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Greatest Bohemian

On the left, Haig Patigian with the bust of Helen Wills and on the right, Helen Wills. 

Contribution by Peter Garland.

Peter Garland, a native of Dublin, Ireland, became interested in San Francisco history through the statues of Haig Patigian while living in North Beach. He researched the sculptor’s life and career and for many years lead two walking tours of Patigian’s works around San Francisco (Patigian created more of San Francisco’s statues than any other artist).

When Haig Patigian was six years old, he told his twenty-three-year-old mother, Marine Hovsepian Patigian, “I want to be a sculptor.” He was particularly interested in human figure. His wish would be granted, often against a background of bloody persecution and death, both for his own family and for the Armenian people. His father, Avedis Patigian, was interested in visual art, too. He was the first person in Van to take up the fascinating new pursuit of photography. When the Turkish authorities spotted him walking about photographing  the picturesque city, surrounded with tall rocks that make it look like a castle, they accused him of selling photos of the towns fortifications to the Russians. Avedis Patigian, in 1888, disguised as a courier, fled to the Caucasus, then to New York and finally to Fresno, California. After two or three years he saved and borrowed money and was able to send for his family. Marine and the five children, not without extreme danger and hardships, successfully made their way to Fresno. There ensued some hard labor for the family. Eventually, Mr. Patigian, Senior, would own his own 20-acre ranch, turning Muscat grapes into raisins with the ready aid of his sons. At the age of seventeen, Haig started as an apprentice at a sign painter’s shop. After three years, Haig opened his own shop. His older brother Horen had left for San Francisco and made a living as an illustrator for the newspapers. In 1898, Haig decided to make that leap himself. This year also, a sixth and final child was born to the Patigians.

Horen Patigian hospitably welcomed his younger brother Haig to SF, sharing his quarters on Clay street with him. Haig initially spent his time studying physiology and, for a small fee, drawing from live models at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute atop Nob Hill. He was never a student but picked up tips from older artists as he continued to practice and learn. In 1900, aged twenty-six, Haig was hired as an illustrator for the SF Bulletin, an evening newspaper.  A year later his brother Horen died of pneumonia and unable to remain in the same lodgings, Haig moved to a photographer’s studio. It had a skylight which proved helpful as he continued his essays into sculptures. Marine Patigian, devastated by the death of her oldest child, died several months after Horen. She was only about forty-four years old. The following year, Rose, the youngest of the three daughters, also died, from tuberculosis.

Haig now turned his personal suffering into art, creating at last his first real statue, in plaster “The Unique Soul.” It depicted a male nude fighting despair. Displayed at the Press Club, it was immediately celebrated in local newspapers that predicted a promising career for the the emerging sculptor.

In 1905, an elderly man named George Zehndner arrived in San Francisco seeking a sculptor to create a statue of the late President McKinley for the town of Areata, in northern California. Someone directed him to the studio of Haig Patigian and during a meeting it was agreed that Haig will make the statue. He asked the old man to give him a month so that he can make a model and if he liked it they would draw the agreement for $ Mr. Zehndner liked the model, the papers were drawn up, and he wrote the artist a check for $2,500 to get him started. Eventually the completed statue, in a foundry near the site of the present Trans-Bay Terminal, was prepared for the day when it was to be shipped up to Areata. That day happened to be April 18, 1906, the day of the Great Earthquake and Fire! Haig was soon informed that the foundry had been destroyed, and his statue along with it. He had consumed $7,500 in the making of it and in the laying of the granite foundation and pedestal in the Areata plaza. However, when he eventually got into the devastated area, Haig happily discovered that some mechanics had generously saved his statue, loading it onto a wagon they had then pulled out into the middle of the street before fleeing the area. The wagon had burned up, but there lay the sooty William McKinley, unharmed, flat on his back, one hand held up to heaven. The statue was welcomed to Areata with tears of joy by Mr. Zehndner and later unveiled at a triumphant Fourth of July picnic. Haig received the rest of his money, visited his father in Fresno, giving him $3,000, and, in October of 1906, the professional sculptor sailed for Paris, to remain there for a year while his city was rebuilt. Doubtless, thereafter, would come a call for lots of statues!

