Leave a comment

George Kelham’s Castles

Contribution by Peter Garland.

When one day I realized that many of my favorite buildings in the Bay Area were designed by the same architect, George W. Kelham (1871-1936), I sought his story and found no one had ever written it.  Nor had he left any papers or memoirs from which to put such a story together.  However, with the help of the staff of the San Francisco History Room at our Main Library (Kelham designed the old Main), who guided me to the San Francisco Chronicle’s on-line historical files (1865-1922) as well as further guidance from the staff of the Environmental Library of U.C. Berkeley, I was able to piece the jigsaw puzzle together.

I found an astonishing story of an American Renaissance prince and his princess-like wife who lived a life of such incredible success and polish that they seem the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of the architectural world.

On May 15, 1871, George W. Kelham was born in Manchester, Massachusetts, the son and grandson of furniture merchants. He graduated from Harvard and moved to Paris in 1894 to complete his architectural studies at the École des Beaux Arts. As an outstanding student at the École, Kelham was then sent to Rome to complete his studies. Beaux Arts and Italian Renaissance style would always be a large part of his repertoire.

After completing his studies, Kelham moved in 1898 to New York City and secured a position with fellow Beaux Arts’ alumnus S.B. Parkman Trowbridge, who had established a partnership with Goodhue Livingston.  Trowbridge and Livingston sent Kelham to San Francisco in 1906 to supervise construction of the Palace Hotel that had been totally destroyed by the 1906 fire.

“We were thinking of building the new hotel of stone,” said Kelham in an interview for Chronicle, “but the stone around this section of the country is of such a somber color that we have about decided to make the building of brick.  If we cannot find stone light enough to make a good contrast with the brick or facing we may use artificial stone. The work of tearing down the walls of the old Palace will take several months, and during that time we will restudy the plans and try to make them as attractive as possible.  This new building will be as nearly fireproof and earthquake proof as we can make it.”

On Dec 17, 1909, comes the first dinner in the new Palace Hotel. As the Chronicle reported; “Palace Doors Opened with Golden Key – Scene of Enchantment in stately court and banquet halls – The fog-swept ruins of three years ago. Kelham receives many congratulations for the simplicity and grace of his building, the lines of pillars, the strength – the architect who planned every nook and cranny of the big house with its 300 guest rooms – eight-story tan-brick and terra cotta structure in the Beaux Art tradition.”


Garden Court in the Palace Hotel.

George W. Kelham had promised before the opening, in The Metropolis of the West:  “The Palace Hotel will represent when it opens its doors, much that will seem familiar to San Franciscans, though in new form.  The Court will be there as of old, more beautiful and with more perfect appointments, and the spot which has been for many years the meeting place of travelers from the four parts of the globe will take a new lease of life.  There is, perhaps, no hotel in the world today that represents more in comfort, service and luxury then will the new Palace.  Every detail of hotel management and every advance in modern hotel building has been given careful study and consideration.”


The Palace Hotel

Perhaps Kelham’s career is unique in that he built several palaces in San Francisco where, subsequently, he, his wife, friends and colleagues went for many years to dance, eat, work and play.

The idea for a world exposition in San Francisco had first been proposed by businessman R.B. Hale.  As early as 1904 there had been a suggestion to celebrate here the 400th anniversary of Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific.  On December 7, 1910, a great mass meeting of the people was called by M.H. de Young.  The Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) was born. San Francisco Invites the World is accepted as the motto at the mass meeting. Speeches point out that there is lots of money available, including funds from a state tax and from the federal government. The fight for votes in Congress shall prove strenuous but San Francisco procures the victory, rejoices and sets about deciding on a site for the fair.

Now comes the great year of 1912 when San Francisco began to prepare to welcome the world.  This project would occupy George Kelham for several years.  As for the exposition, 1912 was a year of planning and organizing. Kelham is appointed Chief of the Department of Architecture for the Panama-Pacific Exposition.

Palace of Fine Arts. Photo by Gohar Barseghyan

The Fair opens on February 20, 1915, celebrating “the final meetings of the Nations of the World, made possible by the completion of the Panama Canal.”  All departments are ready.  On February 21, we hear, in Stories of the Exposition by Ben Macomber in the Chronicle, that Kelham points out how the site and architecture are integrated with sea, hills and sky and that this is probably the most splendid group of palaces ever built.  He quotes the architect, “‘Something of the poetry of the architecture can be saved – should be the Fine Arts Palace – the finest expression of the exposition’s beauty.’”

