The Story Behind the Creepiest Statues in San Francisco
I may still be hungover from the year plus lockdown in San Francisco, but I love taking the MUNI downtown. I’m a bit romantic when it comes to walking down my block, unconcerned if I’m going to catch it or miss it. Granted, I’m not doing it every day, and lately, the N (I live in the Lower Haight) is rarely packed, but there is something that tells me I’m in a city when I use public transportation. Maybe it’s trying to avoid eye contact with the thong guy who shouts about aliens in Duboce Park or the hordes of dogs running amok or the sunshine matched by the endless, navy blue sky. Going downtown, I never know what I’m going to get. That’s part of the magical spontaneity of living in San Francisco. You can’t know until you go.
That afternoon, after running into an old friend chowing on a hotdog on the corner of Kearny and watching a squad of pigeons assault a lone rat, I headed to City Lights Bookstore, where I worked on-call. For a writer and a reader, one that spontaneously overwhelms and inspires every time I’m there. On the way, reveling in the manic honks of taxis, Lyft, and Uber, I happened to look up. Living in the Lower Haight, I don’t experience the magnitude of high rises and skyscrapers as some do. That unique feeling of awe, belittlement, and disgust came over me when I noticed, on the edge of 580 California’s roofline, three individual wraiths, each one, I would later learn, standing 12 feet tall.
“What the fuck?” I murmured, quickly snapping a few pictures.
I was shook. What the hell were those haunting fucking things doing up there? Why would anyone think that was an inviting piece to have looming over one of the busiest blocks in San Francisco. Where did they even come from? Halloween was upon me, and I felt a chill of fear, confusion, and genuine danger. How long had they been up there, I wondered. Who would allow such a thing…I needed to find out.
580 California, the 23 floor home for those haunting ghouls, was completed in 1987. It’s owned by Equity Office properties, where commercial offices do whatever the hell commercial offices do. Philip Johnson, the American architect noted for his contributions to Postmodern architecture, designed the building. Looking at the guy, older, seemingly plain, with thick black glasses didn’t appear to be the type to be interested in faceless, hollow stone forms.
The art installation, written about in countless tourist blogs and periodicals throughout California, is entitled “The Corporate Goddesses” by Muriel Castanis (1926-2006). In April 1985, the twelve goddesses were airlifted to the top of 580 California. Johnson commissioned Castanis to create the statues as a “whimsical flourish” for their postmodern building. She answered with these mysterious, fiberglass figures, a contemporary exploration of classical Greek and Roman sculpture.
Castanis was an American sculptor best known for her public art installments of these fluidly draped figures. After some snooping around the internet, I found that the official project documentation described the statues as “…empty, toga-draped forms from which the figures have been removed, rendering the sculptures as abstracted reinterpretations of the neoclassical masterworks of Lorado Taft and Augustus Saint Gaudens.”
There is another set of Castanis’ ghostly figures known as the “Flatbush Floogies” seen on the walls of the Flatbush Avenue-Brooklyn subway station in New York. Castanis, born in 1926 in New York City, attended New York’s High School of Music and Art and didn’t begin her art career until 1964 at the age of 38. She was self-taught, which is surprising considering the size of the fiberglass ghouls and the area they are located. See some of her other work below.
There is a lot of debate about the underlying meaning of the Corporate Goddesses, which, even today, is still a mystery. As noted, Ms. Castanis died in 2006 and left no interview, notes, or papers detailing her thoughts on them. Her husband, George Castanis, was also at a loss of the meaning behind them. Some think the statues, being downtown in the financial district, symbolized the rise of female CEOs. That concept doesn’t seem like a huge deal nowadays, considering there are now 41 women chief executives of Fortune 500 companies (which still only amounts to female leadership of just 8.1% of these companies). Yet, compared to 1985, there were only two CEOs, Katharine Graham of Washington Post Co. and Marion O. Sandler, Golden West Financial Corporation. Others believe the statues are a reminder that despite all the power, position, and money in the world, Death, or some form of it, is there waiting.
Personally, they frankly scare the hell out of me.