Remembering the Mid-Century by the Bay

The cover of Heather M. David's book, Mid-Century by the Bay.

Heather M. David's Mid-Century by the Bay captures the style of the 50's and 60's.

When we think about historic architecture in the Bay Area, we often think of our very oldest structures, like the Spanish Missions, the Peralta Adobe, or possibly Victorian and early 20th-century buildings like the Hotel Sainte Claire. Heather M. David’s recent book, Mid-Century by the Bay, shows how post World War II architecture also makes a contribution to our urban landscape, and ought to be celebrated (and preserved) alongside earlier styles.

Heather M. David, though she isn’t a trained architect or designer, has plenty of background for writing this book. She grew up in the North and South Bays, and was fascinated with modern architecture since she had her first “crush” on the Wells Fargo bank branch building on Fourth Street in San Rafael. More recently, she has been a board member of the Preservation Action Council of San Jose, and helped organize the San Jose Modern Tour for DOCOMOMO. When I met her she made a point to recommend these organizations and their work to preserve modern and other historical architectural resources in the bay area.

Mid-Century by the Bay tours the entire Bay Area, with side trips to the Flamingo Hotel in Santa Rosa Napa Valley and the Nut Tree in Vacaville, but because of the rapid growth in the South Bay at the time many of the treasures are here in our area. The book uses words and pictures (lots of pictures) to highlight some of the most daring and inventive architecture you’ll find in the region. David shows how everyday locations like bank branches and water company offices were designed with a flair for “experimentation and creative expression”. Other sections describe workplaces like IBM’s Almaden Valley campus and playgrounds for young (Happy Hollow) and old (Trader Vic’s, home of the original Mai Tai cocktail).

The former Sunnyvale First National Bank looks as much like a space ship as a financial institution.

My personal favorites are the most outrageous of those space-age designs, known as googie architecture, that really celebrate the optimistic future-looking view of the mid-century. These include the hexagonal aerial “control tower” suite of the Hillsdale Inn in San Mateo, or the Lyon’s Coffee Shop in San Bruno.

The book isn’t solely focused on architecture. David told me she wanted to “visually transport people back in time”, to capture the experience of life in the 50’s or 60’s. To do that she includes images from the printed “ephemera” of the period, like the matchbooks that bowling alleys (and many other businesses) provided to their smoking patrons, and brochures for attractions like Golden Gate Fields and Tanforan horse racing tracks. The graphic designs and colors from these enthusiastic advertisements really capture the feel of a different time.

The book is self-published, but, having taken a year off from her job to complete it, the author settled for nothing less than the highest quality in producing it. To help polish the book, David hired a professional editor and a designer who was able to capture the mid-century style in the book design. She had the book printed by a printer who specializes in high-quality products like museum exhibit catalogs. The book was recently recommended in the Metro’s holiday gift guide, and I can wholeheartedly agree that it would make a great gift for anyone interested in modern design or local history.

You can purchase Mid-Century by the Bay directly from the author’s website, Design Within Reach in San Francisco, or the Antiques Colony in San Jose.

Photos courtesy of Heather M. David.

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