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Photo by Lauren Conklin

Mapping the architectural ornamentation of the Financial District

Above the fray sits some of the city’s best sculptures

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This post was originally published in December 2016 and has been updated with the most recent information.

If the buildings in the Financial District could talk, they wouldn't stop blabbering. But buildings do not speak, so architects use ornamentation to do some of the talking. What story might the unicorn in front of the Royal Globe Insurance building tell?

Its concrete horn seems elaborate and out of place in downtown San Francisco, but as detail and adornment have been replaced by the conventionality of modernism, that which seems decorative becomes more appreciated.

We root for the preservation of buildings out of reverence for history, and because historic gems and their ornamentation add much needed texture to the modern skyscrapers of downtown. So, next time you find yourself in the FiDi, look up and pay attention to the details right above your head.

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Medallions at Standard Oil Building

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Like the seals on 1 Mission Street and the walruses on the old Alaska building, the heraldry on the Standard Oil Co’s facade is an ode to the company’s livelihood. Though very few of the buildings in the Financial District still operate in their original enterprises, thankfully much of the ornamentation on these historic sites has not been lost to renovation.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

The seals by the entrance of the 700 Mason apartment complex hold blank shields, perhaps once decorated with the logo for the building’s original company. Behind them are complex motifs and gilded carvings, which architects usually borrowed from ancient sources.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Tree of Life

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The Tree of Knowledge, or Tree of Life, is an important motif across religions. This one at 450 Sutter is designed with Mayanesque details and is one of the more unique examples of plants and foliage being used in ornamentation downtown. While map point number 10 and 11 are in the borders of the Nob Hill, they are great examples of ornamentation and are easily accessible from the FiDi.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Corporate Goddesses

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The twelve faceless figures designed by artist Muriel Castanis have been interpreted as everything from grim reapers to angels, but they are mostly known as the "corporate goddesses." From 350 feet up, they look down on the working world.

Image via Google Maps

Ox Skulls at the Kohl building

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The Kohl Building is one of the more detailed buildings in the area, but the skulls on top, called bucranes, often go unnoticed. They are a nod to classic Greek and Roman architecture, representing the skulls of sacrificed animals that were hung on doric temples to provoke wealth and prosperity.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Lion and unicorn

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The lion and unicorn flanking the clock on the former Royal Globe Insurance Company’s appear on the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom. The lion and unicorn are symbolically opposite, and possibly meant to symbolize the balance of power needed in good business. The building is now mostly residential, but the clock between the two animals helps FiDi patrons get to work on time.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Eagles at the Federal Reserve Building

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Eagles have always had a prominent place in American architecture and symbolism. These, perched atop the Federal Reserve Building over a frieze of lion heads are meant to symbolize power and strength.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Walrus Heads

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These big toothed beasts, located off California Street, formerly decorated the facade of the now demolished Alaska Commercial Building, a once prominent fishing and whaling company in the Pacific.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Bighorn sheep at PG&E building

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The horned animals on the PG&E building are High Sierra Bighorn Sheep, peaking out of branches of California live oak. They are an anthropomorphic symbol of power and California, fit for the story of PG&E. Because they are on the south side of Market Street, the PG&E building is a block out of the FiDi.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Grizzly Bear at PG&E building

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Like the Bighorn Sheep, the Grizzly Bears on the PG&E building are another reference to California and its formidable animals. Besides the animal heads, the company’s headquarters are decorated on all sides with terra-cotta embellishments and is a California take on Beaux-Arts style.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Seals at One Mission

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The Audiffred Building in the Embarcadero has been a watering hole and maritime commercial building since the mid 1800s. The seals over the door look over the bay, without which San Francisco would not be what it is today. While this building is technically south of the Financial District, its historic prominence and heavy adornment are worth noting on this list.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

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Medallions at Standard Oil Building

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Like the seals on 1 Mission Street and the walruses on the old Alaska building, the heraldry on the Standard Oil Co’s facade is an ode to the company’s livelihood. Though very few of the buildings in the Financial District still operate in their original enterprises, thankfully much of the ornamentation on these historic sites has not been lost to renovation.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Seals

Photo by Lauren Conklin

The seals by the entrance of the 700 Mason apartment complex hold blank shields, perhaps once decorated with the logo for the building’s original company. Behind them are complex motifs and gilded carvings, which architects usually borrowed from ancient sources.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Tree of Life

Photo by Lauren Conklin

The Tree of Knowledge, or Tree of Life, is an important motif across religions. This one at 450 Sutter is designed with Mayanesque details and is one of the more unique examples of plants and foliage being used in ornamentation downtown. While map point number 10 and 11 are in the borders of the Nob Hill, they are great examples of ornamentation and are easily accessible from the FiDi.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Corporate Goddesses

Image via Google Maps

The twelve faceless figures designed by artist Muriel Castanis have been interpreted as everything from grim reapers to angels, but they are mostly known as the "corporate goddesses." From 350 feet up, they look down on the working world.

Image via Google Maps

Ox Skulls at the Kohl building

Photo by Lauren Conklin

The Kohl Building is one of the more detailed buildings in the area, but the skulls on top, called bucranes, often go unnoticed. They are a nod to classic Greek and Roman architecture, representing the skulls of sacrificed animals that were hung on doric temples to provoke wealth and prosperity.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Lion and unicorn

Photo by Lauren Conklin

The lion and unicorn flanking the clock on the former Royal Globe Insurance Company’s appear on the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom. The lion and unicorn are symbolically opposite, and possibly meant to symbolize the balance of power needed in good business. The building is now mostly residential, but the clock between the two animals helps FiDi patrons get to work on time.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Eagles at the Federal Reserve Building

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Eagles have always had a prominent place in American architecture and symbolism. These, perched atop the Federal Reserve Building over a frieze of lion heads are meant to symbolize power and strength.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Walrus Heads

Photo by Lauren Conklin

These big toothed beasts, located off California Street, formerly decorated the facade of the now demolished Alaska Commercial Building, a once prominent fishing and whaling company in the Pacific.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Bighorn sheep at PG&E building

Photo by Lauren Conklin

The horned animals on the PG&E building are High Sierra Bighorn Sheep, peaking out of branches of California live oak. They are an anthropomorphic symbol of power and California, fit for the story of PG&E. Because they are on the south side of Market Street, the PG&E building is a block out of the FiDi.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Grizzly Bear at PG&E building

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Like the Bighorn Sheep, the Grizzly Bears on the PG&E building are another reference to California and its formidable animals. Besides the animal heads, the company’s headquarters are decorated on all sides with terra-cotta embellishments and is a California take on Beaux-Arts style.

Photo by Lauren Conklin

Seals at One Mission

Photo by Lauren Conklin

The Audiffred Building in the Embarcadero has been a watering hole and maritime commercial building since the mid 1800s. The seals over the door look over the bay, without which San Francisco would not be what it is today. While this building is technically south of the Financial District, its historic prominence and heavy adornment are worth noting on this list.

Photo by Lauren Conklin