“When you think of San Francisco, what do you think of? The Golden Gate Bridge, right? Or you might think of the Transamerica Pyramid,” says artisan Lorna Kollmeyer.
“But then you think of the Victorians. San Francisco is just the motherlode of Victorian architecture. People come from far and wide to see them. It’s just one of the biggest identities of our city.”
Once, shops dedicated to crafting the delicate, intricate scrolls, rosettes, cartouches, and plaques that bejewel the painted ladies were strewn throughout SF. Today, just one remains, Lorna Kollmeyer Ornamental Plaster. It is the last existing repository of the city’s unique decorative elements, a historical archive almost four decades in the making.
On April 30th and May 1st, Kollmeyer’s shop, along with more than 100 other artist and craftsperson studios at Hunters Point Shipyard, will be open to the public.
A collection of Victorian rosette molds in Kollmeyer's Hunters Point studio.(Courtesy of @lornakollmeyer)
SF’s Victorian architecture and ornamentation is completely different from that found on the East Coast. It's flamboyant, even “garish,” explains Kollmeyer. The structures include big floral elements and life-size fruit, images of Egyptian pharaohs and Greek warriors. Somewhere around 60 to 70 percent of all this can be found in Kollmeyer’s archives.
“It’s a culmination of the custom work that we have done over the past 39 years,” she says. “When homeowners and people who have been working on their Victorians bring things to us that are rotting off the building or that need to be replaced, we take the piece, take the paint off of it, repair it, and make a mold of it. Then the molds that we make we keep in the archive.”
Serving as the guardian of San Francisco’s Victorians wasn’t something Kollmeyer dreamed of. An all-American college basketball star who spent time playing professionally in France, she assumed that her career path wouldn’t veer far from the court. But a summer spent with friends in the Bay Area ignited her love for the beauty of the city and began to redefine her future.
For a couple of years, Kollmeyer worked organizing athletic events like Bay to Breakers and coaching basketball at Balboa High School and the JCC. She subsidized her rent with odd carpentry jobs and served as a “gal Friday” for a couple, Peter and Helene Marchant, who restored and flipped neglected Victorians. Then one day, Marchant turned to her and asked, “Do you know anyone who wants to buy a plaster business?”
“I thought, this is pretty cool,” she says remembers. “I’ll do it.”
From the archives: Kollmeyer restored the facade of this Forest Hill home which included dozens of plaques in the overhanging eaves and entry surround in the style of architect Louis Sullivan..(Courtesy of @lornakollmeyer)
It wasn’t long after she took over that Kollmeyer dove head first into a restoration project at the Majestic Hotel on the corner of Sutter and Gough. She put in what she felt was an enormous $23,000 bid to complete the project, only finding out later that her offer was almost $30,000 less than her closest competitor. Kollmeyer got the job. In 1984, she moved into her first studio at Hunters Point. Her rent was just $148 a month.
Back then, there were a number of businesses in SF with the expertise Kollmeyer was honing. Now, her shop is the last one standing.
Lorna Kollmeyer Ornamental Plaster is still housed at Hunters Point Shipyard (though in a much larger space than when she first started out) and, despite threats of redevelopment, not a whole lot has changed there over the last 40 years, she says. The Shipyard is one of the last affordable bastions for artists and craftspeople in the city limits—but no one knows for how long.
“The sword of Damocles gets lowered and raised,” says Kollmeyer, while the property owners and the city decide the Shipyard’s fate. “Our buildings right now are in limbo, we’ve been slated for demolition. Now they’re probably going to be here for another 10 or 15 or 20 years, but the windows are breaking out and the roofs leak and it’s like, hey man, we need some help out here! We’re trying to raise a flag and say look, these kinds of businesses out here, there’s just no way they could afford a tripling or quadrupling of rent.”
Because if Lorna Kollmeyer Ornamental Plaster gets priced out, so too does the last remaining collection of San Francisco’s Victorian ornaments, a deep irony for a city whose architectural identity is rooted in those historic buildings.
Kollmeyer belongs to Artistic License, a guild of artisans all “doing right by” the city’s Victorians, but as the group ages, “we’re on the verge of losing this incredibly valuable brain trust,” she explains. Those at the Shipyard have a pipe dream of turning the property into a historic arts vocational center that educates and trains a new generation of craftspeople to protect SF’s architectural heritage. Until that happens, says Kollmeyer, that great responsibility, at least in the plaster ornament department, falls to her and her invaluable partners, Mike Dyar and Amy Firman.
Maintaining the Victorian architecture “is a link to this fanciful, impractical, eccentric identity that San Francisco has,” says Kollmeyer. “Our survival is going to be a win-win for everybody.”
Kollmeyer with her team, Mike Dyar and Amy Firman, in their studio and archive of San Francisco's Victorian ornaments at Hunters Point Shipyard Artists studios.(Jonathan Prewitt)