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Locals face off over Bay Area statues’ meaning

Times Staff Writer

For a quarter-century, the wraithlike female figures have perched atop their corporate tower in this city’s financial district, 12 shrouded statues posing a chilling existential riddle: Why no faces?

From the street 23 floors below or from office windows surrounding the Philip Johnson-designed gothic high-rise, countless workers have wondered about the eerie caryatids known among local architects as the “corporate goddesses.” Most offer their own interpretations of the ghostly enigmas in their ruffled robes.

Some observers say the 12-foot hollow statues -- their white gowns profiled against the skyscraper’s black mansard-style roof -- are angelic icons of grace and form. Others consider them Grim Reapers. .

Backlit at night, the dozen deities, positioned three to a side, spook solitary security guards. Window washers believe they bring bad luck. Others jokingly call them the Supremes. Bloggers debate them. Deluged with inquiries, building managers distribute a fact sheet to the curious.

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For Megan Fleming, who works across the street near Chinatown, the gesturing figures stand in warning. “They’re telling greedy corporate America, ‘Don’t lose your values or you’ll end up just like us: figures without faces,’ ” she said, smoking a cigarette on the sidewalk below. “I was a philosophy major in college. Maybe I read too much into things.”

Maybe, but who’s to say? Sculptor Muriel Castanis, who created the fluidly draped fiberglass figures in 1982, died last month in New York City -- taking her thoughts on them with her.

Castanis, 80, fashioned such faceless figures for galleries and public places nationwide, using fabric soaked in epoxy to create ethereal works. One reviewer borrowed from poet Wallace Stevens to describe them as “the nothing that is.”

Architect John Burgee, who along with the late Johnson commissioned the statues as a “whimsical flourish” for the building at 580 California St., says their intrigue will make the figures endure.

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“Look at any classic statue, it’s a portrait of someone. It leaves no mystery,” said Burgee, who lives in Santa Barbara. “But the corporate goddesses elicit all kinds of interpretations, from heaven and hell to the ghostly nature of financial work.

“That’s what good art does: It makes you thoughtful.”

Even George Castanis was at a loss to explain his wife’s intent: “One never knows what’s inside people’s minds,” he mused.

He said his wife was fascinated by “cloth and folds and women’s relationship to fabric, and all her sculptures had that aspect of being empty.”

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Even before the sculptures went up, they “stirred up a storm of public kibitzing and fuss,” according to 1982 news accounts in the San Francisco Chronicle. The architects petitioned the city’s 12-member Planning Commission with drawings of the planned works. Eyebrows rose.

The board “wrinkled their collective brow” over the idea of “blurred figures in heavy robes” holding court over the city’s financial district, the stories said.

Finally approved after much debate, the sculptures created more buzz when Johnson hinted that the faceless forms “were something of a jab at the very 12 board members who posed such an obstacle to the realization of his vision,” according to the building’s background sheet.

Castanis made human-sized models before creating the final products. “She draped several friends in these epoxy-soaked cloths. As the togas hardened, the women scrambled to crawl out of them,” Burgee recalled.

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Helicopters lifted the finished sculptures into place.

“It was so surreal. It reminded me of that scene in ‘La Dolce Vita’ ” which featured a Jesus figure floated by helicopter,” he said of the Fellini film. “I remember how eerie those statues looked soaring through the air.”

Each in a different pose, the statues, which also lack hands and feet, were bolted atop the building’s granite columns. Perhaps most striking is the middle piece of each threesome: a figure with arms outstretched backward, appearing as though it were contemplating a jump.

On her first day at work, law-office employee Sheila Johnson gazed out her window at one of the statues. She thought a woman was considering suicide.

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“Then I realized it was just a statue,” she said. “Still, they’ve always unsettled me. I mean, why are they there?”

Like gargoyles in Paris, the goddesses inspire urban lore: A passerby insisted that one statue fell to earth in the 1989 earthquake. (Not true.) Another told the story of the cocky stock trader who rented space in an adjacent building, directly across from the statues. Seeing the figures for the first time, he reportedly told his secretary: “They’re the first things that have to go.” The trader is gone, but the statues remain.

One spooked blogger wrote: “Am I the only one reminded of the Grim Reaper or the Ghost of Christmas Future? I saw these figures as angels of death even before they witnessed a horrific accident in 1986, when the crane working on an adjacent building collapsed into the street ... crushing several people in their cars.”

Investment banker Jeff Hagan -- whose 23rd-floor office at 580 California offers him a front-row view of the statues -- says the figures also disturb him. “They’re creepiest after dark. There are these black crows that fly around the building and nest inside the faces,” he said. “Once I looked right through one face and saw this flutter inside. I called out ‘Yah, what’s that?’ I finally got used to them.”

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After 25 years of pondering the figures, insurance broker Sal Romano also has come to terms with the goddesses, and says, “Greek statues don’t have eyes -- these don’t have faces.”

Such acceptance pleased the artist. “When they were first created, people disliked them,” George Castanis said. “But the city mellowed. Now they’ve become part of what San Francisco is.

“Muriel was enormously happy about that.”

john.glionna@latimes.com

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