At 80 years old, 450 Sutter looks fabulous

Last week, I went to the dentist at 450 Sutter, Miller & Pflueger’s ode to the Maya.  While I was there, the pleasant security guards (among the nicest in San Francisco) were changing the notices in the elevator, where management updates tenants about the building’s ongoing restoration project.  The guard let me keep last week’s notice.

In its place was a reminder that the gorgeous skyscraper had just turned 80 (silly me I totally forgot, even though the building’s opening date, October 15, 1929,  is in my book about Pflueger, Art Deco San Francisco).

450 Sutter celebrates 80 years!
450 Sutter celebrates 80 years

At 80 years old, 450 Sutter is looking pretty fabulous. While the old girl was gifted with a gorgeous bone structure, her appearance was enhanced by a major facelift. Over the past 2-1/2 years, Harsch Investment Properties, the owners, managed a huge project that involved replacing every window in the building and a serious cleaning and repairing of the terra cotta surface.

“As part of our final inspection process, we hired a special consultant to provide the ‘ultimate leak test,'” wrote general manager Stan Mackewicz, in a recent note to tenants. “The consultant (Mother Nature) successfully scheduled the test this last Tuesday, which amounted to one of the most powerful rain storms in the Bay Area in the past 50 years.”

Mackewicz, a vice president at Harsch, was happy to report that 2860 out of the 2862 new windows installed at 450 Sutter passed the test. Only two windows had some very minor water leaks, resulting in a little puddle on the window sills.

The windows of 450 Sutter are an important element in its novel design and structure. In 1929, it was not commonplace for a skyscraper to have windows wrapping around the corners of the building, as they do here. This was only possible with the use of the steel frame, which enabled builders and architects to do away with heavy masonry walls and support columns. It’s almost as if Pflueger & Co. were saying, “Look Ma, no hands!”

The last remaining temporary scaffolding will stay up at 450 Sutter while the final terra cotta work is done at the front of the building. Chad Miller, office manager at 450, said the scaffolding and swing equipment for the window work  should come down by mid-November, but that could change, based on weather conditions, etc.

Kudos to Harsch for its caring stewardship of this icon. What a grand way to celebrate 450 Sutter at 80. You go girl!

250 Sutter organic ornament and cornice
250 Sutter organic ornament and cornice

Random observations

Just two blocks down the street from 450 Sutter, one can quickly compare how modern that skyscraper was for its time. While giving the San Francisco City Guides Downtown Deco tour last weekend, someone in my group pointed out the stunning floral ornament at the cornice of this lovely retail building at 250 Sutter.

This small six-story building was built in 1909 and designed by the local architectural firm of Meyers and Ward.  It was originally called the Goldberg Bowen building, for the delicatessen at the ground level.  The building’s cornice and organic, Art Nouveau-like ornament, are of terra cotta as well, and are an interesting contrast with the neo-Gothic ribbing and arches.

The disappearing sky room

News of the impending closure of the Carnelian Room, the city’s highest sky room atop the Bank of America building, has saddened many San Franciscans and visitors alike.

GG Bridge view from Carnelian Room
View from the Carnelian Room

From its perch in the middle of the Financial District, the restaurant is known as a place to celebrate special occasions and for schmoozing VIP business colleagues. The 52nd floor restaurant is better known for its spectacular views of the city from the main dining room and various salons with names like Tamalpais and Coit, than for its cuisine.

Bank of America Center
Bank of America Center

It’s not clear yet what the future holds for the Carnelian Room, but sadly, the era of sophisticated cocktails and dining as city lights sparkle beyond increasingly seems like a vestige of the past.

With the building’s current owners, which include real estate magnate Donald Trump, anything is possible. The Carnelian Room’s last hurrah is on January 1, 2010. After that,  its East Coast-based owners will determine its fate.

Trump became the minority stake owner in the BofA building when it was sold in 2007. After San Francisco-based Bank of America merged with NationsBank of Charlotte, N.C., its iconic headquarters building was eventually sold. In 2007, the BofA building, officially known as 555 California, was sold to the Vornado Realty Trust, which owns a 70% stake, and Donald Trump, who owns the remaining 30%.

Carnelian Menu
Drinks at sunset

A spokeswoman in New York for Vornado of Paramus, N.J. said the owners of 555 California are looking at all their options.

But if the fate of the Carnelian Room mirrors that of other sky rooms, the future is not promising. This past summer, the most famous of sky rooms, New York’s Rainbow Room, which opened in 1934, closed, citing the economy and other issues. A new operator has not yet been named. When it was restored and reconstructed in 1987, Paul Goldberger in the New York Times  called the revamped Rainbow Room “one of the finest evocations of the 1930’s yet created.”

