OpenSFHistory.org

The Whales: Yet to be Saved

For the Golden Gate International Exposition, sculptor Robert Boardman Howard created a magnificent fountain called The Whales. Later it was installed at the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences, where it was a familiar sight to visitors for half a century. Then it languished in storage outdoors at City College of San Francisco Ocean Campus. Restoration has yet to happen, and now it is tucked away at an SF Arts Commission storage facility awaiting funding and badly needed attention.

The Whales by Robert Howard, at Steinhart Aquarium in 1960. OpenSFHistory.org
The Whales by Robert Howard, at Steinhart Aquarium in 1960. OpenSFHistory.org

Curious Sunnysiders walking through nearby City College may have noticed the sculpture stored there over the last several years. It was a sad site–noble and elegant killer whales peeking forlornly out from under tarpaulins and straps. In real life, some communities of this species are endangered; these massive animals rendered in stone looked equally condemned to extinction.

The Whales by Robert Howard, at CCSF Ocean Campus in July 2015. Photo: Amy O'Hair
The Whales by Robert Howard, at CCSF Ocean Campus in July 2015. Photo: Amy O’Hair

The work is no longer there; after fourteen years tucked away in an inauspicious spot behind the old Pizza Hut-shaped bungalows near Judson Avenue and Frida Kahlo Way, it was removed last year. The area was recently rebuilt with new temporary structures to provide classroom space in anticipation of construction work elsewhere on campus. Restoration for the work is planned, but funding is not in place.

Born on Treasure Island

Howard was commissioned by the City of San Francisco to create the work for the World’s Fair on Treasure Island, 1939-1940. It was the centerpiece of the San Francisco Building there, a gleaming, elegant work, spouting water and bookended by two smaller aquatic sculptures by Cecilia Bancroft Graham.

The Whales by Robert Howard, in the San Francisco building at the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939. OpenSFHistory.org
The Whales by Robert Howard, in the San Francisco building at the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939. OpenSFHistory.org
The Whales by Robert Howard, in the San Francisco building at the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939. Photo: Treasure Island Museum.
The Whales by Robert Howard, in the San Francisco building at the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939. Photo: Treasure Island Museum.

The species that Howard depicted, the orca or killer whale (Orcinus orca) is known for ‘porpoising’ or leaping with powerful grace out of the water, a characteristic that he used to excellent effect in the work. The two whale figures create an exciting spiral of motion as they leap around one another, a move which is unlikely to have ever been exactly observed in nature, but by which Howard captures the vibrant spirit of the creatures.

Killer whales are not a danger to humans, but as apex predators, they eat many other ocean creatures, including dolphins.

As of 2016, California banned the breeding of killer whales in captivity, as well as the circus-like shows that aquatic parks like Sea World San Diego were famous for for many decades.

Making The Whales

The sculpture is thirteen feet high, and cast from a composite of black granite. “I made a scale model. Three inches to the foot, a quarter full size, and then from that I enlarged it in clay and then made a mold and caste it in the mold in pieces,” recounted Hoard in a 1964 oral history.[1] It was assembled at the fair.

The engineer who manufactured the final version was Andrea Minutoli (1880-1950), a Sicilian-born stone worker who pioneered cast stone processes for architectural work; his company, called Travertite, was founded in the early 1900s in San Francisco. ‘Travertite stone’ is found on many Bay Area buildings, such as Grace Cathedral and Stanford Hospital.[2]

Midcentury Art Worker

Over the course of a long working life as a sculptor and a painter, Robert Boardman Howard (1896-1983) left important pieces that remain a part of the landscape of San Francisco, as well other Northern California locales.

For Coit Tower in 1933, Howard created the only exterior artwork for the building, a phoenix rising from the flames, the perfect choice for a monument to one of the city’s best-loved champion of fire-fighters, Lillian Hitchcock Coit. Howard modeled the bird in clay, then it was cast in cement as the building was constructed.[3] Now that the Columbus statue has been removed this year, the Phoenix may be more noticeable.

Coit Tower, before Columbus was removed in 2020. The Phoenix by Robert Howard can be seen over the front door. Wikimedia.org
Coit Tower, before Columbus was removed in 2020. The Phoenix by Robert Howard can be seen over the front door. Wikimedia.org

The phoenix is a symbol for our time; in this year of multiple disasters, it offers needed inspiration for the city’s wearied spirits.

