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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.

San Fransisco City Hall

How a colony helped found the United Nations

Just to the east of San Francisco’s grand Civic Center, UN Plaza is an unassuming pedestrian mall that hosts farmers’ markets and handicrafts fairs. Were it not for the name of the nearby BART (San Francisco metro) station, Civic Center/UN Plaza, it would be easy to miss UN Plaza among the grander spaces and buildings nearby—Civic Center, City Hall with its gold-trimmed dome, the Asian Art Museum, and the San Francisco Public Library. On either side of UN Plaza, behind the tents of the farmers’ markets, granite pillars are inscribed with the names of all member states of the United Nations, organized by the date of their entry into this global community.

UN Plaza, San Francisco, with City Hall in the background.

UN Plaza, San Francisco, with City Hall in the background.

UN Plaza is located here because it is where the United Nations was founded. With the ratification of the UN Charter in the War Memorial Veterans Building just west of City Hall, the UN came into existence on October 24, 1945 — seventy-two years ago today.

The first pillars in UN Plaza include the names of all fifty-one founding members of the United Nations. The names of the founding members include many names that one would expect to see on the list: Australia, Canada, Denmark, United States, USSR. But there is one name that doesn’t quite seem to fit: India.

How could India have been a founding member of the United Nations in 1945 if wasn’t even its own country yet? India would be a colony of the British Empire for another two years. How could a colony join a community of sovereign states?

The answer lies in the relations forged between India and the United States in World War II.

In March 1941, the US Congress passed the Lend-Lease bill after prolonged debate, enabling the United States to ship supposedly surplus arms to the embattled British Empire, which had been at war with Germany since 1939. At this point, the United States was still officially neutral—and would be until Pearl Harbor nine months later—but the Nazis’ blitzkrieg across Europe had led many American leaders to rethink their traditional stance of isolationism. American industry started to retool for arms production. (Much of the lend-lease aid was actually newly-produced, not surplus.)

As part of the British Empire, India qualified for lend-lease aid. The colony would serve as a staging-ground for the Allied war effort in the China-Burma-India theater. To coordinate aid shipments, the colonial Government of India set up a front office in New York, the India Purchasing Mission, in July 1941. It was the first official, government-to-government link between India and the United States. In 1942, the office was moved to Washington, DC and renamed India Supply Mission (ISM). Throughout the war, ISM coordinated aid from the United States and Canada to India.

When it came time for the United Nations Conference just after the war, India Supply Mission served as the official representative of India in San Francisco. The delegates from ISM would be colonial subjects for a little while longer, but they represented their country in the community of sovereign states.1

India Supply Mission continued to exist after the Indian Embassy was set up in Washington in 1946. After independence, ISM coordinated a different type of aid: development aid. From their office at 2342 Massachusetts Avenue NW, the bureaucrats of India Supply Mission saw to it that their country received the parts, equipment, and loan payments that industrialization demanded.

United Nations Secretariat, New York City, with flags of member states in the foreground.

United Nations Secretariat, New York City, with flags of member states in the foreground.

  1. India had earlier signed the “Declaration by the United Nations,” on January 1, 1942. During the war, the name “United Nations” referred to the Allied powers. After the San Francisco conference, the name acquired its modern meaning. []

Ethnic radio in America

Bolly 92.3, the San Francisco Bay Area’s Bollywood radio station, is a new manifestation of an American phenomenon as old as radio itself: the ethnic radio station.

Radio exploded onto the American scene in the boom years of the 1920s. Radio was the defining consumer product of this consumeristic decade, and listening to the radio was an activity for the masses, not the upper class. Listening to the radio was also a social activity. In the early years of radio, the first family in the neighborhood to buy a receiver set could expect neighbors to come over to listen to the radio. (In much the same way, as I observed eight years ago, houses in the Garo Hills with television sets or DVD players would attract the neighbors to come watch.)

In the first half of the 1920s, radio was effectively unregulated, decentralized, and community-oriented. In Chicago, only 4% of stations were commercial broadcasters; the rest of the stations were operated by labor unions, church groups, and other noncommercial community organizations.1

Radio was also popular among ethnic communities. Before 1924, immigration from Europe was virtually unrestricted, and immigrants flocked to the northern industrial cities. They settled in ethnic communities, where they could shop, worship, and socialize in their native languages. Chicago had German, Polish, Italian, Lithuanian, and other ethnic enclaves. In the 1920s, these communities had their own radio stations, which promoted community cohesion by giving people something to listen to in their native languages.

Radio was regulated under the 1927 Radio Act, and at the same time the airwaves began to get more commercialized, with companies sponsoring branded programs. Ethnic radio stations started to disappear as NBC and CBS took over the airwaves. Before long, ethnic neighborhoods began to disappear too, as their inhabitants started to assimilate into the American mainstream.

But neither ethnic neighborhoods nor their radio stations disappeared entirely. The immigrants who began coming to the United States in large numbers after immigration law reform in 1965—such as the Indians of the Bay Area—set up their own radio stations. There is at least one Slavic-language radio station still broadcasting in Chicago, Polski FM. I was happy to run across it on a rental car radio in northern Indiana last month. Whether it is a survivor or a revival (I couldn’t say which it is, since its broadcast and website are naturally all in Polish), it perpetuates a century-old tradition of ethnic radio in Chicago.

  1. All details about radio in Chicago are from Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 135-140. []

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