- Presidio Heights, San Francisco
- Building Type:
- 3778 Washington Street, San Francisco, California
- Current Name:
- Russel House
- Current Use:
- Current Condition:
Erich Mendelsohn immigrated to the United States during the Second World War and settled in San Francisco in 1945, where he maintained his architectural office until his death in 1953. During his eight years in San Francisco, he only executed two local commissions: the Maimonides Hospital (1946) and the Russell House (1950). Of the two, only the Russell House has retained its original architectural integrity. Situated on a sloping site in Pacific Heights overlooking the San Francisco Bay, the Russell House is L shaped, with its plan made up of two interlocking wings framing a courtyard. The main wing runs east-west and is raised off the ground one story, supported on slender columns. Approached from the street via a series of small stepped courts, the house appears gradually as one reaches the courtyard. The courtyard continues under the raised main wing, dramatically opening out to views of the San Francisco Bay to the north in a way that brings the bay into the composition, as a fourth side to the courtyard. The house has elements that relate it to Mendelsohn’s highly original work as one of the pioneers of the modern movement. Long expanses of ribbon windows, building elements raised off the ground plane on piloti, and the interplay of simple, rectilinear forms place this work solidly in the European modernist tradition. Circular elements such as the gravity-defying cylindrical master bedroom bay window precariously balanced on a single column, the circular open staircase, the metal railing sections which curve outward, and use of porthole windows are typical of Mendelsohn’s expressionistic style, found often in his German, Palestinian, and English commissions. What marks this work as belonging to the region, however, is the use of redwood siding, delicately tapered wood trellises cantilevered over the balconies and delineating the courtyard, and lush plantings. These all reflect Mendelsohn’s efforts to respond to the Bay Area tradition and climate. The Russell House was one of Mendelsohn’s final projects in a long and influential career. Practicing in Germany, Palestine, England and the United States, his work was always able to reflect the spirit of the modern movement and at the same time, respond to the varied regional contexts in which he worked. The Russell House gains its significance from its artistic and aesthetic merit. It also has high integrity, and it is Mendelsohn’s only intact San Francisco project. The introduction of regional characteristics also makes it a unique work in Mendelsohn’s repertoire.
The Russell House’s stepped courts, ribbon windows, piloti, and circular motifs all signal its modern design. The interplay between the structure, courtyard, and larger setting, including views of the San Francisco Bay, are also characteristic of the adaptation of modernist design concepts to the local setting.
In addition to its striking design, the Russell House is the only intact building designed by Erich Mendelsohn in San Francisco.