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Winter 2006 Volume 5 Number 3

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Ozymandias in San Francisco: A Medallic Memorial of the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906

by Ira Rezak


Fig. 1: AE plaque depicting a sculpted bust of Samuel Lachman that fell from the cornice of the Lachman building in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, 150 x 180 mm (Ira Rezak collection).

All collectors to some extent share a common identity. Yet precisely why each of us collects, what we collect, and how we go about it, indeed, what each of us gets out of collecting, is quite an individual matter. Some discuss their priorities with others, others are more private, and many scarcely trouble to think about such matters at all. There are those who simply enjoy possessing rare or beautiful objects, competition in the marketplace adds a special thrill for some, and then there is the quieter pleasure of finally achieving a particular ambition or goal conceived years before. But there is one type of experience that almost every one of us treasures in our collecting lives: the unexpected find, the serendipitous opportunity to suddenly acquire something extraordinary, something that challenges our understanding and broadens our collecting horizon, that demands a new direction in our search for information.

This article concerns a single medal—actually, a plaque—which I stumbled across five years ago in San Francisco while spending a final hour in town before heading off to the airport for a return flight home. Of course, there had been my customary earlier browsings here and there, but these had failed to turn up a single coin, token, or medal that might have served as a minor trophy or souvenir of my trip to the West Coast and to that wonderful and historical city. Yet now, in the back of a showcase within a nondescript shop, the type that offers used costume jewelry and bric-a-brac rather than antiques worthy of the name, my eye fell upon something brown and metallic. I ended up buying it, a decision that has rewarded me with an adventure of research and discovery.

It was a uniface plaque, six inches by eight, fairly heavy, bearing a scene of devastation. At first glance, it seemed to me a vista of ancient ruins, the sort of romanticized scene that might have been designed for the study of a gentleman in eighteenth-century England or renaissance Italy, possibly the sort of memento mori meant to induce a contemplative mood, to remind the philosophically inclined that sic transit gloria mundi, “the glory of this world passes thus away.” But brought into the light, the plaque revealed an inscription engraved on its lower edge in manuscript style, words that grabbed my attention and held it for many years since. I am no collector of archaic ruins or of romantically artistic compositions, but I am particularly drawn to medals that not only present a view of actual events, serving as direct witnesses to the past, but that also seem to comment in contemporary terms on how one is to understand such happenings. The inscription read: The sculptured head in stone of Samuel Lachman (1824-1892) as it fell in the ruins of the Great Fire (1906) from the cornice of his firm’s building S.W. corner Market and Fremont Sts. San Francisco. The plaque also bore a clear artist’s signature: H. JAUCHEN.

I wondered if Lachman might be a Jewish name, because I collect medals on Jewish subjects, but at the time I had no idea whatsoever of who Samuel Lachman might have been, nor did the vendor. So it was primarily the very strangeness of this heavy plaque with its scene of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire and its unusual inscription that prompted me to buy the object. The questions of who Samuel Lachman and the artist Jauchen were, when the piece was made, and whether the scene depicted was actually real or the product of artistic fantasy tantalized me as I put the plaque in my valise and headed to the airport. At that moment I had no opportunity to seek answers to any of these questions, but as I made off with my treasure—indeed, from the very first moment I had examined the plaque in the shop—I was intrigued above all by the purpose of this medal: what was the message it was intended to convey to us, one hundred years after the event? I was reminded then and afterward of the poet Shelley and his contemplation of Ozymandias.


Fig. 2: Samuel Lachman.

Google nowadays often helps to launch any research project, so upon arrival back home I turned on the computer and learned two things: First, that Samuel Lachman was a merchant very prominent in the early wine trade in California and that Lacjac, a small town in northern California, reflects to this day his family’s role in the development of vineyards in that area; and second, that H. Jauchen, Hans Jauchen, the sculptor whose name is clearly inscribed on the plaque, was a San Francisco-area artist known for his vessels, bowls, and vases in the Arts and Crafts style, pieces that remain much valued in the marketplace today. Pictures of such vessels by Jauchen that had recently sold at auction were readily available online, but there were no medals. However, beyond these few bare facts I had extracted from the Web, the trail grew cold. So I explored more conventional sources in order to ferret out the information I needed, contacting Bay Area collectors, historical society archivists, wine industry associations, and art museum curators, always providing a photo of the plaque and expecting thereby to tap into what I imagined would be a readily mined trove of relevant information. I assumed that copies of a medallic plaque of this sort would be available in many collections, and that both Lachman and Jauchen would have been the subjects of considerable research in San Francisco nearly one hundred years after that area’s most famous geohistorical event. I was to be considerably disappointed: California numismatists, specialists in San Francisco’s history, and museum curators knew nothing whatever of the plaque and precious little about Jauchen except for the few crumbs that had found their way into Google and books on modern art. Ultimately, fleshing out the story required a couple of personal trips to the San Francisco Public Library and the California Historical Society to view their extensive newspaper files, indirect access to several other historical archives including online photo collections, as well as a few lucky conversations. Even so, many questions remain unanswered after five years of research, even as the centennial of the event itself is upon us.

