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By Jonathan Haeber
I find it difficult to write about places I have not seen or photographed – let alone places that disappeared over a century ago. But it’s the exercise of researching and viewing such places through the prism of the past that compels me continue my own efforts at double-speed. Without these scintillas of inspiration, I probably wouldn’t have the ambition to continue my documentation.
This entry probably represents the first location I’ve written about that I have not witnessed or photographed first-hand. In fact, you’d probably be hard-pressed to find a living soul on this Earth who has been inside of the second home of the California Academy of Sciences at 833 Market Street.
First, let me begin with a bit of a story. This story begins in the Summer of 2004, when I had just graduated and moved to a quaint little apartment on the corner of 48th and Irving, right across from the Golden Gate Park and steps away from the Pacific Ocean. I took to exploring the park on my bike, and eventually found myself, for the first time, on the grounds of the 1894 midwinter exposition of San Francisco. Back then the DeYoung Museum, as we know it now, looked like a shiny new, copper penny, and it was yet to be opened. Across from the DeYoung was a white building, slowly succumbing to the environment. It was the original aquarium for the California Academy of Sciences – and it was one among many solo experiences that led to my interest in building hacking.
I pondered what was inside of that building, which dated back to 1913 (I had managed to see when it was abandoned, long before the construction crews had moved in to begin on the new Cal Academy). I had a burning curiosity to see what sort of artificial landscape was built inside. I could only imagine the grand columns and wrought-iron banisters — all of it locked up inside of a decrepit institution, like many that closed after suffering through the Loma Prieta Earthquake.
What I didn’t realize was that I would soon find myself in that building, but only after it had become the new California Academy of Sciences, LEED certified, with 60,000 photovoltaic cells and a cornucopia of California flora literally growing on its roof. Inside of this new $500 million facility, I spent the day dodging hyper children and fingerprint-covered aquarium glass to find myself on the East end of the building, watching a short documentary about the history of the Academy.
Then, suddenly, it appeared. The photo wasn’t for more than a few seconds, but I couldn’t help but be enthralled by its potential, fully hoping that this foyer still existed, with all of its incredible accouterments and embellishments.
It’s not too often that one sees a truly enthralling building. In fact, in my lifetime (and believe me, I’ve explored HUNDREDS of buildings), I’ve probably only been truly in awe with three, possibly four — max. I would never have imagined being enthralled with a building via vicarious exploration of it through mere images. But the second home of the California Academy of Sciences was a true house of elegance.
The photo of the central atrium of the 1891-1906 Cal Academy of Sciences reminded me of another building I saw in Detroit, the Farwell building, which was originally encrusted in hand-cut pieces of colored glass from Louis Tiffany himself. The ceiling, eight stories above – through an open-air foyer – was a Tiffany chandelier, which disappeared one night after a building fire.
Unfortunately, the Market Street California Academy of Sciences no longer exists — it was destroyed in the 1906 Earthquake. Academy curators and staffers reportedly ran to the building on Market street and rescued a single cart of materials, including Academy minute books, membership records, and 2,000 type specimens.
Everything else – 50 years of research and the brain trust of the newly minted state’s scientific heritage – had been destroyed. The massive Mammoth in the central atrium was consumed by fire – and only a single tusk was retrieved.
What makes it all the more intriguing to me is the weight that such an anonymous photo could have in my mind. I began to think: It was once a beautiful, public space that probably filled the imaginations of numerous children in its brief life from 1893 to 1906. Today one isn’t privileged to see the Mammoth, or stand in the central skylit area to admire the repeating patterns of ornate railings and tall columns of marble.
Call me a traditionalist, but just from my perception of one photo, taken by an anonymous person over 100 years ago – I can honestly say that I’d rather have the Academy of today look like that. But the truth is, the 1891 Academy – no matter how much I would like it to – no longer exists. And oddly enough, in the moments that I doubt what I do through my photography, or its true impact, I briefly think of this building.
The photos I’ve gathered of the 1891 California Academy of Sciences are the only ones I know that exist. They’re just snapshots from an anonymous photographer, but they’re of a world that exists in a different place now, one inaccessible to humans – replaced by modern high-rises and financial institutions. Years of architecture, and construction, hundreds of thousands of man-hours, hand-carved pillars, and hand-gathered specimens — all of them had become dust in the wind. But one thing remained: Those photos, the only visual record of what the interior once looked like.
Reference Site for Cal Academy Docents: Complete History of the Academy
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