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Medieval San Francisco

In my first quarter teaching at Pacific Union College in Napa County, California, I got assigned an upper-division class about medieval Europe. PUC is close to a wide range of educational resources, as it is located within striking distance of San Francisco, Sacramento, the Pacific Coast, and the Sierra Nevadas. Had I been teaching California history, I might have considered taking my class to Mission Dolores in San Francisco, or perhaps the barracks at Sonoma. But when I was planning my class about the Middle Ages, it never crossed my mind that there might in fact be resources related to medieval Europe in the area as well.

Then, once the quarter was well underway, I discovered that San Francisco has its very own (neo-) Gothic cathedral, standing atop Nob Hill and looking at least a little like the great churches built in England, France, Germany, and elsewhere in Europe during the High Middle Ages. All of a sudden, it occurred to me that there might be other relics of the Middle Ages in San Francisco as well—whether authentic or, like this cathedral, mere imitations. It was much too late in the quarter to incorporate San Francisco into my curriculum, and at any rate, I didn’t have time to catch my breath while teaching three classes for the first time. But after the quarter finished, I set off to investigate whether San Francisco—a North American city founded in the eighteenth century—could teach me something about medieval Europe.

Grace Cathedral

The first stop on my medieval San Francisco tour was Grace Cathedral, the church on Nob Hill. Built in stages from 1927 to 1964, Grace Cathedral has a structure of steel and concrete that is designed to be earthquake-safe. The architecture is primarily based on French Gothic examples, although certain elements were taken from Spanish and English churches.

Facade of Grace Cathedral.

Facade of Grace Cathedral.

Looking up at the facade of Grace Cathedral.

Looking up at the facade of Grace Cathedral.

Backside of Grace Cathedral.

Backside of Grace Cathedral.

Almost all signage at the cathedral is written in this quasi-medieval uncial script.

Almost all signage at the cathedral is written in this quasi-medieval uncial script.

Although work on the church stopped in 1964, it has never really been finished—in much the same way that many medieval cathedrals were left incomplete. The vaults of the nave have not been filled in, and many of the wall and column surfaces are bare concrete. The parts of the church that have been completed look terrific; the rest, less so.

View from the completed choir back into the nave with its incomplete vaults.

View from the completed choir back into the nave with its incomplete vaults.

The apse of Grace Cathedral.

The apse of Grace Cathedral. I’m not sure why that little bit of vault at the very top of the picture has been filled in while the rest has been left open.

The most impressive part of the cathedral for me was the Chapel of Grace, which has been completed in its entirety. It has an early-modern altarpiece.

Chapel of Grace (completed 1930).

Chapel of Grace (completed 1930).

Along the walls in the aisles are murals illustrating a variety of scenes, including the construction of the cathedral and the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945.

Mural of the construction of the cathedral.

Mural of the construction of the cathedral.

Mural of the founding of the UN (difficult to photograph because a Christmas tree was in the way).

Mural of the founding of the UN (difficult to photograph because a Christmas tree was in the way).

The cathedral is full of art, ranging from an actual medieval Spanish crucifix to a triptych completed in 1990 by Keith Haring.

Thirteenth-century Spanish crucifix.

Thirteenth-century Spanish crucifix.

Copy of a window from Chartres Cathedral.

Copy of a window from Chartres Cathedral.

Some archaic musical notation mounted on the wall.

Some archaic musical notation mounted on the wall.

The Keith Haring triptych in the AIDS Memorial Chapel.

The Keith Haring triptych in the AIDS Memorial Chapel.

I was also surprised to discover that the cathedral has copies of the doors of the bapistry at the cathedral in Florence, a famous piece of art from the early Renaissance. The doors in San Francisco were made from casts of the originals taken during World War II.

The cathedral's Ghiberti Doors.

The cathedral’s Ghiberti Doors.

Detail of the Jacob and Esau scene from the Ghiberti doors.

Detail of the Jacob and Esau scene from the Ghiberti Doors.

