San Francisco Bay Area Culture and Society – 1849 to 1919 AD

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Culture and Society

“In the 1890s most of California was still unexplored. A vast area of the state, the Sierra Nevada, was virtually inaccessible. The fascination for finding out what lay inside drew men from all backgrounds but especially scientists. In 1860 (just a few years after becoming a state of the USA) California had created the Office of State Geologist and had hired Josiah Whitney, professor of geology at Harvard University, to lead it. Between 1863 and 1864 Whitney had led expeditions that had included botanists, zoologists, paleontologists and topographers to explore the High Sierra, “discovering” what today are known as Yosemite and King’s Canyon national parks. Another geologist, Clarence King, who had traveled overland to California in 1863 from Yale, had become the first white man to spot Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the USA outside of Alaska. The mountains were largely explored by the least documented of all explorers: the European shepherds, who probably created many of the trails used today by mountaineers. The High Sierra was an ideal terrain for sheep, thanks to its many meadows and relatively mild climate. One such shepherd was John Muir, originally from Scotland, a nomadic sawyer who had reached San Francisco in 1868, having traveled by steamship from Florida via Cuba and Panama. He settled in Yosemite for a few years and eventually became influential enough to convince the USA to create Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in 1890, but never actually hiked what is today North America’s most famous trail, the John Muir Trail from Yosemite to Mt Whitney. The idea for that trail must be credited to Theodore Solomons, born and raised in San Francisco, who in 1892 set out to independently explore regions of the Sierra Nevada that no white man had seen before. The 1890s were the golden age of Sierra exploration.”

“San Francisco was still living with the legacy of the “Gold Rush” of 1849. The “Barbary Coast,” as the red-light district was known, was a haven for brothels and nightclubs. The thousands of Chinese immigrants who had been lured to California to build railways, mine gold and grow food had fathered a new generation that settled in “Chinatown,” the largest Chinese community outside Asia. The port served steamers bound for the coast or Asia as well as ferry traffic to the bay and the Sacramento River, and supported a large community of teamsters and longshoremen that also made it the most unionized city in the US.”

“Dubious characters still roamed the landscape: the career of despised media tycoon William Randolph Hearst got its start in 1887 when his father handed him the San Francisco Examiner. But there were also honest enterprising men, such as Amadeo Giannini, who founded the Bank of Italy in 1904 to serve the agricultural economy of the Santa Clara Valley (it was later renamed Bank of America). At the turn of the century one could already sense San Francisco’s predisposition towards rebellion: John Muir’s Sierra Club (formed in 1892) led the first environmental protest when the state planned a dam in Yosemite; the American Anti-Imperialist League (formed in 1898) organized the first anti-war movement when the US went to war against Spain (a war largely architected by Hearst” and the New York Times “to sell more copies of his newspapers); and the Union Labor Party (formed in 1901) became the first pseudo-socialist party to win a mayoral election in a US city. In 1871 Susan Mills and her husband Cyrus founded Mills College in Oakland, the first women’s college in the western states.”

“Most of this was irrelevant to the rest of the nation. San Francisco made the national news in 1906 because of the earthquake and fire that leveled most of it.”

“California was also blessed with some of the most reformist governors in the country, notably Hiram Johnson (1911-1917), who democratized California and reduced the power of the political barons, and William Stephens (1917-1923), who did something similar to curb the political power of unions. Their policies focused on raising the living standards of the middle class, and therefore of the suburbs.”

“Immigration made San Francisco a cosmopolitan city. There had already been Italians when California was still under Mexican rule. They were fishermen and farmers. By the turn of the century, old and new Italians had created an Italian quarter in North Beach. Then came the Japanese, who replaced the Chinese in agriculture. At the beginning of the century San Francisco boasted two Japanese-language newspapers: “The New World” and the “Japanese American.” Mexicans immigrated from 1910 to 1930, following the Mexican revolution and the construction of a railway.”

“San Francisco was also becoming friendly toward the arts. In 1902 the California Society of Artists was founded by a cosmopolitan group that included the Mexican-born painter Xavier Martinez and the Swiss-born painter and muralist Gottardo Piazzoni. At the California School of Design, many students were influenced by muralist and painter Arthur Mathews, one of the founders of the American Arts and Crafts Movement that tried to reconcile craftsmanship with industrial consumerism (a major national trend after the success of Boston’s 1897 American Arts and Crafts Exhibition). A symbolic event took place after the 1906 earthquake when Mathews opened his own shop (both as a craftsman and a painter) and started publishing one of the earliest art magazines in town, the Philopolis. Another by-product of the American Arts and Crafts Movement was Oakland’s California College of the Arts and Crafts founded in 1907 by one of the movement’s protagonists, Frederick Meyer.”

“More and more artists were moving to San Francisco. They created the equivalent of Paris’ Montmartre artistic quarter at the four-story building called “Montgomery Block” (also nicknamed “Monkey Block”), the epicenter of San Francisco’s bohemian life. Another art colony was born in the coastal city of Carmel, about two hours south of San Francisco. Armin Hansen opened his studio there in 1913. Percy Gray located there in 1922 and impressionist master William Merritt Chase taught there in 1914.”

“Architects were in high demand both because of the fortunes created by the railway and because of the reconstruction of San Francisco after the earthquake (for example, Willis Polk). Mary Colter studied in San Francisco before venturing into her vernacular architecture for the Southwest’s desert landscape. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915, held in San Francisco, for which Bernard Maybeck built the exquisite Palace of Fine Arts, symbolized the transformation that had taken place in the area: from emperors and gold diggers to inventors and investors (and, soon, defense contractors). A major sculptor was Ralph Stackpole, who in 1913 founded the California Society of Etchers and in 1915 provided sculptures for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, notably the Palace of Varied Industries (demolished after the exposition). Influenced by the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, during the 1920s Maynard Dixon created an original Western style of painting. It was at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that the painters of the “Society of Six” (August Gay, Bernard von Eichman, Maurice Logan, Louis Siegriest, and William Clapp) were seduced by impressionism. Last but not least, in 1921 Ansel Adams began to publish his photographs of Yosemite. It was another small contribution to changing the reputation of that part of California and the birth of one of the most vibrant schools of photography in the world. Literature, on the other hand, lagged behind, represented by Frank Pixley’s literary magazine the “Argonaut,” located at Montgomery Block.”

“Classical music was represented by its own school of iconoclasts. From 1912 to 1916, Charles Seeger taught unorthodox techniques such as dissonant counterpoint at UC Berkeley. Starting with “The Tides of Manaunaun” (1912), pianist Henry Cowell, a pupil of Seeger, began exploring the tone-cluster technique. That piece was based on poems by John Osborne Varian, the father of Russell and Sigurd Varian, who had moved to Halcyon, a utopian community founded in 1903 halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles by the theosophists William Dower and Francia LaDue. Varian’s sons Russell and Sigurd later became friends with Ansel Adams through their mutual affiliation with the Sierra Club.”

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