On May 15, George W. Kelham, head of the exposition architectural commission eulogized Denivelle, the inventor  –  Man Who Discovered Travertine and declared that the use of travertine had been one of the big factors in making the exposition different and more beautiful than any of its predecessors. “‘Denivelle first worked out the texture of his travertine material for the Pennsylvania Railroad station in New York, but in building the exposition it was used for the first time on an extensive scale.’”  He and Kelham will often work and, with their wives, socialize together.

September 5:  “Women’s Club Notes:  The San Francisco Center has announced a meeting for next Wednesday evening in the Colonial ballroom of the St. Francis for the purpose of furthering a plan for the preservation of parts of the exposition.”  GWK, Willis Polk, and Louis Mullgardt will speak, aided by a series of lantern slides. “Letters and Interviews Show Eagerness with Which the People Are Endorsing Mr. de Young’s Idea.”  De Young is vice- president of the exposition board.  “Enthusiasm for Proposal Is Shown By Widespread Willingness to Help With Money.” de John McLaren also speaks, saying: “‘The California climate did it.  We just looked on.’”  He wants to preserve the Avenue of the Palms.

On November 10, we learn of, “Positive Step to Preserve P.P.I.E.  The Fine Arts Palace with its early Roman rotunda and traces of the finer Greek architecture in its decorative treatment and colonnade is to be saved complete. Action Taken Will Prevent Many Splendid Features From Being Included in the Wrecking Scheme Now Being Developed.” The yacht harbor will be kept. GWK is on the committee of preservation that chooses objects to be saved (cornices, exterior stand-alone statuary, etc.); for instance “All of Haig Patigian’s exterior figures on the Palace of Machinery” as well as “a column and crowning features and pinnacle of the tower of (Kelham’s) Court of Flowers.”  In fact, something from everyone on this roster of American masters. A speech of George Kelham is recorded in the San Francisco Examiner:

“‘The principal value of the architectural achievements of the PPIE lies in their educational possibilities.

“‘In the work of planning the Exposition buildings the architects and the chiefs of the departments of sculpture, color, landscape gardening, illumination, architectural texture and modeling, and the division of works labored in thorough and complete harmony…

“‘The influence of the Exposition’s architecture is going to be felt on the Pacific Coast.  Hereafter the clients who contemplate erecting buildings both of a public and a private character will bring their architects, sculptors and decorators together as a board and leave them free to evolve by their united efforts thoroughly harmonious plans.  The result will be that the buildings of the future will be more beautiful than those of the past could possibly have been.  This plan was followed by the builders of the Pennsylvania Railway’s terminal station in NY City, and it resulted in the erection of the most stately and beautiful monument of ancient or modern times…

“‘In my opinion the US will within one hundred years perhaps be the art center of the world.  Art has always enjoyed its supreme accomplishments in those countries whose commercial supremacy was greatest.  France under Louis XIV was the most flourishing commercial nation and it was the center of the world of art.  Greece, Italy and Spain each had their turn at commercial supremacy and their art flourished with their commerce.  When their trade became decadent, so did their art.  The US is now and will doubtless for centuries to come be the most prosperous nation commercially considered the world has known.  It is my belief that, following the precedents referred to, art will be fostered in the US and will in time flourish as it never has before in history…

“‘If art and nature by our efforts have been combined so that they seem a part of each other, if the beautiful Bay of San Francisco, the lordly mountains beyond, the islands and a glimpse of the ocean through the Golden Gate seem to be natural settings for the complete picture of which our buildings seem a congruous part, then we have realized our ideal.

“‘I, for one, am hopeful enough to believe that were the ruins of this Exposition to be discovered by some group of searching archaeologists two thousand years hence, they would regard us as having been a highly civilized people.’”

The Exposition, after nineteen million people had visited it, ended on December 4, 1915, and its parts were either destroyed and carted away or saved.  Kelham turned fully to the next great adventure of his life, the new Main Library for San Francisco.

The year 2015 marks the centennial of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), the San Francisco world’s fair that celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal and the city’s reconstruction following the great earthquake of 1906. The grand exposition covered 76 city blocks and boasted national and international pavilions showcasing innovation, industry, and the arts. At the heart of the PPIE was one of the most ambitious art exhibitions ever presented in the United States, encompassing more than 11,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, and photographs, in addition to a significant array of public murals and monuments. To mark this anniversary, Jewel City Exhibition at the de Young Museum revisits this vital moment in the inauguration of San Francisco as the West Coast’s cultural epicenter. The landmark exhibition reassembles more than 200 works by major American and European artists, most of which were on display at this defining event.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *