Lots going on at the Telephone Building

Miller & Pflueger's Telephone Building, (c) Tom Paiva Photography
Miller & Pflueger’s Telephone Building, (c) Tom Paiva Photography

There has been a lot of speculation about potential tenants for the Telephone Building since construction began in March on a major renovation project, which I wrote about in the Wall Street Journal. The $50 million-plus restoration and seismic retrofit of Timothy Pflueger’s iconic Jazz Age skyscraper, which has been vacant for about six years, is underway. Owners Wilson Meany Sullivan have also redubbed the building “140” – a nod to the nickname given the building by Pacific Telephone & Telegraph Co.  An icon since it was completed in 1925, the skyscraper at 140 New Montgomery Street now even has its own very cool website, a promotion video and photo collage of architectural details.

The base is now covered in scaffolding so it’s hard to peek inside and a construction crane lords over the building (see photo below.) The Timothy Pflueger Blog apologizes for not keeping readers au courant with all the news. In addition, the San Francisco City Guides Downtown Deco tour will talk about the building from across the street, until the work is done.

Construction work on the Telephone Building
Construction work on the Telephone Building

Since construction began, some major tenants have signed up. The biggest is Yelp Inc., which announced plans in May to move into the 26-story building, and lease eight floors, or 100,000 square feet, when the work is finished next year. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in November that the popular Web-based review site’s lease is through 2021. Approximately 800 Yelpers will move in.

Restaurants to move in 

Now, the two public spaces off the lobby have also been leased. In late October, the Chronicle reported that Mourad Lahlou, the owner and chef of Aziza, a well-regarded Moroccan restaurant in the Richmond District, has leased the larger space on the Minna side of the building. This restaurant will also feature the Michelin-rated chef’s take on Moroccan cuisine.  Bar Agricole’s Thad Vogler has leased the smaller space.

While both leases are exciting for local foodies, it is not clear what the news means in terms of architecture. A look at photos of the other locations operated by Lahlou and Vogler respectively has the Timothy Pflueger Blog worrying that both of these venues will go down the path of the trendy, industrial warehouse-chic look.

Telephone Building Lobby, (c) Tom Paiva Photography
Telephone Building Lobby, (c) Tom Paiva Photography

Lahlou has hired Olle Lundberg, a San Francisco architect to design the new space, where, the Chronicle gushed, “exposed brick and concrete abound.” That’s not exactly how it was designed by architect Timothy Pflueger and his draftsmen, as one can see by the dark marble walls, detailed metal work, and the multi-colored plaster ceiling with Chinese motif in the stunning lobby. Many of the building’s interior office spaces are being gutted down to the brick walls to suit the needs of tech trendoids. To be fair, the last time I was in the ground floor space Lahlou is leasing, it was a museum for Pacific Telephone and did not seem to have any remarkable interior details, except for the 12-foot high windows.  The architects had likely focused their attention on the public lobby space.

Lundberg has a great opportunity to go beyond the tired industrial look and create a fabulous and exotic restaurant space evocative of the spirit of the 1920s. Fans of Pflueger and the building hope that he might seek to reference or incorporate Pflueger’s unique take on the Art Deco style, or even study some of his other works, such as the Moorish-inspired Alhambra Theatre on Polk Street, the high Art Deco Paramount in Oakland or his fabulous cocktail lounges from the 1930s, for inspiration. But Lahlou told the Chronicle’s blog, Inside Scoop:  “I don’t want the space to be a shrine,” Lahlou said. “I want a good vibe, good music.” And if Lundberg’s previous (and I should add well-regarded) work is an example, his is an ultra clean-lined, almost antiseptic approach to modernism, but he is also known for liking to work with his hands.

Perhaps there is more hope for the Whiteside Company, the proposed name for Vogler’s new location, which will be an all-day cafe, restaurant and bar. Vogler told “Inside Scoop” that he plans to serve up cocktails from the 19th and early 20th century, considered the Golden Age of the American cocktail, using recipes of one the city’s famous bartenders Bill Boothby. His bar book containing 400 recipes was reprinted by San Francisco’s Anchor Distilling Co. in 2009, with an excellent, well-researched foreward written by Fritz Maytag and David Burkhart of Anchor. Boothby was a bartender at the Palace Hotel, just down the block.

