Look up. At a convenient moment, of course. Not when driving, and not when about to step out against the "walk" light in front of a city bus. And you have to be in the right place too. Not inside, and not in a strip mall surrounded by Carl's Jrs. and Office Depots, but in downtown areas with plenty of personality, quality character and a venerable vibe.
Take Oakland. (Note that I did not add the oft-accompanying Henny Youngman-style suffix of "please.") Wander around amid the historic districts of downtown and uptown and Old Town and Chinatown, stand still for a moment and, well, look up. Have you ever noticed, or really appreciated, the tops of buildings? Probably not because most of us in our daily scuttle from point A to B, C, D and Q -- yes, even Q -- focus our myopic stares on the square of sidewalk before us, and the next one after that, and the next one after that.
Topping it off
Lately, perhaps because of looking to the sky for a hint of rain, I've been noticing and appreciating this top-shelf eye candy in the upper atmosphere. Of course many historic buildings are beautiful toe to head; all 335 feet of Oakland's City Hall can surely catch the eye of the architecturally inclined. But even some of the structures that look kinda crummy from street level, their tops are tricked out. Many are ornate and beautiful with classical details, intricate trim, lion heads scowling down from above, chubby-cheeked cherubs eyeing the sky (maybe for rain?), medallions, mouldings, garlands, pilasters and even the slightly naughty sounding acroteria. Details of days gone by.
Take the building at the corner of 19th and Broadway -- and I do mean "please," at least if you're looking at its empty storefronts, boarded up windows with graffiti tags, a shredded awning hanging like a wet noodle. Yet up top it's a stately blond brick facade with precision dentil moulding around its rim. Across the street, ground level is again a jumble of awnings and security bars. But up above, florets and medallions adorn the old Sweet's Ballroom.
Over on Telegraph, there's the slick moss-green Art Deco terra-cotta above Sole Space shoe store, the rare deep sapphire version of the tile over Flora, the emerald of the old I. Magnin store. Check out the top of Aardvark Laser Engraving, or the Guarantee Building & Loan Association and the Gryphon Building -- all meticulously restored after years under cover, once "modernized" some time in the '50s with nondescript fronts, like hiding Fabergé eggs in a shoebox. Pleasing pinnacles
To get some real info, I took a mini tour around downtown with Oakland Tribune history columnist Annalee Allen, who also leads walking tours for the City of Oakland (www.OaklandNet.com/walkingtours, 510-238-3234).
"The architects in the early 20th century wanted you to look up," she said. "The technology was there -- electricity was now part of public buildings, and thanks to Mr. Otis, elevators were everywhere. That meant designers could take it up five or six stories and more. The decoration at the top draws the eye up. They wanted you appreciate it."
Makes sense. Annalee also told me about things like the Beaux-Arts style that heavily influenced U.S. design from around 1880 to 1920, incorporating arched windows, classical elements and even integrating sculpture with architecture. I learned a bit about The City Beautiful Movement, a philosophy in the 1890s and 1900s promoting monumental grandeur in cities. Not just for looks, but with the lofty goal of creating moral and civic virtue, which clearly runs rampant these days on the streets of Oakland ...
There's no great profound commentary here. Just an appreciation of the elevation, and for the effort someone went to a long time ago to make things look nice. Some might say it's all just frivolous forms sans function. Maybe so. But those forms can make an otherwise plain-Jane structure look like Sofia Vergara.
And there might actually be something profound about lifting our eyes from the ground, symbolic of widening our horizons, rousing thought to higher realms, rising above the mental fray of the work-a-day world to altitudinous aspirations, even spiritual yearnings.
All good. But really I just thought it was cool.
Contact Angela Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter @giveemhill.