Portal of Santa María Óvila

The next stop on my tour was the campus of the University of San Francisco, a Jesuit institution on the western side of the city near Golden Gate Park. An outdoor theater in the back of Kalmanovitz Hall has a portal from Santa María de Óvila, a Cistercian monastery built in Spain between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. By the twentieth century, the monastery had fallen into disuse, and in the 1930s, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst bought large parts of it and had the stones crated and shipped to San Francisco. Although he planned to rebuild the monastery on one of his estates, that never happened, and the disassembled stones spent decades in Golden Gate Park. The de Young Museum assembled just the monastery’s church portal in 1965, but this was transferred to USF after the museum opened a new, earthquake-safe facility.

Portal of Santa María de Óvila.

Portal of Santa María de Óvila.

As a bonus, right inside Kalmanovitz Hall is another bit of medieval architecture, identified by a plaque on the wall as a “twelfth century Italian Romanesque portal.” It was gifted to USF by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (the Legion of Honor and the de Young Museum).

Portal from twelfth-century Italy.

Portal from twelfth-century Italy.

Detail of the top of the portal.

Detail of the top of the portal.

By the way, the rest of the stones for Hearst’s monastery were eventually transferred to New Clairvaux, a working Cistercian monastery in the Sacramento Valley. The stones were made into a new chapter house, which opened in 2012.

Modern statues of medieval warriors at the Legion of Honor

The last stop on my medieval San Francisco tour was the Legion of Honor, an art museum on a hilltop overlooking the Golden Gate and the city.

In front of the museum are two modern statues of medieval warriors: Rodrigo Díaz and Jeanne d’Arc.

I was especially interested in the statue of Rodrigo Díaz a.k.a. El Cid, an eleventh-century soldier of fortune who was exiled from his native Castile and set up an independent principality in Valencia. In the first medieval history class I taught, I had my students read The Song of the Cid, a twelfth-century fictionalization El Cid’s life and career.

Your blogger with El Cid and Babieca.

Your blogger with El Cid and Babieca.

The Legion of Honor’s statue of El Cid astride his horse Babieca was sculpted by Anna Hyatt Huntington in 1921. This cast was made about six years later.

Every vein on Babieca's huge bronze body is bulging.

Every vein on Babieca’s huge bronze body is bulging.

Anna’s husband Archer had translated The Song of the Cid into English, and this sculpture seems to be based on the fictionalized character in the epic.

El Cid could see the Golden Gate Bridge if he would just turn his head.

El Cid could see the Golden Gate Bridge if he would just turn his head.

The other statue, also by Anna Hyatt Huntington, is Jeanne d’Arc, better known in English as Joan of Arc, the French peasant who led her people to some morale-boosting victories against the English in the Hundred Years’ War. I’d had my students read Joan’s threatening letter to the English, and I had just watched the Luc Besson film The Messenger (1999), so Joan was on my mind too.

Joan of Arc is going to have trouble fighting the English without the blade of her sword. Just saying.

Joan of Arc is going to have trouble fighting the English without the blade of her sword. Just saying.

Pedestal of the Joan of Arc statue.

Pedestal of the Joan of Arc statue.

The design of Joan’s armor seems to be based on a fifteenth-century miniature painting of her.

Late medieval miniature of Joan of Arc in armor.

Late medieval miniature of Joan of Arc in armor.

Real-life medieval artifacts inside the Legion of Honor

Inside the Legion of Honor museum, there is a gallery of actual medieval artifacts.

This Madonna with child is from thirteenth-century Lorraine.

This Madonna with child is from thirteenth-century Lorraine.

Adam and Eve being confronted by God from fourteenth-century Spain.

Adam and Eve being confronted by God from fourteenth-century Spain.

Ceiling from the Palacio de Altamira, fifteenth-century Spain. This remarkable piece of architecture shows clear Moorish influence.

Ceiling from the Palacio de Altamira, fifteenth-century Spain. This remarkable piece of architecture shows clear Moorish influence.

Thus ended my tour of medieval San Francisco. As it turns out, San Francisco does have something to tell me about the Middle Ages in Europe. Despite being a modern building, Grace Cathedral got me thinking about what it might have felt like to visit one of the great cathedrals during the High Middle Ages. Anna Hyatt Huntington’s statues of El Cid and Joan of Arc made me consider how we remember and make use of the medieval past. And at USF and the Legion of Honor, I got to see actual relics of the Middle Ages in Europe. These places made me think about the Middle Ages in different ways than I could have by just looking at books. They could inspire my students to think differently as well.

