He built this city

He was one of the most important Jewish architects in Bay Area history, yet when Alfred Henry Jacobs died in 1954, no local paper ran an obituary.

Not even this one.

No one knows where he’s buried, and over the decades Jacobs’ name faded into near-total obscurity. But many of the buildings Jacobs designed — among them San Francisco’s glittering Curran Theatre — still stand.

Thanks to a new exhibit at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, Jacobs’ reputation may be restored to its rightful place among the great builders of California.

“When the collection came in, I thought this would be a wonderful exhibition,” says Aaron Kornblum, archivist of the Magnes Museum’s Western Jewish History Center and curator of the Jacobs exhibit. “There were some compelling ideas and visually compelling images.”

Kornblum took the numerous artifacts, documents, photos, paintings and architectural drawings from Jacobs’ files and arranged them chronologically. They tell the story of the studious son of a Prussian immigrant father, born in San Francisco in 1882. He attended Lick-Wilmerding High School (known then as the California School of Mechanical Arts), U.C. Berkeley, MIT and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, hanging out his shingle as an architect for hire in 1905.

After San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake, a good architect could clean up in this town. And Jacobs did.

His neoclassical training and affinity for California’s Spanish influences forged a unique style. In addition to the Curran, Jacobs designed the Berkeley Tennis Club (now a private residence), the Herald Hotel on Eddy Street, the religious school for Congregation Emanu-El (at the old Sutter Street site), the Butterfield & Butterfield auctioneer’s building and several movie palaces.

Two of those, the California and the Granada (both now gone), were in San Francisco, but his most spectacular, the Winema Theatre in Humboldt County, is still open for business 84 years after construction. It is made entirely of Pacific Northwest redwood and looks something like a wooden Parthenon.

Jacobs was a busy man until the mid-1930s; then suddenly his career ground to a halt. Kornblum deduced it was due to a chronic heart condition, but whatever the cause, the last 19 years of Jacobs life were spent in quiet retirement with wife Lillian, daughter Mary and their pack of bull terriers.

Jacobs kept no diary, did no self-promotion and eventually could no longer afford to remain in the local professional society of architects, despite all of his good work. Fortunately, colleagues conferred emeritus status upon him, but he died nearly penniless and forgotten.

As for Jacobs’ Jewish pedigree, he was a member of Congregation Emanu-El. He also designed the Pacific Hebrew Orphanage (now demolished) on North Ocean Boulevard in San Francisco (he returned a third of his fee — $22,000 — to the orphanage as a gesture of tzedakah). Yet his surviving papers make no reference to anything Jewish. His holiday cards make no reference to religion, and the surviving paper trail suggests little about the inner man.

That made the search for the real Alfred Henry Jacobs all the more challenging.

Playing the role of urban anthropologist, Kornblum had to dig deep to close the gaps in Jacobs’ story. “To curate this exhibition, I did a lot of research to piece it together,” he says. “I found it very gratifying. Finding about someone who was dead helped me feel more alive.”

The Jacobs era, marked by that unmistakable 20th century American optimism, is over. But Kornblum hopes that this exhibit will remind Magnes visitors of the impact this quiet builder had on the region.

“A Jewish man played a very important role in the rebuilding of San Francisco after the earthquake,” he says. “Exactly 50 years after his death, we should recognize him for what he was able to accomplish.”

“Case Study: Alfred Henry Jacobs, Architect” runs through Jan. 16 at the Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell Street, Berkeley. Donations requested. Information: (510) 549-6950.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.