Why San Francisco Homes Still Have Ceiling Medallions

San Francisco’s Victorian homes are known for their ornate features. From moldings to sculpted fireplaces to the peaks that loom above you as you enter the front door, these features showcase architecture that is anything but dull.

But while their opulence can easily be taken for granted as a distinctive feature of the time, those decisions were often largely functional.

If you’ve stared at enough ceilings in San Francisco, you’ve probably noticed the intricate carvings of the circles surrounding the light fixtures. Today, those ceiling medallions, sometimes called centers, are purely decorative, but that wasn’t always the case.

“Ceiling medallions were used to hide soot because all these houses were lit by gaslight and they give off soot, especially if they were placed too high or if they were dirty,” says Bonnie Spindler, a real estate agent and “the Victorian specialist “. from San Francisco. “When you have the medallion there, the soot collects in the crevices of the ceiling medallion and gives it more dimension than it would otherwise have. It actually hid the dirt.”

Gas lighting was widely used in homes in the 1880s and was installed in homes in the 1910s, both to illuminate the home and to help heat it. It quickly went out of style in the early 20th century in favor of electric lighting, but not before a construction boom occurred in San Francisco. It all coincided with the rise of the middle class, who now had more access to furniture such as plaster trim.

Ceiling medallions on display at Lorna Kollmeyer Decorative Plaster in Hunters Point Shipyard.

Patricia Chang/special for SFGATE

Plaster shops were numerous at the time, specializing in features such as the ceiling medallions. Today there is only one decorative plaster shop left in San Francisco – Lorna Kollmeyer Decorative Plaster. Kollmeyer said her Hunters Point store sells more ceiling medallions than anything else, but before she opened 37 years ago, the closure of many of the city’s plaster shops likely aligned with the decline in demand for plasterwork.

“[Ceiling medallions] went out of style, probably because a lot of them fell from the ceiling. After the Victorian era, after 30 to 40 years, houses deteriorate and plaster degrades and needs maintenance. But in the 1940s and 50s, all the plaster shops were gone,” she said. “There was no production and people took them down.”

As more people became interested in restoring Victorian homes over the past 30 years, craftsmen specializing in these functions opened businesses such as Kollmeyer’s. Now customers flock to her store to replace or repair crumbling medallions, or even add them if they weren’t already there.

She said she usually already has a mold in her shop of the locket someone wants to fix because the designs of these lockets were so regional. “All of our pieces, except for one or two custom ones, all come from homes in San Francisco and the Bay Area,” Kollmeyer said. “At that time it was a very regional production. There was no reason to pack and ship them. The designs and patterns here are so distinctive and look so different from, say, the East Coast, which can be more federal or colonial.”

Ceiling medallions on display at Lorna Kollmeyer Decorative Plaster in Hunters Point Shipyard.

Ceiling medallions on display at Lorna Kollmeyer Decorative Plaster in Hunters Point Shipyard.

Patricia Chang/special for SFGATE

The various medallions in her shop are named after the streets of the houses they originally came from in San Francisco. She said the Pine, Jackson and Del Mar are the most popular styles, she thinks because they are more neoclassical. She said they don’t look overly Victorian – they’re more modest and fit in with a modern style – but they’re still from that era.

When customers enter her store looking for guidance, Kollmeyer begins to learn a little more about their home. She wants to see photos, know what year it was built and what kind of rooms they will be in. She also has strong opinions about which room in the house your favorite medallion should hang. “In my humble opinion, the most important medallion is the one in the bedroom. You lie there and look at it every day!” she said with a laugh.

Kollmeyer even gives customers detailed instructions on how best to assemble the medallions, which typically weigh about 7 or 8 pounds.

Ceiling medallions on display at Lorna Kollmeyer Decorative Plaster in Hunters Point Shipyard.

Ceiling medallions on display at Lorna Kollmeyer Decorative Plaster in Hunters Point Shipyard.

Patricia Chang/special for SFGATE

Cliff’s Variety, the homewares and hardware store in the Castro that has been around since 1936, sells ceiling medallions made by Kollmeyer. The store’s general manager, Terry Asten Bennett, said they have about 40 medallions in the store, and they will also special order anything from Kollmeyer that a customer wants.

“Customers are always so excited when they look up into the toy department (the only place in the main store with a ceiling low enough to display them) and see them. … We started selling ceiling medallions in the 1970s, when gay couples started buying the old Victorians in the Castro and restoring them.”

Asten Bennet said they’ve only sold 58 medallions so far this year, which is a lot less than usual. Normally they would have sold double by this time of year, she said, but she blames the COVID-19 pandemic for the slowdown.

A common mistake that both Spindler and Kollmeyer see people make is buying a locket that is too small for the room. “I tell people Victorians can absorb decor. It’s okay to overdo it a little. Something will stand out as a sore thumb if it’s too skinny,” Kollmeyer said. “If the room asks for big, go big. You can better go over the limit than be too small.”



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