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.

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.