Wednesday, May 29, 2019

The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty

The Art, Music, & Recreation Department of San Francisco Public Library is currently hosting an exhibition centering around a forgotten man of many talents and trades but whose final claim to fame would rest on him being an actor known at the height of fame as M. B. Curtis.

Born as Moritz Bertrand Strelinger, he immigrated with his family at the age of 6 from Hungary to the United States. Restless and unsatisfied, he ran away when a little older from home to try his luck at various things, including a failed attempt at joining the Union Army. He then somehow managed to get small roles in theater and as sometimes happens, one thing leading to another, he found a role of a drummer with enough opportunity present his comic side. As luck would have it, the play ran much longer than was scheduled owing to Mr. Curtis’ talent and presence in the play. He had the audience in stitches, which was not unique for those times, audiences laughing at Jewish actor responding to his Jewish or self-deprecating jokes. The main difference this time, however, resided in the fact that the audiences weren’t laughing at the Jew but with him.

By now he had adopted a stage name of M. B. Curtis and with foresight, he purchased the play and produced it with his brother’s help. This catapulted him to the national fame, thus becoming the first Jewish male to portray a Jewish character with depth. So far, the field had always in the hands of gentile actors. But Mr. Curtis showed during his extra ordinary journey in the realm of performing arts that he was much more than an actor.

As luck would have it, the Statue of Liberty had recently arrived and Congress refused to fund the lighting of the statue. The lights went off on Nov. 1, 1886. Mr. Curtis was in New York and felt horrified at the darkened spectacle, so he decided to foot the bill from his own pocket. Another feather in Mr. Curtis’ hat was when Mark Twain approached him to perform in the theatrical version of the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Local historian Richard Schwartz tells us that Mr. Curtis agreed on one condition, even willing to shell out $20,000 to produce it, if and only if Mark Twain would let Curtis portray the main character as a Jewish immigrant a la Sam’l of Posen, the play which had catapulted the actor to fame.

The current exhibition The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty is a result of the tremendous patience and passion, all in all some twenty years, from the time Mr. Schwartz began looking into Mr. Curtis’ connection to the city of Berkeley; he kept on digging deeper and deeper for more information, reading countless out-of-print books and hunting newspaper databases. As people became aware of Mr. Schwartz’ larger than life project, help in collecting memorabilia poured in from varied sources, including Library of Congress, which succeeded in unearthing a rare footage of Mr. Curtis’ silent film. Mr. Schwartz plans on showing the film during his talk.

Richard Schwartz is fascinated by the history of the Bay Area and the San Francisco Public Library is pleased to have several of his titles in our collection. We recommend them here:

The Man Who Lit Lady Liberty: The Extraordinary Rise and Fall of Actor M. B. Curtis (RSB Books, 2016).

Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley (RSB Books, 2007).

Earthquake Exodus, 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees (RSB Books, 2005).

Berkeley 1900: Daily Life at the Turn of the Century (RSB Books, 2000).

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Labrouste's Libraries, Structural Columns, and the Main Library

In a July 1996 article in the periodical Interiors reviewing James Ingo Freed's newly open San Francisco Main Library, the author notes the influence of Labrouste's 19th century Parisian libraries on the design of the newly opened San Francisco Public Library Main Library.

In fact, library administrators accompanied Freed and and collaborating architect Cathy Simon on a tour of European libraries in January 1900 where they visited Labrouste's two famous structures, the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève (1850) and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (1868). Both of these buildings have had an enduring influence on library architecture.

Labrouste's influence is apparent in George Kelham's 1917 Main Library building, particularly in  the first floor Entrance Hall and Stairwell and the second floor Delivery Room and Reading Room.

Stairwell of George Kelham's 1917 Main Library (source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

One of the striking innovations of Labrouste's libraries is the use of an exposed iron pillars to create open space and enhance natural lighting.

Reading room of the Bibliothèque Nationale (source: Henri Labrouste: Architecte)

 Tables interrupted by columns in the Bibliothèque Nationale (source: The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts)

Ground floor of the Bibliothèque Saint Geneviève (source: Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete)

Freed's Main Library design frequently uses exposed columns instead of embedding them within structural walls with the same desire for openness and natural light.

Rectangular pillars extend the height of the library and are incorporated into the building's structure as part of the borders to light wells on the library's Fulton Street and Larkin Street sides.

They are regularly spaced at intervals of 18 and 36 feet on the Fulton Street side of the building, and at intervals of 12 and 36 feet on the Larkin Street side.

In a previous entry we have seen how round pillars are also an important part of the building's conception.  These round columns are placed with less regularity on left and right sides of the atrium.  

I have numbered these pillars 1 to 14.  These also rise from the library's Lower Level and extend to the roof.  Numbers 6-13 are arranged as two groups of four pillars, spaced 18 and 12 feet apart.  The two groups of four in turn are 36 feet apart.  Pillars 6-7 and 10-11 surround an imaginary line that divides the length of the building in half.

Pillars 1 to 5 are positioned according to different imagined angled lines that extend from the midpoint of the Larkin Street outer wall and surround the outer edge of the atrium.  Pair 1 and 3 and pair 2 and 5 are placed along these lines.

The location of pillar 4 is tied to the position of pillar 2.  One of Freed's principal design elements for the Main Library is a juxtaposition of lines between streets on an east-west grid (Larkin, Hyde, Fulton, Grove) and Market Street (plus South of Market).  The fifth floor periodical reading room is laid out according to the angle of the latter.  Pillars 2 and 4 run parallel to Market Street.  On the opposite side of the floor, pillars 11 and 14 run parallel to 8th Street.

In the next installment I will show the variety of contexts where these rounds pillars appear on the Library's seven floors.


The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts, edited by Arthur Drexler (Museum of Modern Art, 1977.

Giedion, Sigfried, Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete; translation by J. Duncan Berry (Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1995).

Herbert, Susan, "Library Travelers Check Out Europe's Best," San Francisco Independent (January 31, 1990).

"Rotunda Resonances in the San Francisco Main Library," San Francisco Public Library Art, Music and Recreation Center [blog] (March 25, 2019).

Saddy, Pierre, Henri Labrouste, architecte, 1801-1875 (Caisse Nationale des Monuments Historiques et des Sites, 1977).

Webb, Michale, "Library," Interiors vol. 155 (July 1996), 44-51.