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Arts & Culture, Historic & Traditional

Tournament of Ornament

Ben shares the details about his recent trip to San Francisco, discussing the role of buildings in terms of whether they are monuments or part of the urban fabric.

September 23, 2014

There’s a saying in urban design – buildings in a city fall into one of two categories: they are either monuments (buildings that stand out), or fabric (buildings that blend in.)

San Fran 171

Many American cities are a woven tapestry of fabric. Take Seattle, for instance. We have our Space Needle and EMP and Seattle Central Library. But, we also have multitudes of mid-rise brick apartment buildings, hoards of craftsman stock homes, and now the ubiquitous Pacific NW style slathered on just about every new building.

Monument Fabric

One of the things that was rather striking about my recent trip to San Francisco was discovering that the urban fabric there is made up entirely of monuments. Every house in a row of houses covering a hillside competes with the next in a tournament of ornament. There is so much vivid color everywhere, massive cornices adorn adjacent Victorians, and whimsy amasses as far as the eye can see. San Francisco is a venerable architectural candy store.

It wasn’t my first trip to San Francisco, so I was interested in discovering new parts of the city. A day long bike ride which took my boyfriend and me along the waterfront esplanade, up Telegraph Hill, through North Beach and Chinatown, and toward Golden Gate Park culminated in a visit to an unexpected architectural treasure at the end of a secluded cul-de-sac in the Richmond neighborhood – The Neptune Columbarium. I had never heard of it, but grateful for the hot tip.


Originally part of the Odd Fellows Cemetery, it’s the lone remnant from a time when below ground burials were common in San Francisco. In the early 1900’s, city officials blamed the dead on a plague outbreak, and pressure mounted from developers who recognized what valuable real estate the city’s deceased inhabited. It was mandated that all cemeteries be relocated outside the city, with a few notable exceptions such as the historic cemetery at Mission Dolores and the National Cemetery at the Presidio. Today, the Columbarium remains the one of the only place you can be interred within city limits.

Sure, it’s a beautiful neo-classical building with mosaic floors and patterned marble in a multi-level, domed rotunda. Light pours in through dozens of stained glass windows. But, the really fascinating bits are in the 8,000 or so inurnment spaces. The older ones are what you would expect: urns of ashes and names of long gone loved ones. But this edifice is a window into San Francisco’s frenetic history which is literally glittered in the great coming out story of gay culture both tragic and divine. The AIDS epidemic led to an influx of new – dare I say, more colorful residents. Spaces from this era are decorated with the most important pieces of each person’s life – photos, mementos, trinkets, collages, rainbows. These dioramas are remarkable. The tournament of ornament persists, never have I experienced the passing of complete strangers to be so weirdly splendid.


Unlike the rest of the city, there is plenty of vacant real estate in the newly constructed addition - what a cool way to be remembered. In a city full of monuments, this is a new favorite.

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