The plaque tells us that Samuel Lachman was born in 1824 and died in 1892. Obituaries, as well as several entries in wine industry journals and biographical dictionaries—he was a wealthy and preeminent father of the California wine industry—confirm the dates and offer a bit more information. He was born in Gnesen, a town near Posen, then in Prussia, but today called Gniezno, near Poznan, within present-day Poland. As a young man, he came to California in the earliest days of the gold rush, arriving in San Francisco “from the East, via the isthmus,” in 1850. While this point is not entirely clear, he may have been living in “the East,” possibly in New York, before 1849, rather than having migrated to California directly from Germany. He first tried mining in El Dorado County, northeast of Sacramento, but it is then recorded that “he struck out for new fields” and by 1854 had “hoofed it” from Maryville to Weaversville in Trinity County, in the Cascade mountain foothills, where he opened a general store. He seems to have prospered, because in 1856 he “went to New York and married his affianced bride Miss Henrietta Guenther and immediately returned to Weaverville, remaining there until 1864,” when he would have been forty years old. At that point, he sold all his local interests, or as he himself termed it, “cleaned up his sluice-boxes,” and moved to San Francisco with his wife and two young sons. Having apparently accumulated considerable capital, on arrival he is described as having invested in real estate, “laying his foundations broad and deep in the best business property in San Francisco.” He also looked for other investment opportunities, and in 1867 formed a partnership with Adolph Eberhardt to enter the wine business, at that time a purely local trade with no outlets to the eastern United States. Within six months, he had invested all his available capital in wineries, warehouses, and vineyards, and by 1872, after he bought out his partner Eberhardt, the firm became known as S. Lachman & Co. At a later point, his sons Henry and Albert, and still later, his son-in-law Leo Metzger, joined the firm, but it retained name S. Lachman & Co. even after Samuel himself died of a heart attack in 1892, at the age of sixty-eight.


Fig. 3: The largest contemporary oak tank for wine fermentation, 80,000 gallons, found in S. Lachman’s Cellar (The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley).

Under Lachman’s leadership, the firm prospered greatly, eventually requiring moves to larger quarters within downtown San Francisco every few years. Since Lachman was a grower, wholesaler, blender, and exporter, probably the leading wine-and-spirits merchant in the city, large vats required for warehousing, aging, and marketing were a principal feature of his wine cellars, and Lachman’s 80,000-gallon vat was when first built the largest wine receptacle in San Francisco. In fact, Lachman was given credit in the contemporary trade press for being the first entrepreneur in California to construct such large vats for use in the wine industry, which in America prior to that time had utilized only traditional movable casks. Sometime in the late 1870s, only ten years after he first entered the wine trade and merely five years since he became its sole proprietor, S. Lachman & Co., with its famous vat, was situated in a grand, newly constructed five-story building known as Lachman’s Block, which occupied half of a city block at the southwest corner of Market and Fremont Streets. Though it is difficult to discern clearly on a surviving lithograph of the building from the 1880s, the sculptured head in stone, the central element of the plaque under consideration, seems to have been situated, as the plaque’s inscription indicates, at the pinnacle of the cornice of the firm’s building, on the façade facing Market Street. A letterhead of the Lachman company used as an invoice in 1880 indicates that they were “growers and dealers in wines and brandies” at “401-411 Market Street Corner of Fremont” and depicts the building but does not emphasize the sculpture. Traditional exposition-prize medallions awarded to the firm’s products, bearing the dates 1872 and 1873 from Vienna and the New England Agricultural Society, are also displayed on the letterhead. In 1885, newer and yet larger premises were required, so the firm moved to Brannan Street near Second Street, which new facility had vats in its wine cellar with a capacity totaling two and a half million gallons. Also noteworthy is a New York branch of the business on Elm Street, which was run by Albert, Samuel’s eldest son, for Samuel Lachman was a pioneer in the transcontinental—indeed, international—expansion of the California wine trade.


