With Respect to the Dead ... the Daphne Funeral Home

"I think I’ll come over in the middle of the night, with a ladder."

Michael Blackford is standing with me in front of the Daphne Funeral Home at the corner of Church and Herman Streets in San Francisco.

"I’d like to grab some of those vertical siding pieces from a less conspicuous area of the building, get on the ladder, and just replace the broken ones ..."

The new handful of splintered siding that now stands out against an unadorned background of redwood is an eyesore. Michael, a cabinet-maker by trade, is going to do a vigilante repair job on the siding; he neither owns the property nor lives on site, yet he doesn’t want this blemish to remain. If this structure gives the impression of being in disrepair, the state may be that much less likely to nominate it to the National Register of Historic Places.

pretty... or pretty ugly

The story at One Church Street in San Francisco started in the late 1940’s when Nicholas Daphne, a patron of modern architecture, commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a local expression of modernism in the form of a funeral services parlor for the Mint Hill area. Although Daphne was an admirer of the California modern aesthetic, his professional relationship with the renowned architect proved dysfunctional before ground was broken. He then turned to A. Quincy Jones, of Jones and Emmons in Los Angeles, to realize his vision and version of modernism.

Jones delivered in 1953; Daphne’s San Francisco Funeral Service embodies the Bay Region style. This building is quintessentially Modern. Terrazzo flooring at the main entry glides evenly under floor-to-ceiling glazing that seems to only reluctantly acknowledge a transition from outside to in. A ramp rises to meet a second level that hangs delicately over the driveway, supported by thin steel posts. Not unlike other modern structures, the little commercial building was inadvertently ahead of its time with respect to disabled-accessibilty codes that require these kinds of seamless transitions from inside to out, and from one level to another.

The Daphne’s free plan illustrates a modernist’s take on materiality; it is obsessed with the separation of building functions into zones composed of distinct architectural features; and, though the Modernists would deny it, most casual viewers give it the wavering horizontal thumb. In spite of some of this glowing language, they think it’s sort of ugly.

Today, I am here with Blackford, who lives across the street. We’ve been discussing the recent turn of events that has threatened to destroy this, the view from his one-window Herman St. apartment, hoping Daphne’s widow doesn’t come around and ask us to leave the property before we’ve had a chance to talk about it together and take some photos. After all, we are trespassing. From what Blackford’s has told me, I’m guessing that Mrs. Daphne has no desire to see disciples of California Modernism nor other would-be preservationists interfere with her already difficult decision to sell her late husband’s modest treasure to an affordable housing developer. He says she has been especially vigilant these days.

affordable housing in san francisco

The term is a catch phrase around the Bay Area, a sound-byte. Since I work in the non-profit housing development field, I use it or hear it used many times a day. In the Tenderloin and even in the Financial District, it’s hard to not to notice that homelessness and poverty in the inner-city loom just as bitter and desperate, if not more so, than in other large American cities like New York and Los Angeles. I have visited sites where affordable housing is under construction and been approached by people on the street who ask, "Please, when will it be ready? We’re waiting." With the cost of housing on the rise for every economic class - a room in a shoddy single-room-occupancy hotel in the Tenderloin can go for five-hundred bucks a month - the development of affordable housing is critical.

Bridge Housing is a local developer working to address this need. The organization wants to build 93 units of affordable housing on the Daphne site, which it has been in the process of purchasing over the past year. At the time of negotiation, Bridge was confident that the preservation issue posed no threat to new construction because the Daphne was younger than the requisite 50 years of age to be considered for landmark status.

But, despite her relative youth (and despite the nobility of Bridge’s intent), several forces have mobilized to stop the demolition, whether Daphne is officially considered "historic" or not. San Francisco Heritage, San Francisco Beautiful, DOCOMOMO (Documentation and Conservation of buildings, sites and neighborhoods of the Modern Movement), as well as a local group, headed by Blackford and dubbed the Coalition to Save the Daphne, are determined to block Bridge’s present proposal as it stands. Also among those offering support for the Daphne’s preservation are Aaron Betsky, curator of architecture and design at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Mitchell Schwartzer, associate professor at California College of Arts and Crafts; Marc Treib, professor of architecture at U.C. Berkeley; Alan Hess, architecture critic, writer and educator; Ray Kappe, SCI-Arc founding director; and members of The Eichler Network, a group dedicated to preserving Eichler homes designed by architects like Jones and Emmons.

Now, in the spring of 1999, the conflict of interest between affordable housing advocates and preservationists has gained focus. Architects like Hess claim that "the goals of insuring San Francisco’s architectural quality and diversity and of providing proper affordable housing need not be in conflict," yet here they may be, at least on the surface. What is an organization like Bridge Housing to think, after mounting enthusiasm for a generous development in a prime location, only to be countered by such opposition? And how are earnest supporters of the Daphne, like Blackford, to reconcile their love for a unique San Francisco landmark with their sincere desire to see an improvement in the city’s housing shortage crisis?

