity. At first he expected to use orange, blue, and gold, carefully avoiding white. He did avoid white; but he expanded his color scheme and included brown and yellow and green. But, in that tower, Hastings did something out of harmony with the architecture, something barbaric and crude.

Here and there the bits of Austrian cut glass were sparkling on the tower like huge diamonds. "At times the thing is wonderfully impressive. There's always something impressive about a mass if it has any kind of uniformity, and here you can detect an intention on the part of the architect. There are certain lights that have a way of dressing up the tower as a whole, giving it unity and hiding its ugliness. And at all times it has a kind of barbaric splendor. It might have come out of an Aztec mind, rather childish in expression, and seeking for beauty in an elemental way. I can imagine Aztecs living up there in a barbaric fashion, their houses piled, one above another, like our uncivilized apartment houses."

In studying the Tower of Jewels in detail, we decided that it was not really so crude as it seemed on first sight. Much might be done even now by a process of elimination. And the arch was magnificent. "In its present condition the tower unquestionably provides a strong accent. It has already become a dominating influence here. But it's an influence that teaches people to feel and to think in the wrong way. It encourages a liking for what I call messy art, instead of developing a taste for the simplicity that always characterizes the best kind of beauty, the kind that develops naturally out of a central idea."

From the Tower of Jewels we turned our attention to those other towers, the four so charming in design and in proportion, Renaissance in feeling, their simplicity seeming all the more graceful on account of the contrast with the other tower's over-ornamentation. "I wonder what the world would have done without the Giralda Tower in Seville? It has inspired many of the most beautiful towers in the world. It helped to inspire McKim, Mead and White when they built the Madison Square Tower, and the Madison Square Tower might be described as a relative of our own Ferry Tower, which is decidedly one of the best pieces of architecture in San Francisco. And it's plain enough that these four towers and the Ferry Tower are related. The top of the four towers, by the way, has a history. It comes from the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, the little temple in Athens that was built by one of the successful chorus-leaders in the competitive choral dances of the Greeks, who happened to be a man of wealth. Afterward, when a chorus-leader won a prize, which consisted of a tripod, it was shown to the people on that monument."

"Some critics," I said, "have complained of the coloring and the pattern on those towers."

"They can't justify themselves, however. Though this plaster looks like Travertine, it nevertheless remains plaster, and it lends itself to plastic decoration. The Greeks and the Romans often used plaster, and they did not hesitate to paint it whenever they chose. Kelham's four towers have been criticised on account of their plastic design, which has a good deal of pink in it. But that design provides one of the strongest color notes in the whole Exposition, a delightful note, too. It happens that makers of wallpaper have had the good sense to use a design somewhat similar. But this fact does not make the design any the less attractive or serviceable."

Between the houses on the hill we could catch glimpses of the South Gardens between the glass dome of the Horticultural Palace and Festival Hall. The architects rightly felt that in general appearance they had to be French to harmonize with the French architecture on either side. In the distance the Fountain of Energy stood out, like a weird skeleton that did not wholly explain itself. Stirling Calder, the sculptor, must have forgotten that the outline of those little symbolic figures perched on the shoulder of his horseman would not carry their meaning.

Now, before our eyes, the Exposition revealed itself as a picture, with all the arts contributing. It suggested the earlier periods of art, when the art-worker was architect, painter and sculptor all in one.

Previous Page Home Up One Level Next Page