How Frank Lloyd Wright Almost Built Daphne Funeral Home

by MSO
Frank Lloyd Wright Funeral Home Design

The funeral home Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned included four colorful mushroom shaped chapels which included 'slumber rooms'.

It was in 1944 when a young funeral director named Nicholas P. Daphne made a late-night phone call to the world’s most famous architect. His offer was simple. He had already opened his first mortuary in 1938, and just recently purchased a plot of land just west of San Francisco’s newly built US Mint Building. With an idea burning in his mind, the moment the call was answered, he wasted no time in explaining his vision.

“I’ve got the finest site in the heart of San Francisco and I want the finest mortuary in the world,” Daphne began his pitch. “So I figure, I need the finest architect in the world.”

The pitch worked – the late-night phone call to the 77-year-old, world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright was unanimous. He would take on Daphne’s request of designing a mortuary to fit the ideal visionary’s dream. And thus began Wright’s research for the project, which would lead him to numerous mortuaries to, as he put it, “Get the feel of the trade.”

It wasn’t long before Wright understood what it was that Daphne had envisioned. The man who had, from an early age, shown a keen interest in the funeral business was struck by how unnecessarily gloomy funeral services tended to be. What Daphne wanted was something different. He wanted to change the way funerals were perceived and soon enough, Wright agreed.

“A place where you go to see the last of your earthly companions should be a happy place; it should leave you with the feeling that death is no curse, that all is not lost because of it,” Wright was quoted as saying. “People will weep, of course, but give them a lift with beauty. Put living things around; flowers that grow, not bouquets that smell.”

After three years, Wright gathered reporters and unveiled his plans for the mortuary – a mushroom-shaped chapel, with a pyramidal structure lopped off at the top to provide a landing field for helicopters, along with a tall-spired kiosk to serve as a flower booth, and a two-story office building where the bereaved will be consulted, tombstones sold and living space provided for a four-man night shift.

While the bases of the mortuary were to be designed to be a pleasure to stroll around, Daphne announced there would be no steps for people to stumble over. The property would have no parking lot, but instead would house its vehicles in an underground garage within a tunnel cut into the rock.

For all the efforts of the work, Daphne was looking at an estimated cost of $500,000 (more than $5 million in today’s dollars). But before construction could move beyond blueprints, Wright and Daphne had a falling out. Though the reasons are unclear, Daphne soon found himself seeking a new architect.

While on a road trip to Arizona the following year, Daphne found himself driving through Palm Springs. He was making his way back home to San Francisco when he decided to stop at a brand new shopping centre with a restaurant called the Town and Country Restaurant attached to it.

As Daphne made his way through the inviting large and open courtyard, walking along a serene walkway surrounded by immaculate landscaping, he couldn’t help but be impressed with the architectural work put into the building. Soon, he found himself on the phone once again, contacting the architects – a duo named Paul R. Williams and A. Quincy Jones.

While Jones was relatively a young architect at the time, he began working on Daphne’s mortuary project in 1949. However, as Jones was beginning work on Daphne mortuary, his other projects were beginning to receive acclaim, and with his new found publicity and a flood of new commissions, he soon realized he couldn’t handle the mounting projects alone.

In 1950, Jones soon partnered with his friend and engineer Frederick E. Emmons to form the firm of Jones and Emmons.

Meanwhile, as the firm continued to work on Daphne’s mortuary, the design retained much of Wright’s original features, but with fewer of the elaborate details that the architecture had included. Instead of an underground parking garage, Jones and Emmons saw instead an elevated building with an underground parking lot.

To further facilitate the business of funerary arts, Jones and Emmons included concealed ramps for transporting bodies to the second-floor viewing room, while further focusing their attention of including large panes of glass and interlocking structures of redwood and brick.

After months of construction, the first modernist mortuary was opened in the United States on October 16, 1953, and with its opening, so came the praise of the impressive beauty Daphne’s Mortuary brought.

As the San Francisco Call-Bulletin wrote at the time, “The beauty and dignity of the new home of San Francisco Funeral Service that opened today at No. 1 Church Street, is most impressive. A radical departure from structures of this nature, it achieves the artistry of modern architectural design with a reverential approach.”