Those in the hotel business in San Francisco are anything but surprised by the recent trend. In the last 10 years, the tough economics of running these sky-high rooms has taken its toll. There are now far fewer bars where we can enjoy the city’s stunning views.

Pyramid from Carnelian Room2
Another stunning view from the Carnelian Room

“It’s money driven,” said Howard Mutz, conference services manager at the venerable Palace Hotel, celebrating its 100th birthday this year. “Costs are so high and labor is so high.” Mutz said it is easier to run these ethereal spaces as special banquet rooms, rather than have the fixed cost of being open on a nightly basis, especially during tough economic times.

Sky room closures

Over the last 10 years, San Francisco has lost several sky bars. The St. Francis Hotel, where Mutz used to work and was also the hotel’s historian, was ahead of the trend. It closed Victor’s, a fine dining restaurant atop the St. Francis Tower in 1995. It then closed the bar and disco, called Oz, in 1997.  Now those rooms are used for private functions and corporate parties.

“It’s what a lot of hotels have done,” Mutz said. Other closures in recent years include the Equinox Room at the Hyatt Regency, and its revolving bar. It is now a private key access Regency Club. Some of the best guest rooms are now also on this top floor.

Last year, the Hilton on O’Farrell closed its Cityscape Bar and Restaurant, with its 14-foot high windows, which had been open since 1986. Before that, it was Henri’s at the Top, with bird cages and go-go girl dancers.  The Fairmont Hotel closed its Crown Room as a bar and restaurant about 10 years ago. It can now be reserved for private parties and is open to the public on Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Mother’s Day.

“Dining with a view is a dying thing,” said Al Mak, who works at the Fairmont.

Three sky bars left in Baghdad by the Bay

When the Carnelian Room closes, there will be three bars with a view left: The Top of the Mark, designed by architect Timothy Pflueger, at the Mark Hopkins Hotel;  Harry Denton’s Starlight Room atop the Sir Francis Drake;  and The View bar at the San Francisco Marriott Marquis, known locally as the Jukebox. The Top of the Mark, at the crest of Nob Hill, seems to have the best unfettered view, but it’s worth a revisit.

Top of the Mark small view
Top of the Mark, circa 1939, Mark Hopkins Hotel

While the Top of the Mark has changed from this early photo, the bar is a San Francisco institution. One hopes it will remain the granddaddy of the city’s sky bars, even though it was not the first.

During World War II, it was a tradition for those in the military passing through the city to stop at the Top of the Mark. In the 1940’s, Life did a photo spread of service men in uniform with their sweethearts, lined up in the lobby of the Mark Hopkins, for a teary farewell at the top. Soldiers bought a bottle at the bar and left it with the bartender for others in their company or squadron. Whoever finished the last sip, bought a new bottle.

San Francisco’s first sky room

The first sky room in the city was at the top of what was then called the Empire Hotel on McAllister Street. The hotel, initially called the William Taylor Hotel, was commissioned by the Temple Methodist Episcopal Church, who first hired Pflueger to design the odd combination of a church on the ground floor of the stepped skyscraper, and a hotel.

William Taylor Hotel, 1930
William Taylor Hotel, 1930

The William Taylor Hotel opened in 1930, and its design was credited to architect Lewis Hobart, after Pflueger was fired in a dispute. The hotel then suffered during the Great Depression. It re-opened as the Empire Hotel, and in 1938, the hotel turned the 24th floor into a swank cocktail lounge, called the Sky Room. Architect & Engineer said in its April, 1938 issue that the Sky Room “has no prototype west of New York.”  The skyscraper, the most prominent building in the Tenderloin, is now owned by U.C. Hastings College of the Law, for student housing.

The Top of the Mark opened just a year later, and soon eclipsed the Sky Room in popularity. More details about the creation of the bar, from its origins as a penthouse apartment at the Mark Hopkins leased by copper baron Daniel Jackling, can be found in my book, Art Deco San Francisco.

All this nostalgia makes me think it’s time for some visits to the city’s remaining sky rooms, to see where the best views (and beverages!) can be found. As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote in 1939 after the Top of the Mark opened: “Crazy ambition, to drag all the mildly-stewed characters away from the bar in the middle of the Top o’ the Mark, haul them to the windows and make them look at the most magnificent view in the country.”

Sounds like a good idea to me.

Rooftop with a view

The new rooftop sculpture garden at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has a treat in store for Timothy Pflueger fans. It offers a great view of the rear elevation of the Telephone Building, completed in 1925.

