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Architect Albert Farr Walk

The Piedmont Recreation Department’s Walking on Wednesdays group came close to needing a parade permit last Wednesday! There were a total of 55 walkers and three K-9 best friends who met at the Exedra Plaza on a beautiful morning. However, they didn’t attend just for the weather. Piedmont planner, urban designer, and architect Will Adams was there to lead a special walking tour of historical, Albert Farr-designed, Piedmont buildings.

The second piece of news was that Nancy and Dave DeRoche are inviting the group to their Oakland Avenue home for a follow up to this day’s Albert Farr tour with Will. Nancy and Dave reported that Albert Farr lived in their house for 25 years in the early 20th Century. He didn’t design it, but made major modifications that the group will certainly find interesting. Additionally, Dave has collected the arts of Africa, Oceania, and The Americas, including Pre-Columbian, that the group will be sure to enjoy.

With the announcements complete, Will Adams provided an introduction to and overview of Albert L. Farr. He was an American architect, who during the first decades of Piedmont’s development, designed many homes and some of Piedmont’s most prominent buildings, including the City Hall, Commercial Center, Piedmont Community Church and the Piedmont Community Center. Farr was born in Omaha, Nebraska, but grew up in Yokohama, Japan. The Farr family returned to the United States in 1891, and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. Farr lived at various times in San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland, and Piedmont where he died in 1945 at age 76.

Farr earned his architecture license in 1901, one of the first in California, and was designing grand mansions for his clients before he turned 30 throughout the Bay Area, particularly in the San Francisco neighborhoods of Russian Hill, Pacific Heights, Sea Cliff, and St. Francis Wood. Farr also designed prominent estate homes and commercial and public buildings in Belvedere, Woodside, and Piedmont and had a strong interest in planning and urban design. He designed our Piedmont Exedra, as well as the layout of the whole “downtown” of Piedmont. Will asked the walkers to evaluate the urban design of the town center and how well connected the various key buildings are, that is, how well they relate to each other and support the concept of a center.

Will talked about Farr’s architectural training and how architects will study and apply different styles to their work. Farr’s use of the Spanish Revival styles in the Piedmont public buildings that he designed has defined to a large degree the character of Piedmont. Will took the group to the Piedmont City Hall to illustrate both the symmetrical (more formal) and asymmetrical (less formal) design approaches Farr employed on his different buildings. Will noted the “outdoor room” to the right of the City Hall’s entrance with historical cement benches that provide a well-used informal meeting place. Will said there is a relief hidden behind climbing vines on the front of the City Hall that he wished was visible.

Will then led the group from the City Hall through Piedmont Park, past the Farr-designed Community Hall where preparations were underway for an outdoor event, down Highland Avenue, and then up Wildwood Avenue to its corner with Sheridan. The group stopped in front of a mansion that recently had been on the market and just sold. From the street, behind its gate, Will talked about Farr’s classical training that allowed him to add architectural details, like interesting rain downspouts, to enhance the house’s beautiful design. He also noted how Farr mitigated what an Asian audience would consider the negative feng shui of a straight-on axial street at the house’s front gate with a lovely water fountain in front of the house’s entrance.

Next up was a walk over to the foot of Lincoln Avenue to see how Farr had integrated the features of different European architectural styles in the home there. There was also the mitigation of negative feng shui associated with seeing through the house from the front door with an outdoor water fountain in this Farr design.

It was then on to a home on Mountain Avenue that Will’s architect friend, John Malick, had remodeled not long ago. John shared some tricks that architects use to satisfy the desires and budgets of clients. Historically, one has been to make a home look huge and expensive by having its front’s long, but its depth’s narrow.

The final stop on Will’s tour was down Mountain to the Piedmont Community Church. The group when up its front steps to the church’s lovely courtyard with roses in full bloom. Will noted it Mission Revival style, with its simplified execution that limited the construction expense, while keeping its design compatible with other important buildings in Piedmont’s center.

In the church’s sanctuary Will pointed out the impressive ceiling trellises and confessed he had once copied this Farr design concept for one of his projects. The slope from the back of the church to its front was also noted, and the better visibility of the service that it provides worshipers was appreciated. This was the conclusion of the tour for this Wednesday, and the group expressed their appreciation for what Will had shared with them. They were also pleased that they would have another opportunity to talk with Will next Wednesday when they all visit the DeRoches.


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