Architectural Ornament in Animal and Bird Forms

The animals commonly depicted on buildings exemplify desirable human character traits. The majestic lion, a sign of the zodiac and a symbol of the sun and its powers, was associated with authority in many cultures. In fact, the lion is a good example of an exotic beast that people recognized even before the advent of public zoos because it was often represented on or near public buildings.

The lion and the unicorn appear on either side of the clock above the entrance to the former Royal Globe Insurance Company’s building of 1907 at 201 Sansome Street. They are part of a British coat of arms used here because the company was based in London. The lion’s solar stateliness is paired with the unicorn’s lunar purity to signify the union of opposites. The purity symbolized by the unicorn’s single horn explains its otherwise mysterious association with the Virgin Mary and monastic life.

201 Sansome Street, San Francisco.

A mythical beast, the unicorn has the head and body of a horse, the tail of a lion, the legs and hoofs of a stag, and a twisted horn in the center of its forehead. In this composite form the unicorn was revered in Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Hebrew, Sumero-Semitic, and Chinese cosmologies.

245 Market Street, San Francisco.

The ram, another sun symbol, also appeared in many cultures. As Aries, the first sign of the zodiac, the ram signified the beginning of a cycle or process of creation. A symbol of the masculine generative force, the ram was mainly a sacrificial animal. Its horns signified solar and lunar power, honor, and abundance. The ram shown here, looking out through the branches of a California live oak, is a High Sierra bighorn sheep. It appears on the wall of a Pacific Gas & Electric Company building 245 Market Street in San Francisco

The bull and the ox share many attributes. Both were sacrificed during harvest rituals to insure the renewal of the earth and its powers. The sculpted skulls of oxen, called bucranes, were decorated with garlands of fruit and flowers. Featured in the friezes of Doric temples, they represented the real heads of the sacrificed animals that were hung on the temples during the seasonal rites.  One wonders if their later use, as seen below on the Kohl building at 400 Montgomery Street, was intended as a reminder of the ancient rituals carried out to create wealth and prosperity.

400 Montgomery Street, San Francisco.

The grizzly bear, a California state symbol, is often represented but not always in a ferocious state. Indeed, the bear shown below above the entrance to the former Pacific Gas & Electric Company building at 245 Market Street, who peers down through sheaves of grain and produce grown in the state seems more worried than threatening.

245 Market Street, San Francisco.

The next bear, stepping easily over San Francisco’s skyline in a rondel on the building at 315 Market Street, is clearly a threat.

315 Market Street, San Francisco.


1000 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.

This affable bear atop his column in front of a former Cadillac showroom at 1000 Van Ness Avenue seems to be welcoming the public with a smile.

University of California’s College of Agriculture, Berkeley.

Located on the UC Berkeley campus, Hilgard Hall was built in 1917-1918 to house the University of California’s College of Agriculture. Designed by John Galen Howard, the building was richly decorated with friezes of sgraffito–scratch in Italian–created by applying two coats of plaster in contrasting colors and scratching through the top layer to create a very shallow relief with a colored background. The friezes celebrate the rewards of tilling the earth and feature medallions framing depictions of barnyard animals that appear above swags laden with the products of agriculture.

4 Responses

  1. Dan Gregory says:

    Marvelous! From knobby-kneed phoenixes to unicorns with crowns around their necks — these revelations about architectural symbolism show what architecture is missing today! Fascinating to learn that PG & E used a Sierra bighorn sheep as its ram — so appropriate for a power source that included Hetch Hetchy in the Sierra. But why porpoises, I mean dolphins, on the post office?

  2. Elizabeth Meyer says:

    Another great installment. I love the walrus with the long-suffering expression. Ha! The stories he could tell. Thanks for these reminders to keep heads up and eyes open for hidden visual treasures.

  3. Judith Dunham says:

    As wonderful as the first installment. I now want to grab my binoculars and hit the streets to see all the architectural wildlife.

  4. Himanshu Burte says:

    The city as a natural history amuseum! Great, Sally!

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