Perhaps there is a need to examine why we preserve important elements of history in the first place. What do we gain, exactly, by saving the Daphne?

learning from the shoebox

"If a building is important to the character of a community and if it’s beloved and recognized as a symbol, then it’s a landmark [regardless of age]... as for underlying objective, age is probably unimportant. It’s a question of what you can learn from a building."1

No doubt, the Daphne still has loads to teach us. Contemporary buildings erected in the later part of this century were constructed to a different standard, at a different pace, and to a different level of detail than those of previous eras. Now, components that used to be custom-designed are often ready-made or chosen from catalogs, based on cost or code or availability. In the arena of affordable housing design where money is tight and durability is key, this is sometimes even more likely to be the case. Given that, shouldn’t we be even more sensitive to destroying an example from a time when buildings were still unique?

When I spoke to Mitchell Schwartzer of CCAC, I heard him echo these sentiments. 1) that the Daphne possesses a particular design excellence 2) that its scale and craft give it a singular status among San Francisco buildings 3) that for this uniqueness, it should be spared. "In any case, you’d want to preserve the best examples of the city’s architectural diversity and history, or else people won’t understand San Francisco," he remarked. "We can’t say not to value it just because it’s difficult to understand or embrace," referring to the building’s questionable popularity among those not involved with the design fields (the majority of San Francisco, believe it or not).

Schwartzer and I also talked about civic values. When trying to determine what we gain from salvaging this building, is it important that the building still "resonate" within the city? Must it still be reflective of San Francisco’s value system, in order to be worthy of preservation? Take a look at San Francisco (if you’re close enough). This city is incredibly retro-active. The trend here is to wear 1950s clothes, dance to postwar music, drive 50s cars, and get our bangs cut really short and straight. If we appreciate all of this mid-century styling, doesn’t San Francisco then value the Daphne? "People will come back to an interest in clean lines in architectural design, just as they have come back to 50s clothing and furniture," said Schwartzer.

There are legitimate reasons to save this structure, reasons that go beyond satisfying the whim of a specialized population of designers and historians. But what of Bridge and the proposal for affordable housing? What do we do, now that we have two winning bidders in this battle for equal chunks of San Francisco’s past and future?

an architecture of compromise

As we try to figure out how to deal with the controversy, we should look at the point where these factions split off and began to make trouble for each other. One solution might have been agreeable to both camps creates an adaptive re-use of the Daphne. The reclamation of the building, not unlike the rehabilitation of families through community efforts like the construction of affordable housing, would allow the Daphne to grow from a poorly maintained and unproductive structure to a living part of a bigger organism. This is the architecture of compromise, yet also a potentially funky and enlightened architecture (witness the magic of a well-conceived re-use).

It’s probably too late for some fusion-inspired solution to happen here. This building may become an untouchable museum piece, if nominated to the National Register. Or, in spite of the preservationists’ efforts, it may be torn down completely. But unless the ghost of Matta-Clark is there to meet the wrecking ball, there will be no gray area between full salvation and full demolition. Why can’t the Daphne become a seed for some architect’s imagination?

There may be many reasons, but the main factor differentiating this building from the examples by ROTO, Tschumi and Fisher Friedman, is that in the latter three projects the integration of an existing structure was a priority from the start. Here, to consider an incorporation of the Daphne buildings into an affordable housing development at this late stage, Bridge would have to scrap most or all of its current architectural and social planning for the site. It would also have to put together an entirely new funding proposal and write all new grants to finance the deal. Developers struggle to assemble very delicately allocated monies; if anything changes in the makeup of the number of units dedicated to families, the number dedicated to AIDS sufferers, or the number dedicated to single men, millions of dollars are lost to Bridge and the funding scheme must be conceived anew. A non-profit like Bridge would be forced to pull out of the deal and the project would be lost.

better luck next time?

The fate of the Daphne is wrapped up in money, politics, conflicted interests, strong personalities and drama - nothing new in the world of conspicuous architecture. Currently, the application for eligibility to the National Register is still in process and is about to be submitted by San Francisco Heritage with help from the Coalition to Save the Daphne. Michael Blackford says he’s optimistic about saving the buildings from demolition. Ruthy Talansky of Bridge told me she believes the Coalition will not be able to block the unconditional sale of the building, and that the development will proceed as intended.

In either case, the city gains one thing and loses another. If we had wanted to lose neither and gain more than the sum of two parts, we might have reused the existing buildings. As a community, we could be more watchful of our architectural resources before they are jeopardized, especially buildings that are not Edwardian or Victorian, but still worthy of preservation.

If the Daphne should fall, at least we can look at an affordable housing development as a positive addition to the city of San Francisco. If not, Blackford’s front yard will remain tranquil, as Jones had intended, for another 50 years.