Archive for December, 2009

Deco the halls: SF skyscrapers jazz it up

December 24, 2009

Every December, when people are looking for ways to evoke that holiday spirit, many families pile up in cars and drive to their favorite Bay Area neighborhood, famous for over-the-top displays. 

Or they traipse to Union Square together, to check out the huge windows at Macy’s, Saks 5th Avenue, and Neiman Marcus, where some, like Carl Nolte of the San Francisco Chronicle, fondly remember the store when it was the City of Paris. 

So here is a novel idea if you are searching for some holiday glam, away from the crowds. Come to the Financial District, where many skyscrapers are decked out in their red and gold finest, and glimpse the city’s smorgasbord of architectural styles. 

Of course, here at the Timothy Pflueger blog, I am partial to the skyscrapers of the Jazz Age. But there is holiday spirit everywhere you turn.  Try and catch some of these decorations before they are put away in storage at the dawn of the new decade. 

Giant ornaments at plaza at 101 California

101 California Street 

A fun place to start, where many come to take photos, is the plaza in front of the tower simply known as 101 California

The plaza is currently dominated by giant red steel Christmas tree ornaments. You will feel like a Lilliputian next to these giants, which are nicely accented by an array of potted red Cyclamen. There are two big block of concrete steps in the plaza (like a ziggurat!) to relax or watch seagulls bathe in the nearby fountain. 

Giant ornaments hang from the ceiling of 101 California

Inside, the lobby of the cylindrical 48-story tower, completed in 1982 and designed by architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, has more grandiose decor. Enormous ornaments hang from the ceiling. 

One Bush Plaza 

Continue down California, then turn left onto Battery Street, until you reach the corner of Battery and Bush, and cross the street to SOM’s Crown Zellerbach Building, the city’s first International style building. Completed in 1959, it is one of the finest examples of mid-century modern design in the city, inspired by Mies van der Rohe. 

SOM's Crown Zellerbach and its glass-enclosed Miesian lobby

One Sansome Street 

Walk down Bush Street one block. Turn left onto Sansome and cross the street. If you are walking during regular business hours, you can enter the courtyard that serves as the conservatory adjacent to the bland skyscraper at One Sansome Street. The conservatory is the former site of a bank designed by my favorite Beaux-Arts architect, Albert Pissis. 

Conservatory at One Sansome with Poinsettia tree

The lovely marble-enclosed conservatory was originally the Anglo and London Paris National Bank, which occupied the site from 1910-1981. 

Pissis, a San Francisco architect who was born in Mexico to a French father and a Mexican mother, grew up mostly in San Francisco, with an interlude at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1870s.
 
Pissis is known for his early embrace of the Neoclassic, as one can see from the preserved marble arches and ornate cornice. Some of his best-known buildings are the Hibernia Bank on Jones Street, the Flood Building on Market and Powell, and the former Emporium, now San Francisco Centre, just across Market Street from the Flood Building.

155 Sansome Street 

Turn around and continue on Sansome Street and head to the former Pacific Stock Exchange building at the corner of Sansome and Pine (an amusing footnote, in the financial pages of the Chronicle for years, a byline on the daily markets wrap-up story was Sansome Pine). 

155 Sansome Lobby (do not use without permission of Empire Group)

There is usually a friendly guard sitting at the information desk (except on Sundays) in the lobby of 155 Sansome Street, who won’t mind if you peak at the tree and the gorgeous lobby.

If you cannot get inside, you can also gaze at the streamlined design of Miller & Pflueger’s tower, completed in 1929 just after the great stock market crash. The massive sculptures that adorn both the facade of 155 Sansome and the Stock Exchange trading building on Pine were done by local artist Ralph Stackpole and you can see the influence of his friend, muralist Diego Rivera, who painted a stunning mural inside at the City Club, the former luncheon club for traders and brokers.

Inside, gold tones in the lobby compliment the brightly lit tree and shimmer in the reflection of the dark marble walls. The star-patterned ceiling was inspired by a Berlin nightclub. 

465 California Street 

Continue down Sansome until you hit California Street again, turn left, and look for the brightly colored columns of the Merchants Exchange Building, designed in 1904 by famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, with Willis Polk, one of the city’s more eccentric architects, best known for his daring design of the Hallidie Building at 130 Sutter and its innovative glass curtain wall. 

Merchants Exchange Building and its tarted up Ionic columns

Russ Building 

Continue along California Street and turn left onto Montgomery, you will see the heavy massing of the Russ Building at 235 Montgomery Street, which was for many years the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco, after its completion in 1927. 

Russ Building's Neogothic details with red holiday cheer

It stole the crown in height from Miller & Pflueger and Cantin’s Telephone Building. Its Neogothic detailing makes one think of a cathedral and the lobby is especially church-like, a veritable temple to finance. It was commissioned by two investment banking firms during the roaring 1920s stock market boom. 

