A Look at the Cal Academy of Sciences of 1891-1906

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By Jonathan H

cal-academy

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.

The fine arts building of the midwinter exposition of 1894

The fine arts building of the Midwinter Exposition of 1894

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.

The Long-gone California Academy Mammoth, which was destroyed by the Great Quake of 1906

The Long-gone California Academy Mammoth, which was destroyed by the Great Quake of 1906

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.

The central atrium of Detroit's Farwell Building, which seems to be fashioned in the same style as the 1891-1906 California Academy of Sciences Building.

The central atrium of Detroit's Farwell Building, which seems to be fashioned in the same "Chicago-school" style as the 1891-1906 California Academy of Sciences Building.

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.

A photo of the building after the Great Quake of 1906.

A photo of the building after the Great Quake of 1906.

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.

An slightly awkward photo of a Cal Academy atendee standing in front of a Grizzley. Just look at those railings!

A slightly awkward photo of a Cal Academy atendee standing in front of a Grizzly. Just look at those railings!

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.

Further Research

Reference Site for Cal Academy Docents: Complete History of the Academy
[Note: This file is a PowerPoint Presentation - You'll Need Microsoft Office]

kathleensf.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/visitor-pp-final2.ppt

14 comments on “A Look at the Cal Academy of Sciences of 1891-1906

  1. AmyHeiden on said:

    Wow! I have never seen these photos until now. What a beautiful place it was. The foyer is magnificent, definitely mimics that of the Farwell building.

    Wonderful piece with great insight into a place I never knew about.

  2. upshift on said:

    Another great writeup! And yes, love those railings. So exquisite!

  3. Jennalee on said:

    These are the most gorgeous pictures.

    It’s amazing how much of a magical place this was. I wish places like this still existed.
    The new museum is entirely too modern for me, it lost all it’s charm. It’s like what they
    did to the De Young. :(

  4. Pingback: Academy of Science Destroyed in Fire, Earthquake: Before the Academy of Science was…

  5. Marcus on said:

    The Natural History Museum of Ireland in Dublin is a dead-ringer for the old Academy, possibly even trumping it in Victorian charm. Well worth the visit!

  6. Pingback: Friday Roundup

  7. Blaize on said:

    “[I]n the moments that I doubt what I do through my photography, or its true impact….”

    I understand the doubt you express here, and I appreciate the humility. But your work has impact on your viewers. Or, at least, on me.

    Just today, I recommended your Neverland Ranch photos to Charles Holland of fantasticjournal.
    http://fantasticjournal.blogspot.com/2009/07/never-neverland.html

    Your photos were the very first thing I thought of when I saw Charles is wanting to write about Neverland.

  8. Barbara on said:

    If you liked that, you’ll love this. Amazing inside and out.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galerie_de_pal%C3%A9ontologie_et_d%E2%80%99anatomie_compar%C3%A9e

  9. Wonderful photo essay Jonathan.

  10. Joe Chasse on said:

    My younger brother just turned me on to your website and blog. BLESS HIS HEART, as I think I am going to enjoy perusing your art!

  11. Mr. ni on said:

    I’m rather fond of the openness of the Chicago style of architecture, I’ve seen a few examples in books that are so complicated that if not for the photo I wouldn’t believe they were ever built. I checked HABS-HAER but didn’t find anything, did you find the before & after(math) photos in a library in SF?

  12. James Haskell on said:

    It is just really sad that no one stepped in to save the building. I was beautiful in its day.

  13. James: I agree

  14. Matthew James on said:

    Very nice article and photos. I notice there are no comments above after 2009, so I don’t know if this site is still active. Quick note to say I am writing a book on the history of the California Academy of Sciences and its 1905-06 scientific collecting expedition to the Galapagos Islands, which was in Galapagos when the 1906 earthquake and fire occurred. The some 78,000 specimens collected formed the basis for the 2nd Academy when it was rebuilt in Golden Gate Park.

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