Mortuary DOA

The Story of SF's Fanciest 'Fun Home' That Never Was

In 1947 Frank Lloyd Wright set out to design the first mortuary in his career at the age of 77. Three years earlier, the preeminent architect had been approached by a young San Francisco funeral director named Nicholas Daphne who had expressed his dissatisfaction with the overwhelming coldness that had come to define the death industry. Daphne believed that the role of a successful funeral home was to uplift the bereaved, rather than exacerbate an already sorrowful and traumatic experience. After extensively researching American mortuaries, Wright concurred: "A place where you go to see the last of your earthly companions should be a happy place; it should leave you with the feeling that death is no curse, that all is not lost because of it. People will weep, of course, but give them a lift with beauty. Put living things around; flowers that grow, not bouquets that smell."

All told, Wright's plans were estimated to cost $500,000--the modern-day equivalent of more than five million dollars.

With this in mind, Daphne purchased an entire city block (bordered by Church, Duboce, Hermann, and Webster Streets) just West of the newly built U.S. mint and made plans to erect a mortuary like no other that had come before: "I've got the finest site, in the heart of San Francisco, and I want the finest mortuary in the world. So I figure, I need the finest architect in the world."

Wright unveiled his extravagant plans to the press during the winter of 1947. The Daphne mortuary, he boasted, would include six chapels, three levels of underground parking, several flower and tombstone shops, along with perhaps the building's most eyebrow-raising feature: a helicopter launch pad. All told, Wright's plans were estimated to cost $500,000--the modern-day equivalent of more than five million dollars.

For reasons that remain unclear--though many have suspected that the exorbitant costs were the leading factor--the project never developed past the planning stages and the partnership between Wright and Daphne swiftly dissolved. Daphne eventually hired a new, lesser-known architect and 6 years later the mortuary was completed--sans helipad, unfortunately.

Rendering: Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation / UPenn archives