After admiring how the terracotta facing and detailing is highlighted by the red holiday swags and greenery, continue down Montgomery Street, also known as Wall Street West (even though the Stock Exchange was located on Pine Street). 

Continue until you hit Sutter Street, and at Sutter and Montgomery, you will find the office building where Dashiell Hammett’s best known detective, Sam Spade, had his office. 

Sam Spade went through these doors

111 Sutter  

It has been calculated by Hammett fans, including Don Herron, the creator of the Dashiell Hammett walking tour, that Sam Spade, the detective in The Maltese Falcon, had his office in the Hunter-Dulin, completed in 1926 by New York architects Schultze & Weaver, known for their beloved Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

While not Deco or Moderne in style, the Hunter-Dulin Building is reminiscent of a French chateau. Its unusual copper mansard roof can be seen as you hike up Sutter Street. Notice the ornament course at eye level and you will see a bird. A falcon perhaps? Well not likely, since the building was complete before the black bird’s infamous moments in literature.  But it’s fun to pretend. 

450 Sutter

Turn left at the Hunter-Dulin Building, and head up Sutter Street, just as Spade turned toward Kearny on the prowl for some tobacco. There is a slight incline and as you walk west, you can see the tower of 450 Sutter, its terracotta ornament recently cleaned and new windows installed.

The interior is like stepping into a temple of the Maya, with its stepped ceiling in the shape of a ziggurat. The gold and green holiday decorations contrast with the dark Levanto marble and echo the gold, bronze and silver tones of the extensive metal work, which evoke Mayan figures, in the stunning lobby.

450 Sutter's Maya lobby decorated with holiday greenery

Happy holidays to everyone. 

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Is the Transbay Terminal worth saving?

December 16, 2009

Every time I walk past the dirty, exhaust-fume smudged Tranbay Terminal, amazingly I breathe a sigh of relief that its demolition has not yet occurred. This week, it was still there, as I glanced in the late winter light of the day, the belching buses pulling in front of its once-sleek entrance dominated by massive industrial style windows.

Transbay Terminal (c) Tom Paiva Photography

Those windows with the metal trim echo both the entry of the former San Francisco Stock Exchange Tower on Sansome Street, and the aluminum-colored Bay Bridge.

In its glory days, the then-sparkling Transbay was the terminus for many Key System trains, which traveled on the lower deck of the Bay Bridge. The Transbay Terminal’s spare modern design was by architects Tim Plfueger, Arthur Brown Jr. and John Donovan, the team which also worked — somewhat ineffectively due to cost constraints — as consultants on the Bay Bridge. Their biggest impact was creating a more elegant design for the suspension towers, Yerba Buena Tunnel, and the color of the bridge, a big debate with the engineers who wanted to paint the Bay Bridge black.

Trains traveled over the lower deck of the Bay Bridge when it opened in 1936 until the Key System was shut down and ripped out in 1958. Some of its old railway cars ended up in Buenos Aires.

Some people don’t understand my love for this building. I try to imagine it as it was, before it was converted into a bus station in 1959, and before it became a homeless encampment. A drawing of the original interior, seen in my book Art Deco San Francisco, shows an open light-filled hall, where hurried train passengers scurried to their destinations. Now, its interior is cut up by escalators and added levels compress the space.

Transbay Terminal Postcard, circa 1937

But the building is doomed. It is slated to be torn down sometime early next year and a temporary Transbay Transit Terminal has been in construction since 2008, a few blocks away, at Main, Folsom, Beale, and Howard streets.

Nearby on Natoma Street, the Varnish Fine Art gallery has a fat binder for anyone who wants to read about emminent domain, which is being used to evict all the small businesses in the area, to make way for a new mega-tower and transit hub. Across the street from Varnish one night, an evening construction crew was digging 240 feet into the ground, bay mud and silt, for the piles to support foundation of the first of a proposed cluster of skyscrapers that, if they get built, will change the look of the city forever, as the San Francisco Chronicle’s John King notes.

The Transbay Terminal is viewed as an eyesore. I don’t agree. Its boxy lines, big square windows and trim are an elegant take on the utilitarian International Stylists, and a nod to the Bauhaus School.

Transbay Terminal 1947, Paul C. Trimble Collection

Cleaned up and repaired, it could have served as a base for a new tower, much as the Hearst Building in New York uses its 1928 6-story headquarters building as a base for its 46-story glass and steel tower on West 57th St., near Columbus Circle.

I am sure such impractical ideas never occurred to the architects who want to promote their own designs. Not many think the building is worth saving. Instead, more bland glass skyscrapers will eventually be built, if they ever get approved.

In this case, where a multi-billion transit project, involving city, state and federal funding is planned, it would have been futile to try and fight city hall.

And that’s a sad thing.

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