From 1871 to 1925, SFAI occupied four different buildings on Nob Hill before moving to its current location on Russian Hill.
Designed by the local firm of Bakewell & Brown, the structure—a series of buildings surrounding a cloistered courtyard, entered through a baroque arch, with a bell tower—incorporates elements of both Italian and Spanish colonial styles. Built of rough board-formed concrete, originally painted ochre to resemble adobe, the structures are topped by terra cotta tile roofs, with floors of brick, terra cotta pavers, and concrete.
James Bakewell and Arthur Brown, Jr. studied architecture with Bernard Maybeck at the University of California in the 1890s. In 1905 Bakewell & Brown founded what was to become one of San Francisco’s leading architectural firms and went on to design important California buildings including Berkeley City Hall (1908), Pasadena City Hall (1913), San Francisco City Hall (1915), Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco (1926), San Francisco’s Federal Office Building (1936), and various structures at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.
In 1932 Brown joined G. Albert Landsburgh to design San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House and the Veterans Auditorium, where, in 1945, President Truman and others signed the United Nations Charter. In 1934 Brown designed San Francisco’s Coit Tower, commissioned by Lillie Hitchcock Coit.
In 1963 SFAI selected architect Paffard Keatinge-Clay to design an addition to the original building that would double the amount of painting and sculpture studio space and provide room for large seminar classes, new galleries, and a café. Clay had previously worked with Le Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. “The building section Clay invented responds directly to the site to produce a sequence of architectural experiences unmatched elsewhere in this city of stunning sites and spaces,” wrote Roger Montgomery, former Dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, in a review from 1969, the year the building was completed.
One of the most technically innovative features of the building is the concrete, stepped roof of the lecture hall, which forms an outdoor amphitheater. The 150-foot square studio area is composed of 30-foot concrete structural bays with 20-foot high ceilings punctured by conical skylights angled to the north. The north façade of the building is a concrete slab brise-soleil used as a structural element, and provides privacy while modulating the light of the painting studios. The influence of Corbusier, particularly his Carpenter Center at Harvard, is evident in the materials and details.