The Phoenix by Robert Howard, at Coit Tower. Photo: artandarchitecture-sf.org
The Phoenix by Robert Howard, at Coit Tower. Photo: artandarchitecture-sf.org

For several years, Howard worked with Timothy Pflueger, the architect who created the look of much of the city before WWII. In 1930, for the Pacific Coast Stock Exchange downtown, Howard worked on both interior murals and sculptures. “I think every artist in town got a job on that building,” Howard recalled in 1964.[4] He also did interior bas-reliefs for Pflueger’s Paramount Theater in Oakland.

South of Market, two bas-reliefs by Howard adorn the side of the PG&E substation at Eighth and Mission Streets. Entitled “Power and Light”, the 1948 work is worth a closer look; if you are like me, you may have passed through this intersection hundreds of time and never taken them in. Like the flames of the Phoenix, Howard’s use of deeply carved ridges in both curves and angles gives a sense of motion, heat, vibration, and energy.

'Power and Light' by Robert Howard (1948) on the PG&E Mission Substation, San Francisco. Photo: Amy O'Hair
‘Power and Light’ by Robert Howard (1948) on the PG&E Mission Substation, San Francisco. Eighth Street side. Photo: Amy O’Hair

In Livermore, Howard sculpted this WPA-funded marque for the Post Office, which is still in place.

Bas-relief over an interior door at the Livermore Post Office, by Robert Howard.
Bas-relief over an interior door at the Livermore Post Office, by Robert Howard. A farmer and a cowboy read there mail, under a rural mailbox, according to Howard’s own account. Photo: LivingNewDeal.org

Read more about his work here. In 1977, SF Art Institute honored the artist at the 99th commencement ceremony.[5] Howard passed away six year later in Santa Cruz County, at age eighty-six.

After the Fair

When the GGIE was shuttered in September 1940, The Whales went into storage. It was kept behind one of the stables at Golden Gate Park.[6] By 1952, Joe Dyer, Secretary of the San Francisco Arts Commission, was looking for a location to install the work, and the Steinhart Aquarium forecourt was his pick.[7] The aquarium had been built in the 1920s; by the 1950s, there was a pool in front, home to a single lonely sea lion.[8] In December 1956, the work was brought out of storage and put in place, but it was another year and a half before the dedication ceremony was held, which saw the first water spout up from the fountain.[9]

SF Examiner, 17 Dec 1956. Out of storage, the Whales is delivered to the Steinhart Aquarium. Newspapers.com
SF Examiner, 17 Dec 1956. Out of storage, the Whales is delivered to the Steinhart Aquarium. Newspapers.com

There The Whales remained for nearly five decades, an iconic and beloved work that greeted several generations of families on outings and students on school field trips.

The Whales by Robert Howard, at Steinhart Aquarium in about 1960. OpenSFHistory.org
The Whales by Robert Howard, at Steinhart Aquarium in about 1960. OpenSFHistory.org
The Whales by Robert Howard, at Steinhart Aquarium in 1959. OpenSFHistory.org
The Whales by Robert Howard, at Steinhart Aquarium in 1959. OpenSFHistory.org

In 1989, the work was mentioned in SF Arts Commission’s guide, San Francisco Civic Art Collection: A Guided Tour to Publicly Owned Art of the City and County of San Francisco.  The guide states: “These were so well like at the 1939 World’s Fair that they were recast, replacing the original material with the present, more permanent black granite.” I believe this is an error, as Howard clearly states that the material originally used for the Fair was black granite composite.

The Whales photographed for an article about SF Arts Commission's booklet of public art. SF Examiner, 21 July 1989. Newspapers.com
The Whales photographed for a review of SF Arts Commission’s booklet of public art. SF Examiner, 21 July 1989. Newspapers.com

Displaced and Homeless

When the California Academy of Sciences began their complete renovation of the buildings in Golden Gate Park in 2004, the work had to be moved. It ended up the following year at City College of San Francisco Ocean Campus, to join other works there that had also been created at the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE).[10]

The Whales by Robert Howard, at CCSF Ocean Campus in July 2015. Photo: Amy O'Hair
The Whales by Robert Howard, in storage at CCSF Ocean Campus in July 2015. Photo: Amy O’Hair

Best known of those works created for the Fair is Diego Rivera’s mural Pan-American Unity, currently being restored at SF Museum of Modern Art, and due to be returned to the CCSF campus when the new Diego Rivera Theater is completed on Frida Kahlo Way. Other GGIE works now located at the campus include the massive busts of Leonardo Da Vinci and Thomas Edison by Fred Olmsted, in Cloud Plaza.

