With one foot in the financial district and the other in the Union Square shopping district, Sutter Street between Montgomery and Kearny is a typical busy block in downtown San Francisco in pre-pandemic times filled with workers, shoppers, and tourists.

But the seven-story, glass-fronted building at 130 Sutter on the north side of the block across from the Crocker Galleria is nothing typical. Willis Polk’s Hallidie Building is one of the most revolutionary and strangest buildings in town.

The Hallidie Building, built in 1917, was the first American skyscraper with a glass facade. A curtain wall is essentially a huge window that forms the front wall of a building. Since it has no structural function and only has to support its own weight, it can be made of lightweight materials such as glass.

So many modern skyscrapers have glass facades that the Hallidie Building doesn’t seem anything special at first. On closer inspection, however, it shows that it is a unique creation.

Polk’s building is a strange and wonderful combination of austere modernism and Victorian confectionery. The glass facade, suspended one foot outside of the building’s reinforced concrete and whose large (for the time) reflective surface reflects the street and sky, has the simple, unadorned, shape-driven power of modern architecture.

But this towering Modernist wall is adorned with ornate gold-painted cast-iron decorations, including an oversized cantilevered Gothic eaves, ornate friezes, rounded balconies, and Gothic fire escapes, an overlay that architectural historians Sally and John Woodbridge called “San Francisco Architecture” in their travel guide. a Victorian window valance ”.

It’s one of the strangest design juxtapositions found in any building in the city – as if Picasso had painted a tutu on one of his Demoiselles d’Avignon – and makes the Hallidie building a unique masterpiece.

The Woodbridges write that “the facade of this building is more curtain-like than almost anything since then” and that the ornate decoration “adds to the impression that the glass grille is a curtain”. In “Splendid Survivors” Michael Corbett writes that the curtain wall of the building is “expressed as beautifully and cleanly as any glass facade built since then” and finds in its ornate decoration both a lovable homage to an older style and a delicious joke of its own self-contradictions.

In a way, it makes sense that the Hallidie building should be bold and conservative at the same time. For his architect, Willis Polk demonstrated both features himself.

The previous trivia question: Where did the first legal public execution take place in San Francisco?

Reply: Near the top of Russian Hill.

This week’s trivia question: Which immigrant nobleman is known as the father of California wine?

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Polk was born in Illinois in 1867 and trained in his architect father’s office in Kansas City, Missouri, before moving to New York, where he joined A. Page Brown and moved with them to San Francisco in 1889.

Brown soon became the leader of an architectural renaissance in the Bay Area. As Richard Longstreth writes in “On the Edge of the World: Four Architects in San Francisco at the Turn of the Century,” Brown, Polk, and their young colleagues found the city’s dominant Victorian style vulgar and commercial. Polk causticly called the Western Addition, the setting for many of the newest Victorians, “an architectural nightmare conceived in a reign of terror and produced by artistic anarchists.”

Brown, Polk, Maybeck, Julia Morgan, and other young architects led the revolt against Victorian style in homes. Ditching gaudy details and frilled woodwork, they created sleek, eclectic homes inspired by native California architectural traditions and nature, a style now known as the First Bay Tradition.

Polk’s own maisonette, a surviving seven-story building at 1013-17 Vallejo St., built in 1892, is a wonderful example of his eclecticism. Russian Hill historian William Kostura describes it as “a remarkable synthesis of East Coast clapboard style, medieval Bretanian urbanism, Joseph Worcester’s love of natural materials, hill-top bohemianism and Willis Polk’s creative genius”.

Polk’s talent was quickly recognized, but his arrogance and often outrageous behavior did not advance his career. Polk’s eccentricity was legendary and he handed out insults like party favors. When an east coast industrialist who wanted Polk to design a building told the architect that he admired his work, Polk replied, “I would be congratulated if I thought you knew about art.” Polk did Didn’t get commission.

But Polk’s fondness for abusive people didn’t stop him from becoming one of the city’s leading architects. His 1903 Merchants Exchange Building in California and Leidesdorff was one of the earliest large buildings of the downtown building boom before the quake. After the quake, Polk worked for James Burnham, proponent of City Beautiful, and designed more buildings than any other architect, including dignified buildings like the Mills Building, the Hobart Building, and the de Young Building.

Polk’s office buildings are formally correct, blend harmoniously into their surroundings and their decoration is restrained and tasteful. But they’re far more conservative than his housework, and not as individualistic or memorable. According to Longstreth, Polk’s association with Burnham was “a turning point in his career. … The individualism that he had so defiantly articulated in the 1890s was undermined by his yearning for prestige and recognition. “

But Polk had one final act of artistic rebellion in him: the Hallidie building. The former enfant terrible, now a 50-year-old whose best work was behind him, reached in to create his masterpiece.

How and why did he do it? “One can only speculate that Polk tried for a moment to be his old self again,” writes Longstreth. He notes that after Polk commissioned Bernard Maybeck to design the Palace of Fine Arts, Maybeck wrote to Polk: “You have erected (through me) a monument to your ideals and made a sacrifice for them – there is inside you long for the highest ideal … and I believe one morning you will wake up to cut out the other side that you consider important. “

Polk’s career declined afterwards and he died just seven years later. But in the twilight of his life he had done what Maybeck asked him to do: he had expressed his artistic vision. And his last great architectural testament is not only decades ahead of its time, it also serves as a kind of self-portrait.

Both sides of this Janus-faced creator, the revolutionary and the conservative, are not only visible, but are in constant dialogue – a witty and profound conversation between cast iron and shimmering glass that will amuse, instruct and inspire passers-by for as long as the Hallidie -Building on Sutter Street.

Gary Kamiya is the author of the bestselling book, Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco, which won the Northern California Book Award for creative non-fiction. His new book with drawings by Paul Madonna is “Ghosts of San Francisco: Travels through the Unknown City”. All material in Portals of the Past is original for The San Francisco Chronicle. To read previous portals in the past, go to sfchronicle.com/portals. For more features from 150 years of The Chronicle’s archive, visit sfchronicle.com/vault. Email: [email protected]