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San Francisco’s Mid-Century Modern Skyscraper Turns 50

This piece was originally published in our April-June 2023 edition of SF Heritage News. To view the full issue, click here.

By Christine Madrid French, Director of Advocacy, Programs, & Communications

In August 1972, the Los Angeles Times published a “Torch Song for the Old S.F.” In his piece, journalist Jack Smith lamented the changes to “The Paris of the West,” pointing to the erection of new “Eiffel Tower” follies throughout the city. He lambasted the 48-story Bank of America Building, the “$400,000 public fountain which looks like a concrete bridge that has fallen down in an earthquake and sprung a leak” (referring to the water sculpture designed by Armand Vaillancourt at Justin Herman Plaza) and the unfinished subway along Market Street, disfiguring the landscape “like a mole in a garden.” Two new towers received his scorn, including the Transamerica Pyramid, which he noted was “shaped like a dunce cap,” and an “erector-set transmitter that will be higher than the Eiffel Tower itself,” referring to the Sutro Tower at Twin Peaks.

All of these structures, as well as BART, have reached the venerable marker of fifty years of age for historic significance. The Transamerica Pyramid is the most popularly known, depicted in artistic works, movies, promotions, and even Japanese anime as an international symbol for the city alongside the Golden Gate Bridge and our unique cable-car system. 

Today, the Transamerica Pyramid is undergoing a massive $250 million renovation, including updates to the adjacent Redwood Park, designed by Thomas Galli in 1969. New owner Michael Shvo was born the same year that the pyramid opened and visited the building shortly after its completion. He recalled that “for a kid who grew up in Israel in a house with no running water or electricity, seeing the skyscraper was like seeing the future. It changed me.” He is investing $400 million towards “reimagining” the building and the neighborhood “because I believe in the city and what it stands for,” according to a recent interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. Renowned architect Norman Foster of Foster + Partners will be overseeing the project.

As the structure enters its second half century, SF Heritage takes a look back at its history. The Transamerica Pyramid is a 48-story modernist skyscraper located on Montgomery Street between Clay and Washington in the city’s Financial District. It was the tallest building in San Francisco from its completion in 1972 until 2018 when the newly constructed Salesforce Tower surpassed its height of 853-feet.

The building was commissioned by the Transamerica Corporation, a financial-services company. The company’s founder, Amadeo Giannini, had a vision of a new corporate headquarters that would symbolize the company’s forward thinking attitude and innovation. Modernist architect William Pereira brought his own eye to the project, fashioning a 20th-century interpretation of the ancient Egyptian pyramid form, with a tapered structure that allowed maximum light to enter the building. The city planning commission approved the construction by a narrow vote. The building rose from the former site of the Montgomery Block, dating back to 1853 and demolished in 1959. The city later designated Jackson Square around the tower as an historic district, with a one-year waiting period for demolition permits, to protect the remaining structures.

Construction began in 1969 and took three years to complete. During this time, the design of the building came under scrutiny from critics who argued that it would be an eyesore and not fit with the city’s architecture. Citizens celebrated the opening nonetheless, in one case building a reproduction of the building in aspic for a Culinary-Art Exhibit at the Civic Auditorium.

The building stood out for other reasons as well. Transamerica Vice President William Butts called it “the world’s safest high-rise.” A computerized, underground “command and control center” was one of the first integrated-systems approach to life safety and included two thousand electronic sensors to monitor sprinkler valves, wiring, and ventilation equipment every five seconds. 

The Transamerica Corporation occupied the building until 1999 when it sold the building to Aegon, a Dutch insurance company. However, the building is still associated with the company as a feature of the company’s logo. Despite the criticism, the Transamerica Pyramid remains a beloved symbol of San Francisco and a testament to the city’s innovative spirit.

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