Once fixed up, the place the college first proposed to place The Whales was in front of Science Hall, where Bufano’s Saint Francis of the Guns has been located since 1977. This prominent spot was the original front face of the college, as designed by Timothy Pflueger in the late 1930s.

The City College of San Francisco Science Building, viewed from Frida Kahlo Way. 2020. Photo: Amy O'Hair
The City College of San Francisco Science Building, viewed from Frida Kahlo Way. 2020. Photo: Amy O’Hair

Return of The Whales?

Later, when plans were made to build the new CCSF Wellness Center on the Ocean Avenue side of the campus, The Whales was slated to be placed on the lawn in front.[11] The building was finished in 2008. As far as I am able to gather, this location currently remains the intended destination of the sculpture, once it is restored.

When art restoration workers opened the sculpture in about 2016, they discovered it was more damaged on the interior than had been previously thought—hardly surprising for a work that was designed for indoors but which has spent sixty years outdoors.

The Whales, at CCSF Ocean Campus in February 2019, after being partially disassembled. Photo: Amy O'Hair
The Whales, at CCSF Ocean Campus in February 2019, after being partially disassembled. Photo: Amy O’Hair

In May 2019, the work was removed from the campus to an East Bay storage facility by SF Arts Commission.

The Whales, bundled up and headed for the freeway, en route to an East Bay SFAC storage facility. May 2019. Photo: Amy O'Hair
The Whales, photographed on Circular Avenue near Hearst Avenue, bundled up and headed for the freeway, en route to an East Bay SFAC storage facility. May 2019. Photo: Amy O’Hair

It will be a great pleasure to see it the work in a restored state, perhaps once again spouting water, in front of the Wellness Center on Ocean Avenue. Despite the troubles the institute has suffered in recent years, City College has extensive plans for remaking the campus, funded by a recent voter-approved bond; this includes reconfiguration of the southwest corner of the campus as the new entrance. The Whales could be an exciting part of this new look.

The City College of San Francisco Wellness Center viewed from Ocean Avenue near Howth. 2020. Photo: Amy O'Hair
The City College of San Francisco Wellness Center viewed from Ocean Avenue near Howth. 2020. Photo: Amy O’Hair

Further reading:


ENDNOTES

  1. Oral History Interview with Robert Boardman Howard, 1964 Sept 16,” Transcript. Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Accessed here: https://www.aaa.si.edu/download_pdf_transcript/ajax?record_id=edanmdm-AAADCD_oh_213577
  2. ‘Death Takes A. Minutoli,’ SF Examiner, 5 Aug 1950; also ‘Minutoli Mass to be Tomorrow,’ [obituary for wife Marina Minutoli], SF Examiner, 19 Aug 1959.
  3. “Oral History Interview with Robert Boardman Howard, 1964 Sept 16,” Transcript. Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Accessed here: https://www.aaa.si.edu/download_pdf_transcript/ajax?record_id=edanmdm-AAADCD_oh_213577
  4. “Oral History Interview with Robert Boardman Howard, 1964 Sept 16,” Transcript. Smithsonian Archives of American Art. Accessed here: https://www.aaa.si.edu/download_pdf_transcript/ajax?record_id=edanmdm-AAADCD_oh_213577
  5. “Art Institute Honors Sculptor,” SF Examiner, 20 May 1977.
  6. “Whale Statue at Academy,’ SF Examiner, 25 May 1958.
  7. Dick Nolan, “Under the City Hall Dome,” SF Examiner, 6 Apr 1952.
  8. Dick Nolan, “Under the City Hall Dome,” SF Examiner, 6 Apr 1952.
  9. “‘Whales’ Replace Sea Lions,’ SF Examiner, 17 Dec 1956; “Whale Statue at Academy,’ SF Examiner, 25 May 1958.
  10. The first mention I find of the presence of The Whales at the CCSF Ocean Campus is in an SF Examiner article (21 Oct 2005) discussing the recently published history of the college by Austin White. Astonishingly and upsettingly, this historical account of the college has been removed from the CCSF website sometime in the last year. I retrieved it from the Wayback Machine and put it on the Sunnyside History Project. https://sunnysidehistory.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/WHITE_Austin_History_of_City_College_of_San_Francisco_2005.pdf
  11. Matthew Cardoza, “San Franciscan Whale Statue Ready to Be Properly Restored After 15 Years of Waiting,” The [CCSF] Guardsman, Vol 168 Issue 2, Pub 10 Sep 2019. This article contains some errors, although I’m sure he’s right about the dead possum.

 

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