That year was  important both in the design world and as a defining moment of the Jazz Age:  it was the year F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published, and the year the Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes took place in Paris, an instrumental exhibition for the then-emerging Style Moderne now known as Art Deco, which had a wide-ranging influence around the world.

Telephone Building from SFMoMA Rooftop Garden
Telephone Building from SFMOMA Rooftop Garden

In San Francisco, it was a boom time, an era of growth and spending. The Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co. needed a new headquarters to house its growing administrative staff, a modern skyscraper befitting an innovator.

The vertical emphasis and the gradual setbacks in the towers deployed by the architects had recently been seen in the second prize winner in the Chicago Tribune Tower contest, a design by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen that was the real winner among most architectural critics.

From the SFMOMA rooftop, you can also see some of the exotic ornament on the building. Also look at the F-shaped pattern in the building plan, where the northern wing  is the largest. Pflueger & Co. had originally designed 140 New Montgomery so that Pacific Telephone & Telegraph could expand its headquarters into an E-shaped plan in later years, but that never happened.

The back of the skyscraper also has some walls surfaced with just brick, and the terra cotta surface is clearly showing its age in some sections. The new owners, Wilson Meany Sullivan plan to restore the building as part of a big seismic retrofit and condo conversion project. You can read about their project plans here at Preservation‘s online edition.

The SFMOMA rooftop garden is worth a visit. It’s also a fitting link to Pflueger who was one of the museum’s first board members, when it was the San Francisco Museum of Art and located in the War Memorial Veterans Building.

Shuttered Mission San Miguel reopens

Mission San Miguel restoration at twilight
Mission San Miguel at twilight

A couple of weeks ago, I visited the Mission San Miguel Arcangel, known as the mission on the highway (it is right off Highway 101), in between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The church has now reopened after suffering serious damage in the 2003 San Simeon earthquake. It had been closed for nearly six years.

I talked to volunteers, adobe experts, conservators, and project manager John Fowler gave me a tour of the progress of a major seismic retrofit and restoration project. The official consecration was on September 29, the Feast Day of St. Michael and the public dedication took place Friday, October 2, 2009.

The interior murals were painted in 1821 by the local Salinans, a tribe named for the nearby Salinas River and they are still intact. The mission managed to raise $10 million so far, including its earthquake insurance claim (a very smart mission indeed to have earthquake insurance). 

Mission San Miguel interior with murals
Mission San Miguel interior with murals

More funds are still needed to conserve the murals. They are a stunning work of early California history and worth a visit. Read more about my mission visit at Preservation Magazine‘s online edition with more photos of interior details, exterior and some of the people involved in saving the mission.  

What does Mission San Miguel have to do with Pflueger, you might ask? Each of the 21 missions are important to architectural history in California, as the first settlements of the Spanish and for their rough interpretation of Spanish Colonial architecture. 

Our Lady of the WaySide, Library of Congress, Prints and Photo Collection
Our Lady of the WaySide, Library of Congress, Prints and Photo Collection

Pflueger was inspired by the Mission Dolores, a quick walk from his home up the hill on Guerrero Street, for his first executed work.If you ever visit the small country church, Our Lady of the Wayside, in Portola Valley, you will see a resemblance to San Francisco’s founding mission. The side buttresses (not visible in this photo) are also reminiscent of Mission San Gabriel.

There is a great story behind the building of the church, which was completed in 1913, which you can read in Art Deco San Francisco. It is up the road from The Family Farm, an exclusive San Francisco men’s club, which is part of the story.

But this church was also hit by an earthquake. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, it was shuttered. It has since had a retrofit and reopened. Our Lady of the Wayside is also on the National Register of Historic Places. Pflueger was 20 years old when it was finished.

Come on a Downtown Deco tour!

San Francisco City Guides Downtown Deco Tour on October 18 will explore many skyscrapers in San Francisco’s Financial District, including four buildings by architect Tim Pflueger. 
Telephone Building Lobby, (c) Tom Paiva Photography
Telephone Building Lobby, (c) Tom Paiva Photography

Meet at the Telephone Building, 140 New Montgomery, between Mission and Howard streets, at 11:00 am, Sunday, October 18. The tour is over mostly flat terrain and lasts about 90 minutes. We end up at 450 Sutter, Miller & Pflueger’s glorious ode to the Maya.

Speaking of the Maya 

Check out this recent research by some archeologists funded by NASA. They concluded that the demise of the Maya, which peaked as a civilization around 900 A.D., was in part the result of rampant deforestation and overfarming of their landscape.

The researchers used supercomputers and atmospheric modeling software. Computer simulations reconstructed how the deforestation could have played a role worsening a drought that occurred about the time the Maya society began to disappear.