If you know anything about San Francisco’s architecture, you must have already heard about Ernest Coxhead. If you haven’t, chances are that you’ve walked around some of his work without even realizing it.
The renowned English-born architect was said to bring “a bit of the English charm” all the way to the Gold Coast. By combining his unique style with materials native to the California landscape, Coxhead built iconic homes that still catch our eye almost a hundred years after his death.
Today, we’re taking a look at an architect that left a huge mark on neighborhoods such as Pacific Heights, Presidio Heights, the Golden Gate Park area – and ultimately the city of San Francisco as a whole.
Who was Ernest Coxhead?
Ernest Coxhead was born in the English coastal town of Eastbourne in 1863. At the age of 15, he started working on local civil engineering projects and moved to London a few years later to work for Frederic Chancellor. This architect inspired Coxhead’s interest in “old” churches. In 1883, Coxhead was admitted to the Royal Academy of Fine Arts while also pursuing evening classes at the Architectural Associations. In 1886, he was admitted to the Royal Institution of British Architects and left England for the United States soon afterward.
Coxhead then opened an office in Los Angeles with his brother and worked on different churches across Southern California. In 1889, they relocated to San Francisco and continued working on religious buildings until 1891 when they received their first residential commission. It was a brick and half-timbered house with symmetrical paired leaded glass windows and a steep, shingled roof rolled at the edge. A year after that, Coxhead designed a home for himself and his brother, just next to the first residential house they built together.
After that, Coxhead worked on various architectural projects, many of which were residential, and continued doing so until retirement. Throughout his life, he was an active member of the architectural community and collaborated with colleagues across the board.
Coxhead quickly established himself as one of a small group of architects who rejected the overly ornamented and brightly painted style so popular at the time. Instead, he turned toward a simpler approach, building with materials left in their natural state to harmonize with the existing landscape. For example, he used cedar shingles instead of thatch.
Coxhead was involved in the emergence of the Arts and Crafts style and incorporated the elements and character of the English country house, combining facets from different periods to achieve a dramatic effect. For that reason, he is often considered one of the forefathers of the region’s iconic style. With his friend and fellow architect Willis Polk, he directly influenced other Bay Area architects, including Bernard Maybeck, Julia Morgan, Edgar Mathews, Albert Farr, Joseph Worcester, and William Wurster.
While Arts and Crafts homes are common across the city, Coxhead-designed homes are considered quite rare, which is why properties with such a strong pedigree are of immense value.
Architectural work in San Francisco
Without a doubt, Coxhead left a rich architectural heritage. Throughout his life, he built different iconic residential buildings across the city. These include:
- Ferguson House (1896), 2511 Baker Street
- Murdock House (1893), 2710 Scott Street
- Osborn House (1896), 3362 Clay Street
- Brown-Smith House (1895), 2600 Jackson Street
However, his legacy to the Bay Area is broader. Coxhead is also responsible for designing the Prayerbook Cross and a bridge over Stow Lake that can both be found in Golden Gate Park. He also worked on the Golden Gate Valley Branch Library and constructed various buildings for the Home Telephone Company (now Pacific Bell).
With such a broad portfolio, Coxhead is certainly to thank for how San Francisco looks today.
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