I was captivated by the architecture of the Showhouse and the intriguing dormer windows on the third floor. When the architecture spoke to me, I knew I had to investigate and learn more about the architect. This is what I learned.
Albert Farr, the architect who designed the house chosen for the 2010 San Francisco University High School Decorator Showcase (located at 3450 Washington Street), was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1871 and was raised in Japan where his father worked to establish the postal system. He came to SF in 1890 at the age of 18.
His career began just as the First Bay Tradition began to upstage Victorian Architects, until the time Modernism began to emerge. Farr’s most famous project is Wolf house, built for Jack and Charmian London in Glen Ellen in Sonoma County. Begun in 1910, the 15,000 square foot house, two years into construction, tragically burned down in 1912, most likely due to the spontaneous combustion of linseed rags left in the house. Under-insured, London could not afford to rebuild. The ruins can be visited at the Jack London Historic State Park.
An Emerging Style: First Bay Tradition
Farr was an important architect in his own time, emerging in the early 20th century as a key part of the development of the “First Bay Tradition,” which included such greats as architects Ernest Coxhead, Willis Polk and Bernard Maybeck.
In the 1890’s and 1900’s, the First Bay Tradition, which combined styles with historical references, began to emerge. It specialized in combining vernacular in informal suburban homes and less formal city homes. Architects celebrated the awkward and rustic nature of this genre.
This combining of styles in varying periods into a look that was centered on the West Coast is what intrigued these architects. The style was not specific to a period as much as it was a study of the relationship between classic period and national styles. The juxtapositions of scale and materials would create a new paradigm that was deliberately slightly out of the norm. This odd mix of traditions was used in an unorthodox manner purposefully to convey a regionally specific look.
Farr incorporated many architectural styles into his own work that evolved over time during his 50 year career. The use of historical reference in architecture prevailed at the time and few were as adept as Farr in creating structures using such a wide variety of styles.
Albert Farr had a unique approach to his own view of this rustic Bay movement. Many examples of his works can be seen in Belvedere, Piedmont, Claremont, and Oakland, as well as San Francisco. His details include numerous gables, overhanging medieval half-timbered shingle designs with influences from Coxhead and Polk. This became a popular look that continued for many years. In fact, based on an erroneous building permit entry, the Showcase house was incorrectly attributed to Polk.
The Showcase House
The Decorator Showcase house was designed by Farr in 1929. It is reminiscent of the style of Henry IV at Place de Voges. The red brick structure, trimmed in stone, is topped by a steeply pitched slate roof. The symmetrical front obscures what appears to be an earlier Norman manor on the uphill side. There are turrets, multiple dormers and roof details.
It has large interior public spaces and high ceilings, both features often seen in Farr homes. He gave special attention to the third level of homes that was often left as undeveloped attic space and he did this at 3450 Washington. Knowing this, I see what drew me to the room I’ll be designing for the Showcase – The room is small but the dormer window create a compelling charm; a space that might have been forgotton but was creatively captured. A small door between the windows leads to a secret hiding place.
Construction over time is suggested by the way Farr uses varying styles in different parts of the structure. He creates a horizontal axis by leveling the platform in front, while the style becomes more vertical on the downhill side of the house.
Mixing Styles and Influence
Throughout his career Albert Farr worked with Latin influences, both Spanish and Italian, using a Mediterranean vernacular years preceding the popularity of Spanish Colonial revival in the 1920’s. Mission motifs can be seen in some of his earliest works. His interpretation is subtle, inventive and unexpected.
Farr’s work is incorrectly termed “period revival.” He was interested in combining styles rather than recreating exact period works. He created styles that combined Italian baroque, French, Moorish, Gothic, Medieval, English Georgian, Tudor and more. Again, I see why I was so drawn to the architecture, as I love mixing different periods and styles, in my own design aesthetic.
Farr’s importance has gone relatively unnoticed by historians. Knowledgeable clients have always been aware of his talents. Farr retired at the beginning of WWII and his work was upstaged by the onset of Modernism. Albert Farr passed away July 12, 1947 in Piedmont after a distinctive 50-year career.