Beating Against the Current: The Art Deco Society of California Fends off Time in their Preservations for Architectural 20th Century Genius

By Marjorie Magazine

This article originally appeared in the 2020 Print Issue Roaring Twenties: an Encore

It was as if we stepped into a dream. September 11, 2016 was a Sunday, bright and hot, yet cheery and surreal to find ourselves walking among the stretch of green on a sleepy Oakland Hills mansion, sprawling in picnics and Ford Models and Packards, with ladies in summer cotton and men wearing straw boater hats with their suits. If you were lucky to have attended at least one Gatsby Summer Afternoon in your lifetime as we had been, you most certainly are acquainted with the Art Deco Society of California. The afternoon extravaganza that dives back into the heart of a 1920s summer is just one of the many perks belonging to ADSC.

Above: the Dunsmuir Estate hosting the annual Gatsby Summer Afternoon in 2016

Founded in 1981 by preservation enthusiasts in the San Francisco Bay Area, the non-profit organization aims to celebrate the heritage and design of Art Deco architecture and its time (1920s-1940s) through lectures, gatherings, and screenings. In increasing awareness of art deco’s significance on the architectural landscape for a wider audience, the society has grown to over 400 members across Northern California (note, not to be confused or connected to the Art Deco Society of Los Angeles which operates separately and hosts their own variety of events) and even in the age of Mid-Century revival and open space Scandinavian design, proves that deco is far from obsolete. As the world arrives on the doorstep of the ’20s yet again, a surge in interest for the extravagance of deco can be seen in restaurant interiors, stationery, home decor, and even fashion. Operating out of a historical office in the beautiful Bellevue Club on the shores of Lake Merritt in Oakland, the ADSC’s influence goes above and beyond in researching and documenting structures across the state, especially through their immersive gatherings like the Gatsby Summer Afternoon. In bringing participants back into the height of deco’s decade, the passion grows, and the dedication only gets deeper– and the legacy of art deco lives on.

Above left: The ceiling of the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California (Wikimedia Commons), right: The Anchor Brewing Building in San Francisco, recipient of the 2018 ADSC Preservation Award, was built in 1937 originally as a coffee factory, via Wikimedia Commons, bottom right: The lobby of 450 Sutter Street skyscraper in San Francisco, marked by Mayan motifs and geometrical grandeur, via Wikimedia Commons

Notable spots of preservation around the Bay Area aren’t hard to find, once you’re familiar with the essence of art deco architecture. Marked by geometric patterns and streamlined shapes with heroic human motifs, art deco draws inspiration from futurism and the rise of technology and its relationship to mankind and his accomplishments (ADSC). After the devastation of a worldwide war and pandemic, art deco’s arrival marked a beacon of hope for a new decade, a future that seemed bright with peace and prosperity. Though modern in its time, the enduring aesthetic of art deco remains glamorous, classic, and indulging– a style that rewards the masses with its simple but bold beauty.

Stunning relics that remain to this day are celebrated with awards handed out annually by ADSC to the preservationists behind the scenes, on the basis of condition, history, and architectural details. Favorite icons include the Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland (recipient in 2013), the Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles (2018), formerly Bullock’s department store, the LiPo Lounge neon sign in San Francisco’s Chinatown (2019), and the Anchor Brewing building (2018), formerly a coffee factory built in the 1930’s.

The neon exterior at Stookey’s Club Moderne in San Francisco

​Beyond the landmarks themselves, even more enduring is the dedication of the ADSC’s very members. From social gatherings listening to live jazz at Stookey’s Club Moderne to dancing the Tango or Charleston at their annual Preservation Ball, the community remains close and undefeated– even as the 21st Century’s own 20’s arrives on an unnerving start. With events through this summer postponed for later in the year, members still rally around virtual gatherings and inspiring content on social media, showcasing fun facts and significant reads recommended to enthusiasts– a recent spotlight was on the 2014 book Art Deco Mailboxes by Karen Greene and Lynne Lavelle. Thankfully art deco isn’t just exclusive to locations, and the work of ADSC reminds us of that, keeping alive the traditions of the art deco era through film and music and even fashion. As we find ourselves apart, there is still the joy of this beautiful moment in time to unite us and give hope for our own near future. The essence of art deco remains hope, excitement for bigger and better things on the horizon– the anticipation of the greatness that’s yet to come for mankind. It’s a message that we cling to more than ever with the beginning of 2020, and through art deco, we can find comfort in this timeless message that makes art deco as popular as ever.

​So when we are free to roam the streets and continue life as we were once used to, the first thing we’ll be taking note of is the art deco; in the buildings, the neon signs, the mailboxes, the floral vases sitting atop tables in a quiet restaurant. Seeing art deco in the wild is only the beginning of the hope that’ll get us through these uncertain times, and that’s the crowning glory of the world that the Art Deco Society of California aims to celebrate with us all.

For more information on how you can join or participate in upcoming events with the Art Deco Society of California, please visit

artdecosociety.squarespace.com

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