11 November 2008

Segue to a Segway & Touring San Francisco's Architecture

I had a great time in San Francisco last week. One of the highlights of my trip was getting to ride a Segway for the first time. I've been wanting to try one ever since I first heard about Dean Kamen's invention back in 2001. So when I heard about the tours San Francisco run by the Electric Tour Company, I signed up right away! They give you a half hour lesson on riding the Segway safely and then take you gliding around in groups of six or so, following in single file behind the tour guide who tells you (over a walkie-talkie system) all about what you're seeing. The tour I went on was around Fishermen's Wharf and the North Beach neighborhood. You get to stop and take photos and just buzz around on your own at a few places. It was way cool!

Here's a video of me riding it (click on the image first to activate the control, then click the start button at the bottom left):

Another highlight was the Architectural Walking Tour of San Francisco, led by historian Rick Evans. It was outstanding! He gave all kinds of fascinating information about the quirky history of buildings, the privately-owned public open spaces (POPOS) which hardly anyone in San Francisco even knows exist, and future urban planning for the city which is already underway. Rick is very knowledgeable and a great communicator. He's been researching all of this for years out of personal interest and for a book he's writing, but has only been leading the tours for the past year. You'd think he'd been doing it for over a decade based on how good it is. I highly recommend this tour.

Rick Evans, tour guide extraordinare, showing us the POPOS atop the Galleria Park Hotel, 191 Sutter Street, where our tour began:

The Hallidie Building (1917) at 130 Sutter Street, designed by Willis Polk, is remarkable for containing the world's first glass curtain wall, even predating the Bauhaus movement. Rick says that in spite of how ugly it is, this is the most architecturally interesting building in San Francisco. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) have their offices here, so they must agree.

The Crocker Galleria (1983), a spiffy shopping center with virtually unmarked access to two of San Francisco's underutilized POPOS. If you go there, take the escalator to the top floor and look for nondescript doors hiding staircases up to roof gardens adorning the two adjacent buildings. You can't see these garden courtyards from anywhere below, and you'd miss them if you didn't know they were there. See COMMONSpace for more info on San Francisco's privately-owned public open spaces.

The Hobart Building (1914), 582 Market Street, designed by Willis Polk (same architect who did the Hallidie Building). Because the building next door was torn down for the construction of a BART station, and its "air rights" sold to another developer so the latter could build a higher skyscraper, that odd exposed wall will remain there forever. Rick hopes it is used someday for a mural, to prevent advertisers from taking it over and ruining the view. The tall building behind it in the first of these photos is the 44 Montgomery office tower.

111 Sutter Street (1926), the Hunter-Dulin Building, aka The "Sam Spade" Building (on left) next to 44 Montgomery (office tower). The former has an interesting mix of French Chateau and Romanesque ornamentation. The building was the site of Sam Spade's office in The Maltese Falcon. The author, Dashiell Hammett, lived in San Francisco while writing the novel, and the building appears in the movie.

In the elevator lobby is an amazing hand-painted ceiling with an eclectic mix of imagery (birds, Stars of David, heraldic shields, lions rampant, fleurs-de-lis). The ceiling had been hidden for years under a layer of cigarette smoke until restorations completed in 2001 revealed it and it was repainted to its former brilliance. (Rick told us that buildings never get face-lifts by their original owners; only when a new buyer takes over, as in this case, is anyone willing to spend the money to restore great architectural history.) The lobby also features Italian marble columns and floor. A neat tidbit: you can see a foot-sized impression in the floor that was made by elevator attendants pivoting from the same spot for 50 years to direct people to one of the six elevators. (Unfortunately I neglected to photograph it, but you can see it here.)

The Shell Building (1929), at 100 Bush Street, the last great Art Deco building built in San Francisco, reflected in the glass of the Crown Zellerbach Building (1959) across the street at 1 Bush Street. The latter, designed by George Kelham, is the first glass building built after WWII. This photo shows the irony of their juxtaposition. Because it took San Francisco a long time to recover from the Great Depression and WWII, there was nothing much built between 1929 and 1959. Incidentally, I learned an interesting fact about why most tall office buildings are built with glass walls nowadays. That way they can rent out all the square footage all the way up to the edge, whereas otherwise you lose some space due to the thicker walls.

Here is the lower portion of the Shell Building:

130 Bush Street (1910), one of the narrowest buildings, if not the narrowest, in San Francisco. Sandwiched between two taller skyscrapers, this Gothic Revival structure is 10 stories high and 80 feet deep, but only 20 feet wide. (It doesn't quite make the cut for narrowest commercial building in the world -- that's the Sam Kee Building in Vancouver, at 6 feet wide). The building was originally occupied by a garment manufacturing company that specialized in thin accessories: neckties, belts, and suspenders. (Hee hee!) Notice how the Shell Building to the right has matched the height of 130 Bush with its lower floors. Contrary to what you might think, the narrow building wasn't squeezed in to a narrow spot. It was built that way when nothing was to the right of it. The Shell Building came later.

Former Standard Oil Building (1922), 225 Bush Street. This was not a stop on our tour, but Rick did point it out from a distance as we walked by, and I've learned some more about it from the Web. It was the tallest building in San Francisco when it was built. Built in the Beaux Arts style, it was modeled after the old Federal Reserve Building in New York. It "has a Mediterranean crown--a loggia capped with a red tile roof supported by a heavy, corbeled cornice." The Renaissance ornamentation was derived from a Florentine palace. (Sources: Wikipedia, SkyScraperPage, Emporis, and Vernacular Language North)

All of this has gotten me excited about architecture, which I'd never really been that keen on before.

1 comment:

Arthur Eades said...

I found your photo blog very interesting and well done. I, too, am interested in architecture as well as San Francisco. I did a little borrowing from you for my blog: thisandthatandmoreofthesame.blogspot.com -- hope you don't mind.


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