Welcome to the blog for Thomas Parry Photography. My purpose is to inform the public about photographic projects I have recently completed as well as those in progress and planned for the future. I will periodically post articles about different aspects of photographing nature, people and places. As I work with new hardware and software tools, I will pass along lessons learned that may aid other photographers. I will periodically write reviews about photographic equipment with which I have experience and books I read that may be helpful to others. I hope you enjoy reading my blog and return frequently. I invite your thoughts, good ideas, opinions and feedback.
| 09 December, 2013 06:41
Thomas S. Parry
The Hugo Hotel is an abandoned tenement building designed by Theo W. Lenzen located on the corner of Sixth and Howard Streets in San Francisco’s South of Market District. The hotel is the site for the “Defenestration” sculptural mural installation created in 1997 by artist Brian Goggin with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The oldest hotel on Sixth and Howard Streets, the Hugo has been vacant since a fire burned out several rooms in 1987. The unreinforced masonry building also suffered structural damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In 1997, a group of artists led by Brian Goggin transformed the Hugo into an immense sculptural mural called "Defenestration." Scavenged furniture and appliances were modified by the artists to make them appear animate and then cleverly affixed them to the outside walls of the building. It appears as if tables and chairs are leaping out from the windows or falling from the roof and running across the walls. Lamps are corkscrewed from some windows and sofas, refrigerators, bathtubs, even a grandfather clock are all visibly appearing to cast themselves out the windows. There is even a television set situated on the precipice of the roof poised to come crashing to the ground. Originally intended to be a short-term exhibition of about two years, the furniture has remained there to this day, still appearing to leap and run about and squirm through the windows. Untold thousands of photographs have been taken of the Hugo and its famous “falling” furniture. It is a designated sightseeing stop in the city. It is also very much represents a “housing crisis” turned into public art.
Per artist Brian Goggin, "the concept of 'defenestration,' a word literally meaning 'to throw out of a window,' is embodied by both the site and staging of this installation." The Sixth and Howard Street location in the South of Market District is part of a neighborhood that historically has faced tough economic challenges and has often endured the stigma of “skid row” status. It is also at the heart of the area that was the hardest hit in terms of loss of life in San Francisco's devastating 1906 earthquake. In the early 20th century, the South of Market area was the most densely populated part of the city outside of Chinatown. It was home to thousands of working-class and poor people, many of them immigrants and transients. Sixth Street was lined with cheap hotels and boarding houses. Most of them were two- or three-story wooden structures, but many corner lots featured five-story rooming houses that could contain as many as 300 small rooms.
The total number of those killed near Sixth and Howard in the earthquake will never be known, but it has been estimated to be 500 or more. Eyewitnesses at the time report that 150 to 300 people died inside adjacent structures. Whatever the final toll, Sixth and Howard was the place where the most people died during the earthquake and fire. And the permanently falling furniture that adorns the Hugo Hotel is a grimly appropriate reminder of that horror.
Reflecting the harsh experience of many members of this community, the furniture is literally off the streets, thrown out and unappreciated. Goggin points out that "the simple, unpretentious beauty and humanity of these downtrodden objects is reawakened through the action of the piece. The act of 'throwing out' becomes an uplifting gesture of release, inviting reflection on the spirit of the people we live with, the objects we encounter, and the places in which we live."
"Defenestration" has now endured for sixteen years, although most of the original sideshow-themed paintings have disappeared beneath constantly-changing murals of polychrome street art. As a work of conceptual art, the Hugo Hotel is universally appealing and is well-liked. But there is a very human side to the story. It is not generally understood that the Hugo remained empty for over twenty years because its owners cared more about profits than people. They refused to repair and maintain the building as it was intended to provide low income housing. And they were unable to sell it because their asking price vastly exceeded the building’s actual market value. Their flagrant lack of concern for people in need reflects an attitude that for years has been tacitly encouraged by the policies of local government. After nearly a decade in which the city haggled with the owners concerning the disposition of the Hugo, the city announced that it planned to seize the building by eminent domain to demolish it in favor of developing affordable housing in the area. This is the root of the controversy over the Hugo and why it is viewed as a housing crisis turned into public art.
I visited and photographed the Hugo Hotel and defenestration exhibit twice in the month of August as part of my San Francisco documentary project. My first visit allowed me to photograph the structure in morning light and I captured a combination of wide angle shots of the building and telephoto/close-up shots of the furniture and the polychrome murals surrounding the street level of the structure. The second visit was at the end of the day one week later to capture wide-angle views in the warmth of late afternoon. Some of the images accompanying this article were post-processed in black and white and accentuate the furniture in color. This is purely my own interpretive approach to this very unusual and unique display of public art.
Homeless people, a common sight in the South of Market District, frequent the corner of Sixth and Howard at most times of the day.
A sampling of the many "street-level" polychrome murals surrounding the Hugo.
Interpretive (color, b&w and b&w/color combination) fine art pigment prints are available for more than thirty-five views of this fascinating structure in a variety of sizes through Thomas Parry Photography at www.thomasparryphotography.com.
References cited for this article, further information on the works of Brian Goggin, additional historical information regarding the Sixth and Howard district of San Francisco and details regarding the imminent demolition of the Hugo hotel may be found at the following links: