The little sculpture affixed to your house: Anton Fazekas and the making of a midcentury San Francisco sensation

Most houses in the city have numbers on their fronts; there are a small part of the house’s exterior decor and often escape notice. On my recent socially distanced neighborhood walks I’ve been looking at them. Many houses in Sunnyside, as well as neighborhoods all over the city, have numbers encased in little frames like these.

There turns out to be an interesting history behind these numbers that begins with an artist named Anton Fazekas (1878-1966).

The Sculptor and the Designs

Fazekas was the designer and manufacturer of these ornamental house numbers, each with a little bulb to light up the digits. He patented three models in the early 1930s. They were solidly fabricated of die-cast iron, and held space for four or five numerals depending on the model, with large, plain, readable numerals made of enameled metal. Later he added italic numerals. The digits slotted into the back and were secured with a little bar that screwed down. The hood protecting the bulb could be removed, allowing the bulb to be easily changed.

In the Factory Salesroom

This undated photo shows Anton Fazekas with a display wall of his diverse offerings behind him, and in his hand the actual patents for the numerous items he invented. The identity of the man on the left is unknown, perhaps his partner in later years.

Anton Fazekas, on right, with a display of his house number and door chime products. Perhaps from a brochure or catelogue. Date unknown. From electrachime.net https://www.electrachime.net/long-bell-chimes/pre-1950-tubular-chimes/american-art-metal-tubular-doorbell-circa-1934/
Anton Fazekas (on right) with a display of his house number and door chime products. Perhaps from a brochure or catalogue. Date unknown. Thank you to Garrett of Pasadena for finding this treasure. From electrachime.net 

Below are Fazekas’s three models of illuminated house number designs, with the drawings from their patent applications. I have given them my own names, though no doubt Fazekas had his own model names or numbers for each, but I did not find them.

The Classic

This model, filed for patent in February 1932, is the most common style. The original style had space for up to four digits, but later he manufactured a version with space for five.

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The flat surfaces of this model are decorated by stippling, with distinctive hexagonal bosses set on square bases at each of the four corners as well as at the center-top and center-bottom. The upper edge rises to a shallow center point, and the lower edge has shallow steps which break up the horizontal, two on each side of the center. The hood conceals the bulb (under the protruding center-top boss), as well as the two screws that affix it to the building. The hood extends on either side only to the edges of the upper corner bosses, and is affixed by one screw at the center-top point, by which it can be removed to change the bulb.

The backside of the 'classic' model. The small bar on the right holds the digits in place after they are slid in. Photo: Amy O'Hair
The backside of the ‘classic’ model. The small bar on the right holds the digits in place after they have been inserted. Photo: Amy O’Hair

The Deco

This model is much less common in the city, but I find it more distinctive. Fazekas filed this patent slightly earlier, in June 1931. It has space for up to five digits.

1499081887939021675-D0084886

This model makes extensive use of the embossed triangle as space-filling motif. There is a row of five nearly equilateral triangles along the bottom edge, with elongated triangles at either side. The top sports a protruding, faceted, triangular-shaped hood to conceal the bulb, which rises to a shallow point at the center-top and is decorated with a square at the center and two elongated triangles on either side. The hood is affixed with a screw at the top point, and the whole unit is attached to the building by visible screws on all four corners–something Fazekas modified later, certainly finding that two screws were sufficient to the job.


The Slimline

This is the simplest of the three, with a smaller hood for the bulb and no extra bulk. Fazekas filed the patent for this design at the same time in 1932 as the ‘classic’ model shown above. The patent drawing is slightly different from the model as it was manufactured later.

1499070069552003167-D0087912

It had space for up to five digits, and features a hood with a square protruding boss hiding the bulb. For surface decoration, it is adorned with fish-scales on the hood, and along the sides and bottom there are finely ridged strips outlined by thicker ridges. The unit is affixed to the building with two visible screws at each side. The hood is for bulb held on by two screws at the upper corners.


The American Art Metal Catalogue, 1940

Thanks to Robert Dobrin of ElectraChime.net, I can present a few pages from Anton Fazekas’s catalogue, showing the incredible range of items on offer from his company.

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The text on the first page includes a list of the many products, such as door chimes, door grilles, mail boxes, ornamental push-buttons, and so on.

“We have invented and patented the FIRST and ONLY ILLUMINATED HOUSE NUMBER with removable hood surface type. Therefore San Francisco is the birthplace of this useful invention, and San Francisco is the the first city in the United States were [sic] 100 percent of the new houses are using ILLUMINATED HOUSE NUMBERS. During the past eight years FORTY THOUSAND of these ILLUMINATED HOUSE NUMBERS were installed in the Bay Region.”

The writer, perhaps Fazekas himself, goes on to call out the “disharmony” of the usual mishmash of styles of the domestic harware found on many hosues–of mail boxes, door bell buttons, door grilles, and necessary items.

“We are producing all these in artistic design and in perfect uniformity, harmonizing with each other and with any style of house.” 


Leave the Light On

I’ve seen many of these units on houses in the city with their little bulb glowing—who knows for how long, as some early lightbulbs had much longer lives than later incandescents with their engineered obsolescence.


From Budapest to San Francisco

Anton Fazekas emigrated from Hungary in 1904, age twenty-six, having already trained in his field in Budapest.[1] He belonged to the Magyar ethnic group.[2] He first lived in Manhattan, where he met and married his wife, Etta, who was also Hungarian. They came to San Francisco after the 1906 Quake, where he did plaster work at first. All of his life, when asked to put his profession on documents, he said “sculptor.”[3]

His company, American Art Metal Works, operated from 1913[4] through the early 1950s. It was located at 13 Grace Street, off Mission Street in the South of Market district. Anton and Etta also lived above the shop.

No doubt he sculpted the figures on the marquee photographed for this advertisement, which predates his house-number invention. (Could it be that Etta was his model and muse?)

1918. Ad for American Art Metal Works. Western Architects and Engineers.
1918. Ad for American Art Metal Works. Western Architects and Engineers.

Grander Work in Gold

Fazekas’s work in ornamental metal was hardly limited to the little house-number units. When City Hall was rebuilt in 1915, he did the ornate gold-leaf work around the windows.[5]

2019-redeyecollectioncom_san-francisco-city-hall-entrance
City Hall, San Francisco. Source: redeyecollection.com

The following year, for the big campaign to light up Market Street and create a “Path of Gold,” Fazekas did the gold-leaf work on the famous street light fixtures.[6] Read more about those here.

2012-Market-St-light-artandarchitecture-sf-com__DSC_40401
2012. Original Path of Gold light fixture on Market Street, with gold work by Anton Fazekas. Image courtesy https://www.artandarchitecture-SF.com

For the Motherland

In the mid-1920s, Fazekas was involved in benefit work for children afflicted by tuberculosis in his homeland, Hungary. He helped organize a VIP-studded fundraiser ball at the Fairmount Hotel in May 1924, after which he traveled to Hungary in August.

In 1926, in conjunction with the visit to the city by a public health official from Hungary, he organized another benefit for the children. Hungary had had a high level of mortality from TB for many years after WWI, but, beginning at this point, the disease was brought under better control—although the country subsequently reversed those advances when it fell under Soviet rule after WWII. [7]

For his passport application, Anton Fazekas had a photo taken, looking much as he does in the previous one.

1924-Passport-Anton-Fazekas-photo_USM1490_2475-0192
1924. Anton Fazekas, passport photo. Ancestry.com

Early Marketing

His metal works firm had other contacts over the years, but nothing touches the sheer volume of the illuminated house-number units it manufactured from the year he patented it to his retirement in the early 1950s. I estimate many thousands of San Francisco houses still carry the units, including my own in Sunnyside.

A good indicator when you are onto something good is when people steal your idea. In 1934, Fazekas was forced to defend his patents for illuminated house numbers against several imitators. He won.[8]

Fazekas sold the units directly at the beginning, as shown in these classified ads.

In 1937 the Stoneson Brothers contracted with Fazekas to provide the house numbers for the mock-Georgian manor houses of their Lakeside tract (now part of Merced Manor), as well as the door chimes and door grilles. View one of his magnificent door chimes here.


The Women behind the Campaign

The quality and appeal of Fazekas’s unique ornamental and practical designs do not fully explain the preponderance of his work adorning San Francisco houses. To widely popularize the units would take another unique effort—a campaign by city clubwomen to get them installed across the city, which took place from 1938 to 1940.

