The Story Behind Napoleon, The Dining Room Chair Overlooking Castro And Market

Believe it or not, Pottery Barn is a relatively recent addition to the Castro. It joined the neighborhood in September of 2004, and brought arguably the oddest piece of urban decor with it to the historic intersection of Market and Castro: a bronze dining room chair.

But why was a replica dining room chair placed in a clock tower in the Castro?

Here’s the backstory to give you something to think about next time you find yourself waiting at a red light.

Life Before Pottery Barn

Prior to Pottery Barn, 2390 Market St. housed the San Francisco Firemen’s Credit Union building. In the late ‘90s, Williams-Sonoma Inc., which owns Pottery Barn, expressed interest in the space. However, because of the intersection's visibility (not to mention the significance of being catty corner from Harvey Milk Plaza), things were slow going with the Planning Department.

An early design rendering of the building. | Image: UC BerkelEY

McCall Design was hired by Williams-Sonoma for the project; however, the store’s design led to four neighborhood groups requesting a discretionary review of the project in 1999.

In general, the community was concerned with having too much corporate signage on the building. According to a project review published by the University of California at Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design:

The planning department was able to force [Williams-Sonoma Inc.] to eliminate their signature ‘chair niche,’ a trademark display gimmick featuring a Pottery Barn chair set in an exterior niche, as well as their signature hanging banners on the south and west facades. In the place of the chair niche was the civic gesture requested by the community, which came in the form of a clock tower located on the corner of Castro and Market facing the proposed Harvey Milk Memorial site.”
A rendering without the "chair niche." | Image: UC Berkeley

The debate seems to have ended with the Castro getting its clock tower, and Williams-Sonoma getting to keep its chair niche. (Side note: a large rainbow banner was proposed to go on top of the clock tower; however, it was axed during the design's review.)

Once Williams-Sonoma got a nod of approval from Planning at the discretionary review hearing, the project picked up pace in early 2000 and in 2001, the 11,600 square-foot home furnishings store with off-street parking opened to the public—with a bronze dining room chair statue in its clock tower.

A rendering with the chair, but no clock. | Image: UC Berkeley

It Has A Name

“His name is Napoleon,” said the store’s general manager, Paul Bender.

Although Bender wasn’t around when Napoleon was placed into the tower—what Pottery Barn’s employees call the steeple on the corner of Market and Castro—he's very familiar with the piece of furniture.

“In lieu of putting our Manhattan armchair, which is a leather armchair, up there in bronze," he laughed, "they picked our signature dining room chair, which is called Napoleon.”

Pottery Barn's general manager, Paul Bender, pictured without Napoleon. | Photo: Shane Downing/Hoodline

“It was a creative choice to include the Napoleon chair as part of the exterior store design,” wrote Jess Haro, a public relations manager at Pottery Barn, in an email.

“He’s unique to our architecture here in the Castro,” added Bender. “If you go down to Burlingame or Corte Madera or our location on Chestnut Street, they don’t have bronze chairs.”

Although you can't buy the chairs in-store, you can buy them online.

In fact, out of the hundreds of Pottery Barns in the United States, the Castro’s bronze chair statue makes the store one-of-a-kind.

“It’s the only store with that design,” wrote Haro.

As of three years ago, Napoleon shares his tower with Sprint, which has a cell tower in the steeple; however, according to Bender, that’s about as much company as the chair gets.

“There’s no lighting up there, and it can only be accessed from a backside panel,” Bender said.

If it was up to you, what would you choose to put on display in the nook? Image credit: UC Berkeley

Your Turn

In the spirit of Napoleon the bronze dining room chair, we are curious to hear what you, dear readers, would have chosen to put on display in the tower nook at Castro and Market.

Is it a bust of Harvey Milk, an around-the-clock go-go dancer from Beaux, or a statue of a Rapunzel-esque drag queen? Drop your ideas in the comments below.

We’ll post our favorite suggestions in a poll, and though we have no control of what decisions Pottery Barn may make in the future, you’ll be able to vote for the one you like best.

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The story behind napoleon the dining room chair overlooking castro and market