Benjamin Franklin Bridge

Farewell factories, hello luxury lofts

Industry in North America has changed enormously in the seven decades since World War II. Manufacturing has moved away from the industrial heartland of the northeastern and midwestern United States and eastern Canada, to other parts of the continent or overseas.

This process is commonly referred to as deindustrialization. I don’t like this term, because it seems to imply that the industrial revolution has somehow ended and moved on from a region or a country. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least not in the case of North America. The ex-industrial heartland of North America still has plenty of manufacturing—Ford Motor Company still has an enormous operation in Dearborn, Michigan, for example—and people living there continue to live by the clock, consume large amounts of energy, and use manufactured goods. The United States is no longer the world’s leader in manufacturing, but it holds the second place with a very comfortable lead over third-place Japan.

Yet even if the term deindustrialization is misleading, its effects are real enough. The closing down of a major operation in an industrial town can be traumatic, as the town loses a major source of tax revenue and the employees lose their jobs and union wages. The effect of industrial relocation is portrayed in a memorable (if maudlin) way in Michael Moore’s 1989 debut film Roger & Me.

Another example of industrial relocation appears in a book I read way back in my first semester of grad school: Capital Moves: RCA’s Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor, by Jefferson Cowie. The book describes how the Radio Corporation of America moved its manufacturing from New Jersey to Indiana, Tennessee (briefly), and finally northern Mexico.

RCA made some of the twentieth century’s most popular consumer electronics products, radios and televisions. At its peak, it was one of most profitable companies in the country. Thirty Rockefeller Plaza in Midtown Manhattan, now called the Comcast Building, was originally named the RCA Building.

RCA opened its first factory in 1929 in Camden, New Jersey, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. The factory produced radios, the hottest consumer electronic product of its day. Management had hoped that the largely female workforce of the factory would not be interested in unionization. When the workers did unionize after a four-week strike—and with help from Depression-era labor legislation known as the Wagner Act—management decided to set up a new facility with a new, non-unionized workforce in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1940. Over time, as RCA and other industries left Camden, the former industrial tracts of the city turned into a desolate wasteland of boarded-up factories.

At length, and after a short but failed venture in Memphis, Tennessee, RCA moved its manufacturing of consumer electronics out of the United States entirely, and across the border to Ciudad Juárez in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. The RCA operation in Bloomington finally closed down in 1998, after the laserdisc players manufactured there had failed to become popular.

Two months ago, I went to a conference in Philadelphia, and out of curiosity I skipped a few sessions and rode a train across the Delaware to check out the remains of RCA’s industrial empire in Camden. Like many cities in the old industrial heartland of North America, Camden is slowly being redeveloped, its old factories and warehouses being torn down or converted to new uses.

RCA Building #17 still stands tall above Camden, its ten-story tower visible from parts of Philadelphia. In 2003, it was converted into apartments, with some commercial space on the ground floor.

RCA Building #17 in its new incarnation as a luxury apartment building.

RCA Building #17 in its new incarnation as a luxury apartment building.

Detail of the tower of the RCA factory, with the company's logo in stained glass.

Detail of the tower of the RCA factory, with the company’s logo in stained glass.

Awning of The Victor, as the building has been rebranded.

Awning of The Victor, as the building has been rebranded.

Plaque on The Victor.

Plaque on The Victor.

I am glad that the RCA factory was saved from the wrecking ball, although I wonder if the redevelopers could have come up with more creative uses for the building. As RCA Building #17 and its neighbors are transformed from boarded-up shells to luxury lofts, Camden is leaping from one urban crisis to another. The new urban crisis is caused by ballooning property values that make the city classist and segregated.

This is not a problem that I can solve in this short blog post—or anywhere. But it is something that should give pause to the redevelopers of old urban industrial sites.

New luxury lofts in the works in Camden.

New luxury lofts in the works in Camden.

