Photo by Oakland Wiki.
When you look up above the door, two men, rippled with muscle and frozen in action, stare back at you. They toil away, intent on the object before them, an ornately carved throne, too big, too magnificent for any ordinary human to occupy. As you eat your locally sourced hamburger with freshly pickled fennel in the courtyard across the street and wonder, Who are these celadon men?
Jon Breuner came to Sacramento in 1856, seeking his fortune in gold. While his prospect didn’t pan out, his skills as a furniture-maker did. He opened the first furniture store in California. In 1869, he carved 139 walnut desks for both the California State Assembly and State Senate which remain are still in the offices today.
In 1906 the ground rumbled and rolled, flattening the city of San Francisco in a span of sixty seconds. The subsequent fires devastated almost all that remained, consuming eighty percent of the city. San Franciscans began fleeing in droves. Boats heavy with the newly homeless arrived in Oakland. Oakland’s mayor Franklin K. Mott acted quickly, erecting makeshift dwellings and tents for the new additions to the East Bay.
As 100,000 people took refuge in Oakland, Louis Breuner, Jon Breuner’s eldest son and president of Breuner’s Furniture Company, recognized an opportunity. He opened a one-room store supplying basic home furnishings for the newly displaced. By 1916, he had parlayed that store into an eight-level furniture showroom on 15th Street and Clay, but Breuner’s still needed more space: it was time for a new location in the Uptown shopping district. He would need a building magnificent enough to hold its own against the art deco gems H.C. Capwell and I.Magnin & Co. For design, Louis turned to Albert Roller; for exceptional tile work, he turned to Gladdening, McBean and Co.
After the New York fires of 1835 and 1845, the Chicago fire of 1871 and the San Francisco fire following the earthquake in 1906, fire had become a huge concern for retailers. The inner steel structures, though strong on their own, became malleable when exposed to extreme heat, folding and collapsing. Covering buildings in terra cotta tile provided an effective barrier to extreme heat.
Today the Breuner Building houses the California Genealogical Society. But, the celadon men remain above the door working stoically amongst swirls and repeating chevrons that lift the eye up, up, up—remnants of the building’s former life. Though Breuner’s Furniture is long gone, these green men will continue to do their job; they will continue to protect the building’s steel bones from nature’s most destructive element: fire.