Hiding In Plain Sight: The Dragon Sitting on Top of S.F's Broadway Tunnel

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An abstract metal dragon sculpture is mounted above a tunnel with cars driving through.
San Francisco-born artist Patti Bowler designed "Dragon Relief," a metal sculpture hanging above the Broadway tunnel. (Google Street View)

Stretching 56 feet across the Chinatown side of the Broadway Tunnel is a bronze and brass sculpture of a dragon, silently towering over the cars rumbling below. It's been poised there — a stoic sort of guardian — since 1970. Bay Curious listener Sandi Sewell asked us to find out more about how it got there.

The dragon was designed by San Francisco-born artist Patti Bowler, and lovingly constructed by Santa Rosa metal worker Wade Lux. Sandi, our question asker, grew up with the Lux family and recently found out about the commission from some old photos. She was charmed to learn her old friend had a hand in making such a prestigious piece of art.

The San Francisco Arts Commission says the imposing piece was one of the first public artworks to result from the city’s Art Enrichment Ordinance. The 1969 ordinance required every civic construction project in the city to dedicate two per cent of its budget to a piece of public art.

When the city approved the Chinatown Public Health Center to sit above the Broadway tunnel, architect Clarence Mayhew nominated Bowler to design the accompanying $27,500 artwork. (Mayhew's judgment in such matters was trusted, thanks in part to his seat on the board of the SFMOMA.) The piece would be titled simply, "Dragon Relief."

The sun shines out from behind a large building with a dragon relief on it.
A dragon relief guards the Broadway tunnel and Chinatown Public Health Center that sits above. (Courtesy Johnny Dismal)

At that time, Bowler was a fashionable and forward-thinking mixed media artist and designer, whose most talked about pieces were created using a new kind of paint she had invented. Bowler manipulated her special combination of polyester resin and dry pigments using brushes and bamboo. The end results were three-dimensional, multi-colored and abstract works that were on regular display in galleries around the Bay Area.

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In 1961, the San Francisco Examiner wrote that Bowler’s "striking designs" were "unusually dynamic, lucid and handsome." Pennsylvania's Republican and Herald newspaper once described Bowler as an "exceptionally talented artist ... that seems to thrive on hard work." Bowler had experience working on large-scale murals and construction projects too, so the size of the dragon wasn't a source of intimidation. After she had finalized the design, it was up to Lux — a self-described "tin-bender" — to build something that would last, scales and all.

There is, however, a small twist in this tale—Bowler's design might never have graced the tunnel if not for a dash of nepotism. It turns out that Clarence Mayhew — the architect who chose Bowler to helm the project — was both a friend and former employer of Bowler's architect husband, J. Carson Bowler. Mayhew gave Mr. Bowler his first major architecture job, just two years after the Bowlers were married. By awarding the "Dragon Relief" commission to Patti Bowler, he offered his protégé's wife a hand into the big leagues as well.

Regardless of how it ended up there, Bowler and Lux's dragon continues to guard the Robert C. Levy tunnel today, beneath the tall windows of the health center. And while their creation has outlived them both, it remains a testament to Patti Bowler's artistic vision and Wade Lux's impeccable metal skills. It also, rather helpfully, serves as a symbol of strength and luck for all of the patients being treated above.