Fig. 4: The Lachman building, corner Market and Fremont Streets, July 1890 (The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley).


Fig. 5: Receipt from S. Lachman and Co.


Fig. 6: Advertisement for the California Wine Association.


Fig. 7: The Lachman building burning (The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley).

The original building known as Lachman’s Block on Market and Fremont was vacated by the company in 1885 and was thereafter occupied by other businesses, but it remained known by its familiar name until the earthquake and fire twenty years later. After Lachman’s death, he was memorialized as stout and jovial, shrewd but fair in business dealings, and charitable and respected in the trade from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Lachman was reputed to be one of the finest judges of wine in the business but also seems to have gained a reputation as something of a sharp-tongued critic when necessary. Both aspects are apparent in a presumably apocryphal story told of Lachman that today would be seen as politically most incorrect. He was said to have condemned a rival’s sherry as tasting “as if it had a dead Chinaman in it,” whereupon, so the story goes, the rival investigated his own firm’s vat only to find a corpse, just as Lachman had suspected! Lachman’s will as published in the press revealed that he was a very wealthy man and a philanthropist who, though Jewish, bequeathed sums to Catholic and Protestant orphanages as well to one for members of his own faith. His will left a four-million-dollar estate, which would be worth something closer to one hundred million in today’s money, primarily to his sons and daughter, who continued the family’s wine business. Two years after Samuel Lachman’s death, the California Wine Association was formed in 1894 as a trust under the presidency of Henry Lachman, Samuel’s son. The association was a massive conglomerate that incorporated the S. Lachman & Co. brand as well as many others, and it lasted until prohibition was instituted in 1920, by which time it had come to control some eighty California wineries and about 85 percent of the entire state’s wine production.


Fig. 8: A view down Market street toward the Ferry Building during the fire (California Historical Society).


Fig. 9: Overview of Market Street from the Ferry Building (The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley).


Fig. 10: Looking west on Market Street at Sansome Street four months after the fire (California State Library).

This is all necessary background to the subject of the plaque, which, as mentioned above, is “The sculptured head in stone of Samuel Lachman (1824-1892) as it fell in the ruins of the Great Fire (1906) from the cornice of his firm’s building S.W. corner Market and Fremont Sts. San Francisco.” The scene as depicted shows collapsed masonry, yet the description makes no reference to an earthquake, mentioning only the Great Fire. The earthquake, which occurred on Wednesday, April 18, 1906, at 5:12 a.m. and lasted twenty-eight seconds, caused but a portion of the devastation. Earthquakes in the area were common; there had been some two hundred temblors recorded in northern California between 1850 and 1886, most in the vicinity of San Francisco Bay. So despite the fact that the city had been destroyed by fire no less than six times between 1849 and 1851 alone, people reasoned that in a quake, wooden construction was safer than brick or stone. Thus, in 1906 the large majority of homes were still built of wood, although the most modern downtown buildings were constructed of steel skeletons sheathed in more traditional stonework facades. The San Andreas Fault, running northwest to southeast, was the main axis of movement during the earthquake and shook masonry buildings in the downtown area; chunks of facades cascaded onto the street by the ton. Fortunately, at 5 a.m. there were few people in the business district and relatively few casualties were caused during this phase of the disaster in the commercial center. As is well known, the U.S. Mint Building, constructed only a few blocks from Market Street between 1870 and 1874, was minimally damaged by the earthquake. On the other hand, cheaply constructed brick buildings, homes and businesses alike, disintegrated, and their interiors became maelstroms of flying debris. Along with the death toll, gas lines broke, electric wires fell to the ground, hearth fires were dispersed, flammable materials and even chemical stores were strewn about and exposed, and chimneys toppled, releasing embers into the surrounding area. The three principal water mains for the city of San Francisco ran along the San Andreas Fault for seven miles; they ruptured in the quake, making firefighting was nearly impossible. A photograph taken of Market Street soon after the earthquake makes clear that the building in which we are interested, the Lachman Block at 401-411 Market, had not collapsed in the initial quake but was soon on fire. Later views of Market Street facing toward the Ferry Building give a sense of the devastation on the south side of the street after the fires had done their damage but were still smoldering. Views from the Ferry Building itself down along Market Street convey a sense of the general devastation wrought primarily by the great fire, which lasted some four days. An improvised railroad track to aid in rubble removal was later laid along the south side of the street, distinct from the normal trolley tracks, which ran and still run down the center of the street. A closer-up view of the area just south of Sansome Street about this same time shows the approximate area of the Lachman Building on the left; with a little imagination one may even imagine that a large block seen on the left might be the very sculptured head in stone of Samuel Lachman. But did Samuel Lachman’s head really fall from the fifth floor of his firm’s building and land more or less face up, with little damage except for a broken nose? The answer seems to be that yes, it did. The sculpture was photographed lying next to the new tracks, face up in the immediate ruins, even while smoke and dust still lingered. A picture of a man strolling past gives a good estimate of the size of the sculptured head, some five feet in height. Thus there can be no doubt that the head of Sam Lachman truly “fell in the ruins of the Great Fire (1906) from the cornice of his firm’s building S.W. corner Market and Fremont Sts.”