The drive begin in January 1938 when Mayor Angelo Rossi formed the Citizens City Beautiful Committee, in order to get the city into shape ahead of the Golden Gate International Exposition, which was to open the following year. Part of the agenda was installing lighting—for trees, buildings, streets. “Shine for ’39” was the campaign slogan. The humble but novel illuminated house number was one of the many items chosen as a focus.

Soon the San Francisco Women’s Chamber of Commerce (SFWCC) launched a campaign—the first of four campaigns—doing the practical and unpaid work of going door to door, urging homeowners all over the city to install the units.

SF Examiner, 6 Jun 1938. Newspapers.com
SF Examiner, 6 Jun 1938. Newspapers.com

At the end of the year, the writer of the clubwomen’s column, “The Deuce of Clubs,” reported the efforts by the SFWCC to get all homeowners to install the lighted numbers by the date of the opening of the Golden Gate International Exposition in February, or, failing that, by the date in April that was set out as “San Francisco Day” at the fair.[9] Always good to set concrete goals.

‘Real Money Maker’

Buoyed by the attention of the Mayor’s committee and the clubwomen, someone associated with Fazekas solicited and trained salespeople to market the units, working from a light industrial building around the corner from the metal works on Grace Street. I don’t know how the operation was coordinated, or who did the installations and electrical hookups, but surely Fazekas himself oversaw the work.

Soapbox Favorite

Between 1938 and 1955, the LA-based syndicated columnist EV Durling regularly exhorted people in his columns to install the units. “Illuminated home numbers should be compulsory. I am certain all persons employed as messengers and delivery men will agree with me.” “You can buy illuminated numbers for less than three dollars.”[10] Good sensible advice.

The SF Examiner supported the SFWCC campaigns, running editorials when the group was ramping up for another round of door-knocking and publicity. In March 1938, the editor said of the progress made by the Women’s Chamber of Commerce in making house numbers visible: “Now they’re getting somewhere.”[11]

“San Franciscans have been too coy about their addresses. They have made a secret of their house numbers, concealing the numerals in dark and mysterious retreats, as if the numbers were moon-flowers that would fold up in daylight.”[12]

San Francisco Leads the Nation

The clubwomen held a second drive in July 1939, when Mrs Cecil Cooley ran the committee.[13] When the third campaign was launched in November 1939, with the SFWCC appointing members to call on the home owners in every district in the city.

Miss Marion Feary, heading up the renewed effort by the SFWCC, said:

“Practically every new house built in San Francisco has illuminated address numbers, and many older places have also installed this aid to the stranger in the city. San Francisco lead the Nation in illuminated numbers, but we must keep plugging it if we are to keep our enviable position.” [14]

The following month the SF Police Chief William Quinn endorsed the women’s efforts, citing the importance of illuminated house numbers for doctors and police officers trying to find houses under urgent circumstances.[15] “The police like tourists have trouble finding an address if the number is hidden in the shrubbery.”[16] (Although a little lightbulb won’t trim your bushes for you.)

The Last Drive

Efforts by the clubwomen were renewed again for the fourth and final push in October 1940.

SF Examiner, 22 Oct 1940. Newspapers.com
SF Examiner, 22 Oct 1940. Newspapers.com

Forty thousand installed! Every dwelling! Anton Fazekas was headed for an excellent retirement.

Mrs William O’Donnell, president of the SFWCC, reported that the Chamber of Commerce in Des Moines, Iowa, was “requesting information on the procedure used to interest householders in illuminated numbers so it can start a similar drive.”[17]

The editors of the Examiner again endorsed the drive. “It is a convenience which householders owe their friends, as bright sign of hospitality.”[18]

By then the message about lighted house numbers had perhaps reached its maximum depth of saturation in the city. The Golden Gate International Exposition was over. Mayor Rossi’s City Beautiful committee was disbanded, having as its last project the restoration and installation of the “Pioneer Mother” sculpture in Golden Gate Park.[19] Read more about that statue here.

People’s attention turned to the growing threat of war.

Going Dark

In the days after Pearl Harbor was attacked in December 1941, the city came under blackout orders. Now that same organization of clubwomen was compelled to undertake a new campaign—to get homeowners to disconnect the bulbs in their new house-number units! City government had ordered these tiny bulbs included in the general blackout guidelines as a precaution.[20]

SF Examiner, 14 Dec 1941.
SF Examiner, 14 Dec 1941. Newspapers.com

During the War, when metal supplies were in short supply for civilian industries, Fazekas turned his industriousness toward other pursuits. In 1942 he placed a want ad asking for two hundred gallons of aged Sauternes wine. I don’t know what he planned to do with it.

