A Look Back in History: Chinatown Decorative Streetlights

In 1925 San Francisco held a “Diamond Jubilee Festival” in celebration of the 75th anniversary of California statehood. D’Arcy Ryan was director of illumination for the festival. (Ryan was an influential early lighting engineer who pioneered skyscraper illumination, was responsible for the lighting of the “Panama-Pacific International Exposition” and the “Century of Progress Exposition” (Chicago), and executed the first complete illumination of Niagara Falls.)

For the festival Ryan designed 43 dragon street lamps to be installed along Grant Avenue from Bush Street to Broadway. The dragon was chosen because it symbolizes good luck, good fortune and longevity.

Chinatown lantern-style streetlight.

Ryan’s design is composed of a cast iron base supporting a lotus and bamboo shaft surmounted with two cast aluminum dragons below a pagoda lantern with bells and topped by a stylized red roof. Each of the 2,750 lb. lamps is painted in traditional Chinese colors: red, gold and green.

Man repairing dragon streetlight in Chinatown reveals scale of the lantern – 1955.

The entire project cost the staggering sum, at the time, of $18,000 or $418 for each. The money raised for the private project was a joint venture by the Downtown Merchants Association, the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the San Francisco Diamond Jubilee Festival. The original lamps were manufactured in China for the occasion. In 1996, the City using the original molds, had 24 new lamps manufactured by Emery Fixtures Inc. of Emporia, Kansas. The new lamps replaced some of the original fixtures and can be easily identified by the companies named on the bases access plate.

Recently an additional 23 new dragon lights have been added to a broader area of Chinatown making for a total of 71 lamps. These new lights were again made from the original molds by a foundry in China.

Chinatown streetlight at night.