Fig. 11: Sculpture of Lachman’s head in the rubble of the Lachman building (The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley).


Fig. 12: Man sitting on Lachman’s head (California State Library).

One might have imagined that many of the answers to the other questions: when the medal was made, for whom, why, and indeed how—for its technique was unusual, combining a hand-engraved text onto a large bronze, apparently cast—would be found by looking up the artist, H. Jauchen, whose name is clearly inscribed on the plaque itself, at its lower-right-hand corner. But information along these axes has been very hard to come by. Though Hans Jauchen was well known as a craftsman, his medallic output seems to have been vanishingly small. A repousee plaque of his depicting a couple of trees, that is, a hammered and chased copper sheet twenty-four inches by eighteen, sold recently for $11,500. He is said to have made small bas-relief “portraits” of pet animals for wealthy society patrons. His near-life-size bust of the Antarctic explorer Roald Amundsen is located in Golden Gate Park. He worked in copper, iron, steel, aluminum, and even silver and gold. His magnum opus is said to have been a giant altar depicting scenes from the life of Christ, commissioned by J. Pierpont Morgan and installed in Morgan’s private chapel in London. Curators of California art museums and dealers as well, however, know of him and value his art principally for his bowls and vases, which are typically imprinted with his name. Jauchen taught his craft for decades at Stanford and at the University of California in Berkeley, and he was one of the literally thousands who received a “Gold Medal” at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition of 1915, but there seems to be no record of an exhibition of his works and no catalog of them. Brief notices appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1937 and the obituary notice in the same newspaper on March 13, 1970, give something of his background. Though born in Hamburg, Germany, on February 26, 1883, he was of Danish ancestry. Many of his forbears were also metal craftsmen. He seems to have come to San Francisco about the time of the earthquake, possibly a few years later, about 1910, having already worked in Europe for many years and having won a medal in Amsterdam. He retired in 1940 and died on March 10, 1970, at the age of eighty-seven. Unfortunately, it appears that his wife did not preserve his papers and, though he seems to have had many students, none, so far as I have been able to learn, have recorded their recollections of their teacher.


Fig. 13: Bronze plaque by Hans Jauchen.


Fig. 14: Bronze bowl by Hans Jauchen.

For the first few years that this plaque was in my possession, I simply assumed that it was cast in bronze and so described it to people. In a phone conversation with a dealer in California who had never even seen the plaque, however, it was suggested that the plaque was almost certainly made entirely by Jauchen’s usual technique: chasing; that is, it was hammered out of copper from behind, tooled from the front, and afterward filled with lead and a flat back applied. An examination then revealed that indeed it didn’t sound solid when tapped and had a visible edge seam, much like a sandwiched electrotype. Despite the personal embarrassment at having misunderstood the method of manufacture initially, I at least belatedly came to understand, first, that this object made sense as Jauchen’s work, and second, why it was unknown to the most advanced collectors of Californian medals and art museums in the Bay Area. Presumably, it is a unique handmade object never intended for replication.

This leaves three issues still open. When was the plaque was made, why it was made, and—to me the most interesting question of all—what its meaning is. Is it merely a picture, a souvenir of a curious bit of detritus in the rubble of the Great Fire? Or might this plaque have been meant to convey a particular message, perhaps a philosophical reflection on hubris and nemesis? Alas, there are no definitive answers for these questions yet, and possibly there never will be. Rather, this latter point enters into those interesting realms of the collector’s art: speculation, or even wishful thinking. It is of course the privilege of any viewer of an art object—and especially of its owner—to consider what to make of it and in so doing try to add something to the original creation. So I take the liberty of doing just that, by offering the following thoughts about those parts of this plaque’s history that are neither intrinsically apparent nor discoverable by diligent archival research.

