All posts filed under: History

Building a Window Into The Past

In my search to understand what it felt like to walk the halls and offices of the Montgomery Block, just having architectural drawings — even very detailed ones — wouldn’t be sufficient. Luckily, the Historic American Buildings Survey of the Montgomery Block contains a handful of black-and-white reference photographs of both interior and exterior views. The photograph above was a crucial document for confirming wall thicknesses, general construction quality, and condition of the building. It was also a perfect test subject for my 3D model of the building.  If everything shown in the photograph aligned with the corresponding feature in my model, then I would know for sure that my model was right. The first step in building my own Montgomery Block was to follow the instructions for building the subcomponents. Doors, chair rails, stairs, and windows all had been meticulously measured and recorded, and all I needed to do was to transfer those measurements into the digital world, then copy and paste them throughout, according to the floor plan, until I had a completed model. In theory, it would be a simple process. Building the first door — just one …

Image credit: Annals of San Francisco, 1855

Why the Montgomery Block?

On the second floor was an expansive fern-lined lobby, with flocked wallpaper, polished brass hardware. Low-hanging clouds of cigar smoke were puffed by the influential merchants, lawyers, and gamblers who plied their enterprises in San Francisco. Among them was a 28-year-old newspaperman from Missouri named Samuel Clemens. He became a regular fixture in the lobby, where he absorbed sensational fodder for articles about the flamboyant and raucous new city. Downstairs on the northwest corner of the building would be The Bank Exchange, the bar made world-famous for Duncan Nicol’s invention of the Pisco Punch. Later still, on the southwest corner, Bohemian artists would paint murals in exchange for wine and a warm meal at Coppa’s Restaurant, dining together in candlelight on the evening after the 1906 earthquake. Over the years, Robert Louis Stevenson, Ambrose Bierce, Bret Harte, and dozens of painters, sculptors, poets, and playwrights would make their studios and homes within the warren of tiny rooms scattered throughout its four stories. Two newspapers, a gold foundry, a bathhouse, and a library would occupy its retail spaces. I have spent several months visiting libraries and private photo archives, poring over old books and drawings, and transcribing …