What Ever Happened to the Plaque of '59?
It was on 17 September 1859 that Joshua Norton declared himself "Emperor of these United States."
But the '59 in question here is 1959. On June 1st of that year, the Art Commission of the City and County of San Francisco — now called the San Francisco Arts Commission — held a regular meeting. On the agenda at this meeting was the consideration of an item from the Commission's Painting and Sculpture Committee: the "Plaque and text" of an "Emperor Norton memorial" proposed for Grant Avenue (here).
In the course of the meeting, the Commission passed Resolution No. 7230-1959-S:
Here's the text of the Resolution, titled "Emperor Norton Memorial Plaque":
RESOLVED That at a regular meeting of the Art Commission held on June 1, 1959, the Commission approved the design of the plaque and the text, the said plaque to be cast in bronze and placed at California Street and Grant Avenue, as a memorial to Emperor Norton, by the Society of California Pioneers in cooperation with the San Francisco Chronicle. Designer: Hubert Buel.
Those familiar with the Emperor's story will recognize that California at Grant — the southeast corner of that intersection — is the spot where Emperor Norton collapsed and died on 8 January 1880.
The fact that the Arts Commission was involved suggests that the proposed plaque was to be placed on public property — whether a building, park or sidewalk.
The historically significant southeast corner of California and Grant — most likely, the location that the proposal had in view — was (and remains) occupied by a 1909 building, 564-574 Grant Avenue, that appears to have operated continuously as a mix of private apartments, retail and other businesses.
This suggests that what was envisioned was a plaque on the public sidewalk — either on the corner point itself or, perhaps, adjacent to the California-facing side of the building.
And, given that the plaque under consideration by the Arts Commission was being proposed in 1959 — a hundred years after Joshua Norton had declared himself Emperor in 1859— it stands to reason that the plaque was being offered as a centennial gesture.
Perhaps most significant, though: The plaque was "by the Society of California of Pioneers in cooperation with the...Chronicle" [emphasis mine].
Given the institutions involved, that "by" suggests that funding already had been secured or was being guaranteed.
So what happened? Why is there not an Emperor Norton plaque at California and Grant in San Francisco today?
The Arts Commission resolution tells us that the plaque was being done "in coordination with the San Francisco Chronicle."
And yet, a search of the Chronicle archive finds no mention of the plaque project in 1959.
This is curious for a couple of reasons. First: The artist credited as the designer of the plaque — Hubert Buel (1915-1984) — was the Chronicle's art director.
Plus: The 1950s was a period of high Emperor Norton romanticism at the Chronicle. In June 1959, the paper had just completed its seventh annual Emperor Norton Treasure Hunt, a heavily promoted, now-legendary public game in which the Chronicle buried a 14K gold medallion somewhere in the city; published a series of cryptic clues as to the medallion's whereabouts; and rewarded the finder with $1,000.
If the plaque project had been a go, it would have been extremely unusual for the Chronicle not to flag and promote it — especially if the paper had a role.
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Kate Patterson, the current director of communications at the Arts Commission, confirms that the Commission's role in the approvals process for the Emperor Norton plaque would have been to weigh in on the artistic and literary merits of the proposal.
A project like this typically would have required final approval from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in order to move forward.
But, here too the trail goes cold.
A review of the Board's proceedings for 1959 finds no mention of the plaque. A search of the proceedings of the next decade, through 1969, comes up equally empty.
It begins to look like this Emperor Norton project was nixed by another public agency or body; by a Board committee; or by resistance from neighborhood residents or businesses (or both), before it could be brought for consideration by the full Board of Supervisors.
There is, alas, a long history of proposed public memorials to the Emperor that have been "killed in the crib," whether by a public agency or by a neighborhood group. This may be another one for that list.
But still the question lingers: How did an Emperor Norton plaque with the collaborative backing of two storied institutions like the Society of California Pioneers and the San Francisco Chronicle get pushed off the tracks — and who did the job?
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