Experts in the collecting of memorabilia of the San Francisco earthquake have told me that this object is simply a souvenir, but this work seems too elaborate to be merely that and, besides, souvenirs are usually multiples designed to have broad appeal. Furthermore, it probably was not made at the time of the disaster itself but some years later, since it seems Jauchen did not arrive in San Francisco until about 1910, by which time the city was long rebuilt. He definitely did not invent the composition of the scene on the medal, theatrical as it appears, especially paired with the engraved text, for there are numerous photos of the immediate aftermath of the fire in the archives of the California Historical Society and on Web sites, which photos present virtually the same perspective, albeit without the plaque’s dramatic text. In other words, Jauchen probably made his piece by copying a photo—or even a postcard. The souvenir was already the photo or postcard. To me, this makes it seem highly unlikely that mere commemoration was the reason to produce a work of this elaborateness. So why might he have made it? It has been further suggested that this plaque was made specifically for the Lachman family, as a memorial to Samuel Lachman and his enterprise. Hardly. One must very much doubt that the ignominious tumbling down of his head and the destruction of an edifice that bore his name would be welcome on the desk or wall of one of the very wealthy heirs of the Lachman clan, still preeminent in the city’s wine trade and social elite. My speculation, not currently supported by specific evidence, is that at some time after the event, perhaps five, ten, or fifteen years later, the City of San Francisco or perhaps a regional museum or a gallery decided to gather and exhibit works illustrating and interpreting the catastrophic event. That might have given Jauchen, by then an artist established in the city, the incentive and opportunity to present his craft—to produce a work of art specifically designed for such an exhibition. The size of the plaque, six by eight inches, is rather to big to have been handheld and certainly too small for conventional display on a wall, but it might have been viewable along with other memorabilia in a showcase under glass. Still, that would not have required the addition of the hand-engraved text on the plaque itself. A title card next to the plaque on display would have sufficed to explain the scene to any viewer. I therefore conclude that the artist specifically intended to convey what appears to me a philosophic perspective, a reflection that is also a warning. Place yourself not above the ordinary, ye who are wealthy, make not an idol of your own image, ye who are proud. The wealthy and powerful commercial elite of pre-earthquake San Francisco were famously ambitious and prone to luxury and self-promotion. I imagine that the European-trained Jauchen, unaccustomed to such self-aggrandizement, except of course by royalty and the nobility, was struck by the hubris of this brash American and, dare I say it, Jewish merchant who had erected a gigantic statue of himself on the façade of his own place of business. In one way or another, the message the artist has communicated, at least to me, is: Do not set yourself up as above others, for if you do so, the gods will surely bring you low.

Ozymandias

I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these
lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and
the heart that fed,
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1792-1822

Selected References

The Bay of San Francisco, vol. 1. N.p., 1892.

Hughes, Edan. Artists in California, 1786-1940. Sacramento, 2002.

Meyer, Martin. Western Jewry: An Account of the Achievements of the Jews and Judaism in California. San Francisco, 1916.

The Morning Call. Obituary of Samuel Lachman. March 26, 1892.

Pacific Wine And Spirit Review 26 (1890); 28 (1892); 41 (1905).

Peninou, Ernest, and Sidney Greenleaf. Winemaking in California III: The California Wine Association. N.p.: The Porpoise Bookshop, 1954.

San Francisco Chronicle. Obituary of Hans Jauchen. March 13, 1970.

Acknowledgements

I wish to acknowledge the kind assistance of the following individuals who supplied assistance and information concerning the subject matter of this article: Suzanne Beizerman, Gus Bostrom, Seymour Fromer, Isak Lindenauer, Jerry Schimmel, and Peggy Zeigler, as well as the library staff of the California Historical Society, the Oakland Museum of California, and the San Francisco Public Library.

Photographic Illustrations

There are large numbers of photographs of the San Francisco earthquake and fire on file at the California Historical Society, the San Francisco Public Library, and on a great many Web sites, including http://www.sfmuseum.org/1906/photos.html, http://sfpl.lib.ca.us/librarylocations/sfhistory/equake-browse.htm, and http://dmoz.org/​Regional/​North_America/​United_States/​California/​Localities/​S/San_Francisco/​Society_and_Culture/​History/​1906_Earthquake_and_Fire/.

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