Fall reds have erupted in Brompton Cemetery. Vivid leaves tumble over the tops of tombstones and startle the eye among the subdued grays and greens. The cemetery is one of 19th century London's "Magnificent Seven," which were established from 1832 to 1841. It is a weedy and wonderful cemetery in the southwest of the city, used freely as a massive green space by those who live around it. Dogs are walked, families and couples take quiet strolls, solitary gents ponder on benches, and tourists tiptoe through the tombstones.
Beatrix Potter spent her girlhood just up the road in South Kensington and she played and wandered in the cemetery. The names of her animal characters are said to have been inspired by the headstones she saw there, including that of a Mr. Nutkins and a Peter Rabbett. At the northwest end of the cemetery along Old Brompton Road, where she would have most conveniently entered, a rowdy mob of crows squawks and scolds as they hover and rest on rows of tombstones. This literate crow has broken from the group to have a brief yet spiritually edifying read.
Squirrel Nutkin is possessed! He loiters on the edge of a grave marker, eyes a-glow -- which I only noticed after reviewing the images, as of course his true nature was opaquely cloaked in cuteness when I spotted him! And there were plenty of less malevolent looking squirrels capering over the marble and hanging optimistically from trees, hoping that someone might ignore the signs exhorting visitors not to feed them. The creatures in the cemetery seem to be little messengers from Potter, rustling the dry leaves and flicking gray tails just at the edge of your vision as you walk by!
(The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin was published in 1903, which would preclude the connection to this headstone of 1906. But perhaps there was/is an earlier Nutkins resting somewhere close by. Many of the vulnerable sandstone headstones have degraded until they are unreadable, and some grave markers are grown over and obscured. Further wandering required...)
This postcard from the mid-1920s promotes a stretch of London's Gower
Street that is now populated by small hotels offering tiny rooms for mostly not-so-tiny
cost, various administrative buildings, and non-starving student flats (the
current incarnation of the onetime “Private Apartments” of number 76) managed
by the nearby universities.
As much as I’ve been
despairing over the exchange rate, the advertisement shows that it has
definitely been worse for American visitors in the past! It very helpfully lays out exactly what the wide-eyed flapper abroad will be paying as she blithely hands over those deceptively trifling pound coins!At the time this postcard was circulating, Britain had reinstated a form of
the gold standard, and one pound cost nearly five dollars. Any traveler hoping for
some literary neighborhood hobnobbing before strolling over to the British Museum would have had to shell out $14.40-$28.80 a night for this “most
central position in London.” However, it
has to be noted that you would in fact be “minutes from all the art galleries and
places of interest"; there was no extra charge for maid service; and very best of all, you could avail yourself of hot AND
London is rooflines… skyscapes of peaks, vaults, spires, pitches,
planes, domes, dormers, finials, follies, friezes, pipes, drains, grating, and a chaos
of chimneys. And mansard roofs—a little
architectural fetish. I love them. (Of these, more later, I’m sure.)
I’m guessing longtime Londoners don’t often notice them, in
the same way that certain things in San Francisco don’t always hit my radar. I
will stop and look at what tourists are snapping in SF, and sometimes wonder at
the scene that is unremarkable to me but has caught their attention (a MUNI bus
passing in the evening commute; pigeons at Powell St. Station; an
advertising kiosk…), and try to see them with fresh eyes.But I’m the tourist
here, and rooflines will stop me in my tracks and leave me open-mouthed and squinting
up at dingy brickwork and remote windows—annoying whatever local had the
misfortune to be walking at a purposeful clip behind me.
I have a secret, embarrassing suspicion about the origin of
my roofline susceptibilities: Mary Poppins (of the bad Cockney Dick Van Dyke
version); and very possibly The Aristocats, full of wonderfully rendered
ramshackle, shadowy, chimney crowded, cartoon Parisian rooftops. I saw both of
these films early in life, of course, but I still remember the sparks going off
in my brain at the visuals, especially in night scenes when roofs formed a vast
field of black, angular silhouettes against midnight blue, where only certain
chimney sweeps and alley cats dare to tread. It’s a world anchored in the footprint of
urban rules and relative order below, but one where more haphazard past centuries maintain
a delicious whisper of dominion. I need to find my way to an attic ladder that will take me there.
My fascination with vintage images taken by strolling street photographers continues. And I was thrilled to find another one amongst my own family photos; this one of my father's mother and little brother, taken in San Francisco in the late 1930s. As with one of my previously posted 1930s street photos, a movie marquee can be seen, and this one showing a film with the silent film actress Zasu Pitts (who was in "Ruggles of Red Gap", which is coincidentally showing in that previous 30s photo; and she starred in von Stroheim's "Greed", a film version of Frank Norris' "McTeague", about which I also posted... Zasu seems to be a running undercurrent!) They are facing east on Market St. at Turk and Mason. I recognized the location right away, because of the distinctive building at left (in line with Grandma's hat). It is the old St. Francis Theater Building, originally the Empress Theater, which was designed by John Galen Howard and built around 1910. The cornice has wonderful Renaissance/Baroque style ornamentation, with the crowning shell forms at the roof line that are visible in the old photo. The published survey for the Foundation for San Francisco's Architectural Heritage (1979) describes the original structure as having had "an enframed window wall composition with a great deal of stained glass, now almost entirely covered by a chaotic patchwork of signs." Makes me wonder if--after over thirty more years of chaotic signs and boarding up--any of those stained glassed windows are still present.
The Empress (later St. Francis) Theater, Market St. At Mason & Turk, ca. 1910
Sadly, there is a timeliness to my mention of this building. Just last week final approval went through for a giant, block-sized, glass-fronted shopping mall structure to be built at this location, called the CityPlace. The St. Francis Theater building, the other historic structures around it, and some of the precious few atmospheric remnants of the city's old theater and business district will all be demolished so that we may have a Target and a Toys 'r Us store. I am all for the revitalization and development of the "blighted" 6th and Market St. area, and I welcome an influx of new architecture, but it is very sad that a more integrative plan could not have been brought about. The historic buildings in this small, 7x7 mile city are an extremely finite resource... and becoming ever more so.
The old St. Francis Theater building today (at left, behind trees), Market at Mason and Turk
Detail of the St. Francis Theater building
Charles Hall Page & Associates, Inc. 1979. Splendid Survivors: San Francisco's Downtown Architectural History. California Living Books, San Francisco. (p. 93)