This endeavor may remain ever a mystery. SF Examiner, 16 May 1943.
This endeavor may remain ever a mystery. SF Examiner, 16 May 1943.

Still on the Wish List

After the War, the San Francisco Women’s Chamber of Commerce returned to their campaign, albeit with a much-reduced level of enthusiasm. In December 1945, lighted house numbers was still on their list of priorities, along with thirteen other items, such as improved transportation, better housing, and “harmony between business and labor.”[21]

There would never again be a similar concerted drive in the city—backed by newspaper columnists, editors, and civic leaders and committees—for such a humble home improvement as illuminated house numbers.

Standard Issue

The units continued to be used in new houses for some decades to come.

Bowman's was around the corner from Fazekas's metal works. SF Examiner, 27 Jun 1941. Newspapers.com
Bowman’s was around the corner from Fazekas’s metal works. SF Examiner, 27 Jun 1941. Newspapers.com

An editorial in the Examiner in 1948 trotted out the idea again, reminding homeowners, “Visible and illuminated house numbers can easily be placed. So why not fix them unless one is a hermit or a fugitive?” Perhaps it was a slow news day.

Even into the 1960s, Fazekas’s designs were being produced and installed by builders. Miraloma Park developers used them with great regularity on the greatly regular little junior-fives that lined the curving streets on Mount Davidson in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Cresta Vista, Coventry, and Molimo. Many of the houses have the ‘slimline’ design, although some are gone now.

The result is mixed, as this numbering unit has room for five digits, and many of the houses here need but one or two. Spacers—either for a full or half space—were used to separate the digits. A builder had discretion about how to display the house number, and the effect on these isn’t always pleasing.

Century-Old Technology Does the Job

Many of the unit are still lighted up today, and still effective at night.

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No Garlands for Imitators

Although there were many patents filed for other lighted house-number units during these years, I’ve not found any of those models on San Francisco houses.

Here are some of the designs—none of which offer the eye anything but functionality in design, and they clearly lack anything approaching Fazekas’s ornamental effect. It can be a long way between a patent and a manufactured and marketed product, and many of these never saw their way onto homes.

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There are some other types of illuminated (or once illuminated) designs that did make it to the manufacturing stage, which I have spotted in the city. But many are made of materials that have not stood the test of time, like plastic. Here is a gallery of rogues, the local competitors to Fazekas’s design:

More from American Art Metal Works

Fazekas’s company also produced illuminated house number units to accommodate more than one number, for multi-unit buildings.


A favorite of mine is his mail slot, designed to match the ‘classic’ house numbers, which featured a charming rising sun.


He also patented a combination house number/mail slot/doorbell unit, which is a prized rarity in the outré field of house-number spotters.

Too much! Fazekas patent for combo lighted house numbers-doorbell-mail slot. Filed June 1933.
Too much! Fazekas patent for combo lighted house numbers-doorbell-mail slot. Filed June 1933.

Lastly, here is an ornamental door grille, which shows his trademark hexagonal bosses. This item fitted into the front door at eye level, and opened from the inside to safely allow a resident to see who was knocking at the door before opening it, and was sometimes called a speakeasy. [Thank you to Garrett from Pasadena, who wrote to enlighten me about this.] If you have seen one of these on a midcentury San Francisco house, please write me.

Fazekas patent for a grille, with elegant grecian lady as ornament. Filed Dec 1932.
Fazekas patent for a door grille, with elegant grecian lady as ornament on the inside cover. Filed Dec 1932.

Eighty Years On

Fazekas’s designs have their own vulnerabilities—the most common breakdown is the loss of the protective hood and bulb. Although they came primed with dark grey out of the box, many were never painted and so have suffered weathering. The numeral plates have a tendency to rust around the edges. One I spotted employed an ornamental lion to plug the hole left by the missing bulb.

Still, many people have cared for their illuminated house numbers over the years, leaving a plethora of variously adorned little cast-iron metal sculptures in every neighborhood of the city


The End of a Working Life

Just after the War, Fazekas advertised to sell his business.

1946May12-Examiner-AD-sale-of-business-fazekas
SF Examiner, 12 May 1946. Newspapers.com

He didn’t find a buyer then, but he did find a partner after advertising again in 1949.