In Paris, he befriended the French sculptor, Alix Marquet, who helped Patigian locate a studio for himself on the Rue Falguiere, and agreed to give the American some tips on his work from time to time. During the year in Paris, Haig re-created his work, “Ancient History,” which had been destroyed in the studio in San Francisco’s Fire. The life-size statue consists of a beautiful female nude, representing “History,” her feet barely touching the globe as her wings lift her heavenwards. Haig used several Egyptian motifs in this effort. Encouraged by Marquet, he entered it in the 125 th official exposition of the Salon des Artistes Francais and it was accepted. He had talent! Today that statue, in bronze, must be one of the proudest possessions of the Bohemian Club on Taylor Street.

At the end of the year, Haig returned to San Francisco and opened a studio at 119 Olive Street. On January 1, 1908, he and Miss Blanche Hollister of Courtland were married at Grace Episcopal Church in San Francisco. The bride was the daughter of a landowner and Sacramento legislator. The city of Hollister is named after the family. Blanche and Haig would be together for forty-two years and would die within a few days of one another.

In 1908, also, the artist joined the Bohemian Club and, in July, went north to Monte Rio for his first Grove Encampment. Here he made friends, did cartoons and posters, and helped produce “The Sons of Baldur,” that year’s Grove Play.

In October of 1913, Mr. and Mrs. Patigian went to Europe. The artist had already been assigned the sculptural works for the Palace of Machinery at the Panama Pacific Exposition. Haig was seeking inspiration in Europe for his proposed work. After extensive traveling, he and Blanche returned to Paris where Haig visited Auguste Rodin, whom he had previously met through one of the Master’s pupils, Gutzon Borglum. Patigian showed the Master some photographs of his works to date. Coming to the American’s “Diana Hunting,” Rodin paused longer than usual. “Oui, monsieur,” he told Patigian, “Vous etes un sculpteur.” (Yes, sir, you are a sculptor.)

Once back in San Francisco, Haig and Blanche were busy. She was about to have a baby, he was preparing for the Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), and they were building a twenty-two-room house at the corner of Francisco and Hyde Streets. Haig also produced a large bronze, the monument to the pioneer “Dr. Rowell,” founder of the Fresno Republican and state senator. Today the bronze graces Courthouse Square in Fresno. Rowell, always very kindly to American settlers, had been the Patigians’ family doctor.

Baby girl Hollis Patigian was born in March of 1914 and had a grand new house to move into. Haig built it for thirty thousand dollars. Today it sells over three and a half million dollar range and is one of San Francisco’s most beloved houses.

In 1915, Haig’s youngest brother Arthur was seventeen. His father bought a used Buick, Arthur’s sister taught the teenager to drive, and the family drove up to San Francisco to see brother Haig, his new house, his growing family, and the fairytale Exposition (BayMozaic has written about the PPIE here). The feelings of Avedis Patigian may be imagined. Twenty-seven years after he fled Armenia, a dozen years after he lost his wife and two children, he saw his second son emerge as a dazzling success on the American scene.

1915 was a dire year for the Armenian people. The Ottoman Turks fell on their Armenian subjects and were accused of slaughtering one and a half million of them. Patigian created a medal for the Armenian Relief Fund.

In the years following the Exposition, Haig received steady commissions for his work: a bust of John M. Eshelman, for U.C. Berkeley; the fine bronze of General Frederick “Fighting Freddy” Funston, for San Francisco City Hall; a heroic bronze panel of “Alden J. Blethen,” founder of the Seattle Times; a bust of “Charles K. Field,” active Bohemian. In 1918, Haig was critically ill with influenza, but recovered. His son, Haig, Jr., was born in 1919. The following year, Patigian was elected president of the Bohemian Club, serving as such for two terms, from 1920 through 1922. Nineteen hundred twenty-two was the 50th anniversary of the Club. Haig would again be president during the Bohemian’s 75th birthday.