But the Daphne Mortuary would not be met with open arms from his peers. For four decades, the mortuary would offer low-cost services – a mission that became Daphne’s calling mark. In fact, he would go so far as to advertise his $150 funerals on the obituary pages of the Chronicle and the Examiner to the disdain of the California Funeral Directors Association (who had previous set rules explicitly banning the advertisement of prices in print advertorials – especially considering the industry standard at the time was closer to $500).

Soon, the association expelled Daphne from being able to print ads, but this only fuelled his publicity to the point that he became known as the only funeral director whose prices were so low that it had led to him being expelled from a trade association. His business only increased in services.

With his success, Daphne further opened several other mortuaries through the Bay Area, including ones in Chinatown and the Richmond, where he continued to offer low prices, and often free funeral for policemen and firemen who died in the line of duty, as well as anyone who passed away between December 15 and December 31.

By 1960, Daphne became a key witness in a US Senate investigation on price-fixing in the funeral industry. It was through his arguments that the industry was structured to keep prices inflated to prevent competition that earned him new customers, continuing his on-going success as a funeral director working to change the way the industry worked.

However, by 1967, the Daphne Funeral Home was starting to see signs of decline, particularly after the building suffered a major fire. Though the structure was saved, many alterations were required, including the long windows being covered with vertical strips of wood, steel elements replacing aluminum and redwood coverings being replaced with gypsum boards.

While the alterations seemed reasonable at the time, the changes soon proved central to the funeral home’s decline, and by the mid-70s, modernist architecture soon saw a falling out as beauty, dignity and artistry no longer ranked in part of an architectural survey of the buildings historical significance.

But while the Daphne Funeral Home was considered a sterling example of midcentury modernism for its simple yet sophisticated blend of angles, surfaces and materials, along with a number of architectural historians considering the building one of Jones’ finest works, the 1980s saw the Daphne family spending much of their time trying to save another one of their properties from a takeover by the city.

For years, the city of San Francisco had been looking to build a park somewhere in Chinatown before setting their sites on Daphne’s Cathay Mortuary, located at the corner of Jackson and Powell Street. But even after offering the Daphne’s’ a sum of $2.75 million for the property, the family declined, claiming the mortuary, which they had been operating since 1946 was worth ten times that figure.

Soon, the Board of Supervisors voted to take over the funeral home by the power of eminent domain. To this, the family fought back, using numerous arguments in an attempt to retain their control of the funeral home by addressing the unfair price being offered, how other sites with more direct sunlight should have been considered and that a study should first be done to examine how the ousting of the mortuary would impact the community.

It wasn’t long before the issue was brought up to the courts, and despite the Daphne family’s vow of fighting the case, the Court of Appeals soon ruled against the family in 1989. But the Daphne’s continued to fight against the city until March 31, 1990, when Nicholas passed away at his home at the age of 82. With the patriarch and visionary of the Daphne Funeral Home deceased, Daphne’s widow, Virginia reluctantly gave up her fight with the city and sold the Cathay Mortuary for $5.7 million.

While the family continued to operate the funeral home through the 1990s, word soon began to spread that the Daphne’s were looking to sell their property. This was fortunate news for the city who had recently formed a partnership between the Bridge Housing Corporation with perspectives of building 93 units of low-income housing on the site – a task which would see the mortuary ultimately demolished.

But during this time, the Daphne Funeral Home had already garnered the appreciation of nearby residents who saw the mortuary as a historical focal point within the city, both for its unique design and its status as an urban oasis. So when news of the Bridge Housing plans became public, neighbors sprang into action forming the Coalition to Save the Daphne, along with several local preservation organizations and architectural experts, who in turn argued the historic value of the property.

With the building being reviewed by the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board in 1999, it was ruled that the Daphne Funeral Home would not be eligible for listing on the National Register, with the Historic Resources Commission ruling similarly, stating, “When constructed, the Daphne Funeral Home was an early example in San Francisco of a small commercial building designed in a modernistic style. Unfortunately, the building suffered a major fire in 1967, which resulted in a substantial loss of original materials and alterations, which have destroyed the character of the building from its period construction.

“The nomination does not establish that the substantial alterations to the building dating from 1967 fire have achieved significance over time… The cumulative effect of these alterations is that the property no longer can recall is original sense of time and place as an example of early 1950s modernist architecture, and the building, as altered only 32 years ago, does not appear to be exceptionally significant in its own right.”

With that, the Bridge Housing bought the ownership to the Daphne Funeral Home for $6 million, and subsequently demolished the building, making way for 93 units of affordable housing.

 

 

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