Tourism for Locals: Frank Lloyd Wright Building Tucked Away in Union Square

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Juan De Anda/ SF Weekly
Frank Lloyd Wright's only San Francisco building.
Next time you happen to find yourself in the Union Square area, don't be turned off by the flashy window displays sporting the latest designer trends or the incessant hustle and bustle from the ongoing construction and perpetual wandering of tourists.

Instead, head toward Maiden Lane, a tiny alley on the east side of Union Square, along Stockton and between Post and Geary. For those who don't do so well with street names and directions and need visual markers, the lane's entrance is graced by the Gucci and Dior storefronts. Located in this pedestrian shopping mall is a historic building that garners admiration from both architecture and history aficionados. Alongside the high end-boutiques, there is a building with a square facade composed of camel-colored bricks -- it's famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright's only building in San Francisco.

Frank Lloyd Wright designed more than 1000 structures, and completed 532 buildings, in by the time he died in 1959 at the age of 91. Born two years after the end of the Civil War, and witness to the rapid industrialization and modernization of the nation throughout most of his life, Wright set out to create a style of architecture that was revolutionary.

According to his foundation, he was inspired by the democratic spirit of America and the opportunities it afforded. Wright set out to design buildings resembling and echoing such a democracy. He was dismissive of imported, historic European styles that most Americans favored at the time and his goal was to create an architecture that addressed the individual physical, social, and spiritual needs of the modern American citizen.

Photos of Xanadu Gallery, San Francisco
Xanadu Gallery Interior. Image courtesy of TripAdvisor.

To Wright, architecture was not just about buildings, it was about nourishing the lives of those inhabiting them. He expressed at the time that American needed environments to inspire and offer repose to those dwelling in these spaces. He called his architecture "organic" and described it as a "great living creative spirit which from generation to generation, from age to age, proceeds, persists, creates, according to the nature of man and his circumstances as they both change," according to the Frank Lloyd Foundation.

His style could be described as fusing minimalism with materials that work in accordance with their surroundings, but without rigidity. His work was iconoclastic and beloved at the same time. For his immense contributions to the field of architecture, the American Institute of Architects, recognized Wright in 1991 as "the greatest American architect of all time," and voted his "Fallingwater" house, built in 1939 in Pennsylvania, as "the best all-time work of American architecture."

His San Francisco creation may not be as easily recognized as The Guggenheim Museum in New York City or the Beth Sholom Synagogue in Philadelphia, but it is still part of Wright's legacy, especially since it served as an experimental prototype ten years prior to the construction of the now-famous design of the spiral-shaped Guggenheim. The construction of this building allowed Wright his first opportunity to build an internal spiral ramp and therefore facilitated and made the design of the famous New York City museum possible.

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Frank Lloyd Archives
Floor plan of the two-storied Wright creation.
Originally called the V.C. Morris Gift Shop when built in 1948, the building is now the home of Xanadu Gallery. Wright's wonder conceals a circular inner space behind a simple windowless wall of fine, tan colored brickwork. The vertical grille on the left of the entrance arch is created by removing every other brick and is backed by recessed lights.

Once you pass through the arched entrance, Wright placed a circular mezzanine that is reached by ascending a spiral ramp. Both are made of white reinforced concrete. The built-in wood and glass furnishings are also composed of circle segments. Light is provided by a grid of interlocked translucent globes suspended above the circular space. Circular openings for display of illuminated objects pierce the curved wall of the ramp.

According to a guide in the gallery, when questioned by the owner about the omission of traditional store-front windows on the facade of the building, Wright replied:

"We are not going to dump your beautiful merchandise on the street, but create an arch-tunnel of glass, into which the passers-by may look and be enticed. As they penetrate further into the entrance, seeing the shop inside with its spiral ramp and tables set with fine china and crystal, they will suddenly push open the door, and you've got them!"

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Inside the entrance hallway.
And Wright was right. The soft curves of the building draw you in and you can spend hours looking at the contemporary folk art of the gallery sit in juxtaposition with Wright's circular shelf, chairs, and motifs.

Word of advice: Don't be afraid to speak to the gallery representatives. They all understand the legacy of this American architect and will gladly share stories and tidbits of the architecture. Also, take lots of pictures using a panorama function on your camera because the of immense size of the interior. Ultimately, know that pictures will never do this space justice.

After spending some time in the architectural awe, we suggest checking out the Hearts in San Francisco art installation on each corner of Union Square plaza. Or maybe just do a little retail therapy?

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF, Juan at @JuanPDeAnda, and like us on Facebook

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