Heart of the City Archives

Detail, Resting Hermes

Hermes and me, High on a Hill part 2
by Hank Donat

It will come as no surprise to the reader that I haven't stopped cursing the rogues who snatched the Resting Hermes sculpture from its pedestal on California Street last week. The 300-lb bronze depicting the Greek god of merchants and shepherds - as well as travelers, translators, and some other things - was nabbed from the sidewalk outside the University Club under cover of night.

The statue was originally sent to San Francisco by J. Chivarri & Co. of Napoli for the Italian Exhibit at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. By hosting the exposition, San Francisco officially rose from the ashes and returned to the world stage after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

Later, the University Club purchased Resting Hermes for $300. It was stolen in 1974 and recovered following a plea by the newspaper columnist Herb Caen.

Caen, as every San Franciscan knows, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1996 and died in 1997. But, what of Hermes? Who is this wing-footed character?

Hermes was the messenger and herald of the gods. Among his legends, Hermes slayed Argos after putting the 100-eyed giant to sleep with voluminous tales of Hermes' own adventures. As a messenger, his travels and exploits were many.

A closer look suggests Hermes may have gotten his just desserts in Baghdad by the Bay, for he was also a sneak thief. He stole Zeus's scepter, Poseiden's trident, Aphrodite's girdle, and, most famously, Appolo's cattle. Hermes may have invented the cover of night, as he was the first sandman. Just ask Argos.

But does that mean the sprightly god found his ultimate karma along the cable car line? Don't ask me; I only live here. I'll miss the statue on the sidewalk near the Twins Armoire boutique and the Fairmont hotel because it was graceful and beautiful. It represented the triumphant rise and stealth determination of my City and Caen's. For that, I'm sorry to see Hermes flee this gilded cage of ours, even if he was dragged out of it.

It's quite something to watch the repair work on the outside of the dome at the Palace of Fine Arts, which also dates back to the Pan-Pacific Expo. Workers straddling the dome look like ants climbing a hill, or even tinier depending on your perspective. The rib-like construction of the dome was apparent all month as workers applied fresh building materials in order to restore the structure, which was last refurbished in 1967.

Some have admired the golden orange color of some repaired sections. The dome will not be returned to its previous slate gray when all is said and done. The new hue was selected to match the original burnt orange of 1915 and was approved by the Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board. Donna Ewald Huggins and the Maybeck Foundation are the driving forces behind the work. Visit maybeck.org.

It's true that the Palace of Fine Arts is an enduring international symbol of San Francisco. Not so Resting Hermes. But there are many things worth preserving about our daily lives in San Francisco that are more obscure still. The click-clack-click that sounds like manic typing as people browse through the Amoeba record store on Haight Street is the first thing that comes to mind. It would be a shame to lose that if the CD ever goes away in favor of online music.

The raucous flock of wild parrots from Telegraph Hill is flying overhead at this moment, as if to remind me of their place in the pantheon of the obscure yet unforgettable. Of course, the parrots are becoming less obscure as time goes by. Not only are their numbers growing, Judy Irving's documentary, "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill," has been picked up by a distributor for national release in 2005.

Over at the Presidio Theatre on Chestnut Street, where the marquee said "Reopening Early 2004!" for several months, there is finally progress. The sign now says, "Reopening 2004!" The theatre's owners tell neighbors they'll open by the end of the year. Promises, promises.

The street in front of the Presidio Theatre, Bechelli's and other businesses had been sinking slightly in recent years. It's a common problem, or so some DPW types tell me. The street in the Marina bowed just enough to attract mosquitoes and cause stinky gutters due to runoff. A recent repaving job corrected the problem. You heard right - Chestnut Street just got straighter.

While we're on the subject of streets, Jim Bryan wants to know if SoMA's Minna, Tehama, Clara, and Louisa streets are inspired by an area of streets with the same names in the same order in Brooklyn, NY. Bryan says this question stymied Caen when Bryan asked him about it in the 1980s. Published references for Tehama Street cite the Tehama Indian tribe of the Sacramento delta, with no reference to Brooklyn. The names may only be a coincidence, or a minor mystery that endures in the city of Hermes' unrest.

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Copyright 2004 Hank Donat
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