Architectural Ornament in Human Forms


The following photos were taken of ornament on San Francisco buildings, mainly in the downtown but also in other areas of the city. They enliven the surfaces and architectural features they adorn. Addresses for the images are given to encourage you to explore other buildings nearby and in other parts of the city and let us know what you discover.

1 Powell Street

Shown above is a frieze on the pediment over the entrance to the former Banca d’Italia, later called the Bank of America, which was founded in San Francisco. Hera/Juno, the matriarchal goddess and wife of Zeus, holds the hands of Aphrodite/Venus and Hermes/Mercury, who is clad only in the winged shoes and hat that made him superhuman. These symbols indicated his ability, as Zeus’s messenger, to travel around the “axis mundi”, the cosmic pole around which all life revolves. The Romans merged Hermes with the ancient Italic god Mercurius, whose name came from “mercari”, which was linked to the act of carrying on a business. He also protected travelers, many of whom were traders, and thus became the god of both legal and illegal riches and profit. As the god of commerce, Mercury was most often depicted on buildings in the 19th century downtowns of American cities that were devoted to business and finance. A train and a ship, symbols of progress that contributed to San Francisco’s prosperity, occupy the sections at either end of the frieze.

The Roman god of healing, Aesculapius, was introduced in Rome during a plague in 293 B.C. and became increasingly popular thereafter. His symbol was the caduceus, shown below, which features twin snakes representing the opposing forces of health and illness. Healing was achieved through a balance of these and other opposites. The caduceus also adorned a staff carried by Mercury, supposedly because commercial affairs also required balancing opposites.

110 Sutter Street

Below is a squinty-eyed version of Hermes which appears on a bank building at 300 Montgomery St.

300 Montgomery Street

4 Responses

  1. Elizabeth Meyer says:

    Thank you Sally for this illuminating piece, and for the welcomed reminder to look up and ponder not just the beauty but also the meaning of our built environment. I look forward to my next trip downtown – will definitely have this essay in mind as I keep an eye out for these stone and concrete urban inhabitants.

    And I look forward to your next chapter!

  2. John Ware says:

    A wonderful insight into our urban built texture. So helpful to understand details as meaningful expression of the culture and time that they were built. As modernists we appreciate the function and form of details, but we would be ungrounded without the context and meaning provided by the past.

  3. A brilliant introductory essay and a much overdue topic to be explored by one who has walked the walk! Particularly appropos as places begin to tire of ornament-less architecture and promote its return as “civic art” which tends to be devoid of narrative and often unrelated to location and context. I will be compulsively returning to the site to read the next “chapter.”

    Jay Claiborne

  4. Dan Gregory says:

    A marvelous exploration/explanation of architectural ornament — like a sort of “Tales of the City” in stone and terra cotta! I leaned a lot and especially liked this description of the support figures:

    “Their contorted faces and postures express the discomfort they experience because of their predicament.”

    I want to link to this in one of my own future posts…

    Many thanks.

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