Boothby's American Bartender, published in 2009 by Anchor Distilling
Boothby’s American Bartender, published in 2009 by Anchor Distilling

There are even some examples, most in photographs only, of Pflueger’s stunning cocktail lounges that could serve as inspiration for Vogler’s new venue, should he or his architect decide to incorporate any references to Pflueger. My favorite is the former Patent Leather Lounge at the St. Francis Hotel. If you visit the registration area today you can see the stunning photos by Ansel Adams of the lounge which opened in 1939 with its unusual combination of black patent leather covered walls, carved Lucite ceiling fixtures and long serpentine-shaped bar. The interior of Pflueger’s Top of the Mark has been altered, but the Fairmont Hotel’s Cirque Room is the best extant example of a Pflueger cocktail lounge. While it is now slightly smaller in size, it retains its original circus-themed murals by local artist Esther Bruton, its original long curving bar, built-in banquettes and stunning mirrored columns. You can see Bruton’s circus murals below in a photo from a fabulous Art Deco Society of California party in 2008 for Art Deco San Francisco.

Le Cirque, 2008 book party for “Art Deco San Francisco,” (c) Judth Calson Photography

It’s unlikely either of these two proposed venues at 140 will adopt any kind of Art Deco motif. It would be a lovely surprise if they did, and a nice homage to the building’s architecture. While they are at it, a signature drink named for Pflueger, a cocktail with his favorite spirit, rye, would also be nice.

9 thoughts on “Lots going on at the Telephone Building”

  1. Thanks for a marvelous posting! I really enjoyed reading it, you will be a great author.I will make certain to bookmark your blog and definitely will
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  2. After reading the other comments, I wonder if there is any office I can call to see if I can get in for any interior photography?hey, I can dream can’t I? 😉

  3. i agree: excellent articles with fabulous illustrations and detailed research! i would die of joy to be able to enter and photograph the building! thanks for this update!!

  4. Dear Therese, Thanks so much for this update about what’s going on at “140” ! I’ve been very curious, and it seemed that after the plans were first announced — wasn’t that around 2009? — that things had stalled due to the financial situation. I was trying to keep checking up on it for a while, but didn’t realize things have now moved on. I had thought the original plans for the building were that it would be residential condos, but now it sounds as if it will be offices?

    I’m really concerned / disturbed about the fate of the gorgeous lobby (so beautifully photographed by Tom Paiva). Do you know if it is still intact at this point? If it’s been gutted along with other interiors, that would be a HUGE shame. If there’s still a chance that the elements can be incorporated into one of the new restaurants, I think the ADSC needs to try to apply pressure. A well-done adaptive reuse would certainly merit an Art Deco Preservation Award, but not if they destroy an intact Pflueger interior! I’m cc’ing Lynn Harrison. I’m going to look at the 140 website now — maybe that will answer some questions.

    Thank you for doing what you do so well, Therese! Best, Alice

    1. Hi Alice, thanks for the nice comments. Do not worry the lobby is going to be intact and the owners want to restore more of it to its original state. They will be putting in state of the art elevators, but I believe they are going to try and restore the original brass fixtures over the elevators, things like that. Sorry I assumed everyone had read the WSJ story I linked to. That has a bit more about the previous plans for condos changing back to offices, etc.

      They are also going to do a sculpture garden for office tenants in the courtyard which should be nice. They are going to repurpose the walnut wood paneling from the board room for bike rooms in the basement. I don’t know how I feel about that.

      Please read the WSJ story, the public comment period for the work is long over, I think the time to comment was when the building permits were under review by the city, they were also reviewed by the city’s historic preservation commission. The article I wrote in the WSJ talks about the fate and potential loss of some of the auditorium’s features. The owners are doing everything according to the Dept of Interior Standards and any fixtures they take down will be preserved and put in storage. They are going to offer them to tenants for use in their spaces. But you can see in the photos on the 140 site that the offices they envision for the tech companies are very bare bones, exposed brick, big windows, etc.

      But as I wrote in the blog, the two spaces for the restaurants were pretty unremarkable, as far as I remember. It was a long time ago that I was in them. I just wish that the restaurateurs would try to do something Deco in them. Maybe they will surprise us.

    2. Good to see that the lobby and most other public interior decor will be kept. Taken on their own, I think the work spaces with the brick and concrete don’t look at all bad, and certainly with the large windows, the views become part of the interior environment. Not knowing what the office spaces looked like just previously, let alone in Pflueger’s day, I can’t really comment further on them. Here’s hoping that not too much of the auditorium is compromised, and that the light fixtures are indeed embraced by tenants in the new spaces. I know if I had any say in my company’s decor, I’d try to take advantage of as many of those “up for grabs” fixtures as possible!

  5. Let me add my hopes for the best decor in those interior spaces. And yes, the whole Industrial Chic style, in all its varied incarnations, is SO tired. I think the only reason it proliferates is that it’s cheap–the same reason that the Bauhaus influence scattered its malignant cells so thoroughly around the world in the Twentieth Century, and still exerts its influence today. This is not to say that Modernism is bad–Pflueger himself embraced it–but GRACELESS Modernism, without thought of richness of finish, harmony of proportion, and warmth of environment–is a scourge and a sham.

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