Marsha Monro was rummaging through the archives closet at the St. Francis Hotel when she came across a beat-up black portfolio sandwiched between two overstuffed boxes on a wooden shelf.
Opening the 22-by-18-inch cardboard portfolio, she found about 20 black- and-white photographs of the Patent Leather Bar and Orchid Room, a sleek and curvaceous Art Deco lounge that had been in the historic San Francisco hotel - - in the grand space now called the Compass Rose -- from 1939 to 1953.
The backside of the prints bore the photographer's stamp or sticker: "Photograph by Ansel Adams, San Francisco.''
"I was flabbergasted,'' recalls Monro, the St. Francis' director of marketing and communications, who'd been on the job just a few days when she discovered the dusty prints, some of which were dog-eared, seven years ago. She knew she'd found something significant.
She didn't know at the time that Adams, the great San Francisco-bred landscape photographer best known for his heroic Yosemite pictures, made his living for decades doing commercial work, photographing everything from corporate buildings to Boudin French bread, architectural interiors (including Yosemite's Ahwahnee Hotel) and stuff for department store catalogs.
The St. Francis -- which on Jan. 12 will put a dozen of its recently conserved Adams prints on permanent public display to set off the hotel's centennial celebration -- hired Adams in 1939 to document its smart new Patent Leather Bar.
It was designed by the brilliant San Francisco architect Timothy Pflueger, a master of Moderne whose buildings include the great granite Pacific Telephone tower on New Montgomery Street (1925), 450 Sutter (1930), the Castro Theatre (1922) and Oakland's Art Deco masterpiece, the Paramount Theatre (1931).
Pflueger had been hired by the hotel's owner at the time, Templeton Crocker, the grandson of railroad and banking magnate Charles Crocker, to transform the room that was called the Cafe when the stately St. Francis opened in 1904. It was a formal dining room with a carved wood-beam ceiling and oak Corinthian columns, which were replicated when the space became the Compass Rose in 1979 (the Rose closes next month to make way for a new restaurant with a " '40s retro chic'' interior cooked up by Los Angeles designer Barbara Barry, who redid London's Savoy Grill).
Pflueger created a coolly dramatic space with a long, serpentine ribbon of a bar adorned beneath with tufted black patent leather, and chrome stools with round leather seats that were probably red. There were big curving wall sections made of smooth black patent leather rectangles, patent leather banquettes and fabric-covered chairs, mirrored columns and recessed light domes. The dropped, oblong Lucite ceiling was illuminated from above and decorated in relief with undulating Deco patterns and Mayan-like sun faces. Orchids appeared in profusion around the room.
"It was a bit of a shock to old-time San Franciscans. The traditionalists didn't like it,'' says Howard Mutz, the hotel's in-house historian and convention services manager, who loves the look of the Patent Leather Bar. "I read where some people called it the coffin corner.''
Adams photographed the room from 12 perspectives, making multiple silver prints of some of these images (they're considered "vintage'' because he printed them at the time). He mounted many of them, and signed them in pencil, as was his practice.
Neither Mutz nor anyone else knows if these pictures were published or displayed at the time or later. The Patent Leather Bar was ripped out in 1953, replaced by the Terrace Room, with its gold-hued Oriental decor and kimono- clad waitresses ("one of the ugliest rooms ever created in the hotel,'' Mutz says).
At some point, years later, six of Adams' pictures were put in glass frames and hung in the hotel general manager's office. In 1991, they were appraised by Mary Street Alinder, Adams' former chief assistant, who edited his autobiography -- published in 1985, a year after his death at 82 -- and wrote a 1996 biography of him.
"I find them very beautiful,'' Alinder says. "They seem to glow from within, as if they each held a secret light source.'' In her appraisal -- the St. Francis prefers not to discuss their estimated monetary value -- Alinder characterized these prints as "truly some of the finest examples of Ansel's work on behalf of clients, rather than on behalf of himself.''
Adams, she says, "was proud of the commercial work he did. He treated his clients with great respect -- after all, it was their fees that kept the wolf from his door from the time he opened his photographic studio in 1928 until about 1970. It is only relatively recently that people and art museums began collecting photographs in quantities to allow an artist to make his living from the sale of fine photographs.''
Adams made a clear distinction between his commercial work, which he called "assignments from without,'' and his art pictures, "assignments from within.'' Alinder, who convinced Adams that some of the commercial images were good enough to be exhibited -- she included some of them in shows she organized at the de Young Museum and elsewhere -- says most of his commercial prints were used for reproduction and not dry-mounted or signed, as are the St. Francis pictures, "which were clearly intended for exhibition.''
Carol Covington agrees. She's the independent curator who picked the prints that were in the best shape, had them rematted and framed, is installing them in the lobby of the St. Francis tower and is writing the accompanying wall text.
"They're not what he would call his art, but by mounting and signing them, he was giving them a certain respect,'' Covington says.
Anything with Adams' name on it is of interest. But the artistic and market value of the prints he made for clients depends on one's point of view or vested interest.
Bill Turnage, the managing trustee of the Ansel Adams Trust, hasn't seen these St. Francis pictures, but he doubts they're of much value.
Adams, Turnage says, "had dozens of clients and did hundreds of projects over a period of 35 years. I don't think they're particularly rare. Whenever he had time, he went off to the mountains or the coast and photographed what he loved.
"I've seen a lot of his commercial work. The photographs are always technically superb. Very professional, but not inspired. ... They're not art.''
In an essay on Adams for the Dictionary of American Biography, Turnage quoted a letter Adams wrote in 1938 to his friend David McAlpin: "I am literally swamped with 'commercial' work -- necessary for practical reasons, but very restraining to my creative work.''
Yet some collectors will pay thousands of dollars for Adams' bread-and- butter pictures, although obviously those images are nowhere near as valuable as a print of, say, Half Dome, which now fetches about $25,000, or Adams' iconic 1941 image "Moonrise, Hernandez.'' A 1970s print of that image goes for about $45,000.
"There is a market for Adams' commercial work,'' says Scott Nichols, whose San Francisco photography gallery handles Adams' fine art and commercial prints. The latter, he says, can range from hundreds of dollars to as much as $16,000 for a good vintage print. Nichols hasn't yet seen the St. Francis pictures in the flesh, but he was impressed by a digital image of the Patent Leather Bar.
"It looks wonderful -- the movement of the stools, the lines, the Art Deco nature,'' Nichols says. "I find it very appealing. It's fun. Sometimes a commercial photograph can rise to the level of fine-art photography.''
Sandra Phillips, senior curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, would be more intrigued if the St. Francis had unearthed a never-before-seen Adams print of a wilderness landscape.
"I've seen a lot of his commercial work. It's totally competent,'' Phillips says, but in her opinion, "not that interesting.''
After viewing a couple of digital images of Adams' Patent Leather Bar pictures, Phillips didn't gain new insight into Adams' art, but she liked what she saw.
"They make it look like a neat place to go have a drink with a friend -- very chic, very Deco. He did his job.''