Brooklyn Bridges pan

Exploring Brooklyn’s battlefield

In 2014, I spent part of the summer in Washington, DC, researching for my dissertation at the National Archives and Library of Congress. On weekends and some afternoons, I explored the city and surrounding region, and I even made longer trips to Pennsylvania and New York. As I traveled around, I kept running across sites or artifacts associated with the American Revolutionary War. The more I saw and read about the Revolution, the more I became aware of how little I knew about that part of history.

I made up my mind to read The Glorious Cause, by Robert Middlekauff, the volume of the Oxford History of the United States about the Revolution. The book is long, so it took me a while (I had to take a lengthy break in the middle), but it was worth reading, because I learned much that I, as a historian of the twentieth century, had never before had occasion to learn. (Since my fateful summer of 2014, interest in the Revolutionary War has gone mainstream, thanks to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton.)

While reading The Glorious Cause, I was particularly fascinated by Middlekauff’s narrative of the Battle of Long Island, also known as the Battle of Brooklyn—an engagement I had never heard of before. The Battle of Brooklyn (August 26-30, 1776) was the first major military engagement of the American Revolution after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence two months earlier. British troops, under the command of General William Howe, landed on Long Island and attacked the Americans under George Washington. (These events are covered in the Hamilton song “Right-hand Man.”) The American forces were protected behind the hills known as the Heights. The passes nearest the American positions in Brooklyn (then a village independent of Manhattan) were well defended, but the British circumvented the defenses by taking the lightly-defended Jamaica Pass to the east. A contingent of Marylanders died holding the main body of the British troops off at the Vechte farm, but most of the rest of Washington’s army escaped across the East River to Manhattan, surviving to fight another day.

In the 240 years since the battle, Brooklyn has grown to engulf the farmlands and woodlands where British and Continentals clashed. Scattered around the borough are sites associated with the battle, some marked with plaques, others not (but all listed in detail in this comprehensive guide). In addition to gentrified brownstones, hipster lofts, and forbidding project housing, Brooklyn has its own Revolutionary War battlefield. Brooklyn has it all.

In March this year, I spent a day exploring Brooklyn, looking for sites that had to do with the battle or the Revolution in general. I found two sites particularly interesting.

The first was Prospect Park, site of a pass where American troops were routed by Hessian mercenaries fighting on the British side. The park, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (whose other credits include Central Park in Manhattan and the US Capitol grounds) preserves part of the landscape of the battlefield, which has been lost under buildings and streets most everywhere else in the borough.

On a hillside in the park stands a monument to “Maryland’s Four Hundred,” who fell holding back the British (or “saved the American army,” in the exaggerated wording of the monument). The mention of the number of Marylanders is a not-so-subtle reference to the Three Hundred Spartans, who held the Persian army off at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, while the armies of other Greek city-states escaped to regroup and ultimately defeat the Persians. The placement of the monument to 400 Marylanders in the park, near the battle pass, is another reference to Thermopylae, because the Spartans died defending a pass. But despite the monument’s claim that the Marylanders performed their great deed “on this battlefield,” they did not fight in a pass; they fought on a farm, more than a mile from the monument.

Memorial to "Maryland's Four Hundred" in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

Memorial to “Maryland’s Four Hundred” in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.

Misleading inscription on the memorial to "Maryland's Four Hundred."

Misleading inscription on the memorial to “Maryland’s Four Hundred.”

The site of that farm is the other especially interesting site related to the Battle of Brooklyn. The old farm is also a park—not a grand park like Prospect, but a small municipal park with a playground and athletic fields. In the middle of the park stands the Old Stone House. Originally built in 1699, the Vechte Farmhouse went to ruin and was demolished around 1900, but then in the 1930s the stones were dug up and the house reconstructed from drawings. The ground floor contains a small, free museum about the battle and its context.

The reconstructed Vechte farmhouse, Washington Park, Brooklyn.

The reconstructed Vechte farmhouse, Washington Park, Brooklyn.

The Old Stone House isn’t exactly the Vechte Farmhouse that stood there during the battle. It is a twentieth-century building made of seventeenth-century parts. But that doesn’t matter to me. What does matter is that there is plenty of continuity with the past, there and at other sites associated with the Battle of Brooklyn. There may be no national park for the battlefield, as there are for Saratoga and Yorktown. Instead, remnants of the eighteenth-century battle and its memorialization live on in twenty-first-century New York City.

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