In 1923, Haig erected what he believed was the first sculptor’s studio built as such west of Chicago, at Webster and Greenwich Streets in the Marina District. The immense studio, in domestic Italian  architectural style, was created complete with molding workshop and a living room that boasted a large fireplace and library. Here his serving of Armenian stew to his intimates led to Haig’s coining the pun “stewdio!”

For the following twenty-six years, the sculptor produced his works here: his statue of “Friendship” — today to be seen at the Olympic Club Lakeside golf course; his “Lincoln” in front of City Hall, considered one of the better “Abes” in the nation; his “Helen Wills,” a bust of the famous Wimbledon star from Berkeley, commissioned by Senator Phelan and is on display at the de Young Museum; his fine bust of Bohemian Herbert Hoover that entered the White House in 1929, along with President Hoover and many more works.

In 1932, Patigian was a member of the Jury of Awards for Sculpture at the Tenth Olympiad in Los Angeles. For the building of the new Bohemian Club at Taylor and Post Streets the following year, he created window boxes and huge terra cotta panels representing the Club’s cornerstones of Literature, the Fine Arts, Music, and Drama. These are visible today from the opposite sidewalk on Post Street. Look also for Patigians exquisite owl plaque on the exterior of the building, with its quotation from Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”—”Weaving spiders come not here”—no doubt a worthy admonition to the members! The owl is the Bohemian’s symbol.

For the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939, Haig sculpted huge, dignified figures with simple lines representing “Earth Dormant,” “Sunshine,” “Rain,” and “Harvest.” In the Court of the Seven Seas was his “Creation,” a monument expressing that even to the artist the process of his work remains something of a mystery. It seems to suggest also that the mystery of woman is never fully solved. Two works of 1941 are nicely displayed in San Francisco today, his monument to William Chapman Ralston, “The Man Who Built San Francisco,” on the Marina Green, and his inspiring Indian limestone bas relief of A.R Giannini on the parking garage floor of the Bank of America headquarters.

During the Second World War, metal for statues was scarce, and Patigian, now in his sixties, turned again to watercolors. The results of this may reside in many private collections, though an adequate number of drawings, posters, and other works from all his years are displayed on the walls of the Bohemian, the Family, and other clubs. Patigian’s last important bronze was a large relief panel honoring General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, today hanging in Stilwell Hall at the Presidio. This the artist executed in 1947, the year of the Diamond Jubilee of the Bohemian Club. Haig was again president that year, his fourth term, and his fifth time presiding at an Encampment. No other member has equaled that record.

"Nymph at Play" figure for a swimming pool, 1917

“Nymph at Play” figure for a swimming pool, 1917

Haig continued working at his studio until overtaken by illness in the spring of 1949. He had a heart condition. Blanche Patigian died on September 10, 1950. Nine days later, on September 19, Haig Patigian, aged seventy-four, died.

Haig Patigian believed that the United States could do much to beautify its cities. He certainly contributed his share. During his life he was recognized by authorities at home and abroad for the surpassing excellence of his work, its refinement as well as its grandeur. Though Haig rarely, if ever, smiles in photographs and portraits that remain of him, his brother Arthur remembered him as a loving person who played the banjo and cracked jokes.

Haig left numerous busts around town. I have rapped a number of them respectfully with my knuckles and from only one have I received a resounding echo—from the bust of Edward Robeson Taylor, in the Old Main Library. And Taylor was a poet! Ah, up to your high jinks, Mr. Bohemian!

Cover Photograph: Patigian with the bust of Helen Wills on the left and Helen Wills on the right.

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