SF Chronicle, 9 Oct 1949.
SF Chronicle, 9 Oct 1949.

The new partner apparently took on the greater part of the work of the firm.[23] Finally, in 1952, at age 74, it was time to fully retire. He advertised again, but I don’t know if he was successful. In any case, Anton and Etta Fazekas moved to a house in the Excelsior district soon after.

The building on Grace Street went up in a big fire in 1955.

SF Chronicle, 27 Aug 1955. SF Public Library.
SF Chronicle, 27 Aug 1955. SF Public Library.

I hope this was not an insurance swindle to pay for the house. I’d rather think of him retiring on the profits of forty thousand little illuminated house numbers at two dollars fifty each. The lot lay vacant until 2019, when a condo complex was built on it.

After moving from the metal works, Fazekas lived another dozen or so years, before passing away in 1966.

SF Examiner, 28 Dec 1966. Newspapers.com
Obituary for Anton Fazekas. SF Examiner, 28 Dec 1966. Newspapers.com

A Widespread Legacy

Despite his work on the elegant glinting lights along Market Street and the gold flourishes at City Hall, the illuminated numbers on San Francisco’s houses remain the most accessible, if humble, work that Anton Fazekas leaves as his legacy today.

1942-WWI-Signature-Fazekas
Signature of Anton Fazekas, from his WWII draft card. Ancestry.com.

Addendum

In 1960, Anton’s nephew Leslie Joseph Fazekas (1916-2007) updated his uncle’s work, filing a patent for an illuminated house number plate, with this more modern design. View it here.


The author thanks @VulcanStairway for instigating the unusual and slightly outrageous Covid-era folie à deux, filed for the ages under #aspirationaladdressfonts.


ENDNOTES

  1. As per ship manifests and naturalization documents at Ancestry.com.
  2. According to Fazekas’s self-reported information on the 1920 US Census.
  3. As per census records ship manifests, and naturalizations documents at Ancestry.com.
  4. According to the classified ad that Fazekas placed in 1946 to sell the business, it had been established 33 years before: SF Examiner, 12 May 1946, p38.
  5. “Anton Fazekas” [obituary], SF Examiner, 28 Dec 1966.
  6. “Anton Fazekas” [obituary], SF Examiner, 28 Dec 1966.
  7. Murray JF, Loddenkemper R (eds): Tuberculosis and War. Lessons Learned from World War II. Prog Respir Res. Basel, Karger, 2018, vol 43, pp 165-170. https://doi.org/10.1159/000481484
  8. “Patent Ownership Set,” SF Chronicle, 20 Sep 1934, p7.
  9. “Deuce of Clubs,” SF Examiner, 22 Dec 1939.
  10. EV Durling, SF Examiner, 29 Nov 1940; and EV Durling, SF Examiner, 18 Feb 1944.
  11. “Getting Somewhere” [editorial], SF Examiner, 21 Mar 1938.
  12. “Shining House Numbers” [editorial], SF Examiner, 9 Jun 1938. Also, “More Light” [editorial], SF Examiner, 28 Nov 1939.
  13. “Annual Hobby Show Planned by Chamber,” SF Examiner, 6 Jul 1939.
  14. “New Lighted Number Drive: Third Campaign to Open Wednesday at Luncheon,” SF Examiner, 24 Nov 1939.
  15. “Quinn Backs Lighting as Safety Aid,” SF Examiner, 13 Dec 1939.
  16. Quinn quoted in “Deuce of Clubs,” SF Examiner, 5 Nov 1940.
  17. “SF Club’s Campaign Wins Fame,” SF Examiner, 2 Oct 1940. This researcher had a look at the middle-class houses of Des Moines on Google street-view, though failed to spot even one illuminated house number unit, so perhaps they did not take the women’s advice to heart.
  18. “Light the Doorway! Illuminated House Numbers Increase” [editorial], SF Examiner, 21 Oct 1940.
  19. “Beautification Group Appeals for Stature,” SF Examiner, 18 Feb 1940.
  20. “Five new Blackout Rules for SF,” SF Examiner, 11 Dec 1941.
  21. Hazel Holly, “Women’s Groups Plan Many Holiday Festivities,” SF Examiner, 11 Dec 1945.
  22. Classified ad, SF Chronicle, 8 Jun 1947, p65.
  23. Classified ad, SF Chronicle, 9 Oct 1949.

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