140 New Montgomery
SOMA South of 5th
The building that stands at 140 New Montgomery was built in 1925 for the Pacific Telephone Company, part of the Bell System. It was, at the time, the first significant skyscraper in San Francisco, as well as the city’s first skyscraper in the Moderne style. According to the San Francisco Newsletter, published in 1925, “The interiors are entirely fireproof and are exceptionally well lighted. Its features include a cafeteria for women employees and an assembly hall seating 400 people.” It was also the first building to be wired so that each desk could have a personal telephone.
Designed by James Rupert Miller and Timothy Pflueger, the Bell Telephone Building is often categorized as both Neo Gothic-a style that borrows details from medieval Gothic architecture-and Art Deco, a style introduced at the 1925 Paris Exhibition that flourished throughout the 1930s and during WWII. Art Deco is based on geometric forms and places an emphasis on sleek appearances, reflecting the modernity of science and industry in the 20th century. The term “Moderne” is the United States Landmarks Commissions’ general term for styles of architecture that were popular from 1925 through the 1940s. It has expression in styles traditionally classified as Art Deco, Streamline Moderne, and WPA Moderne.
Miller and Pflueger were heavily influenced by Eliel Saarinen, winner of the 1922 second-prize design for The Chicago Tribune Tower, a design that was never executed. Saarinen used vertical elements and gradual setbacks in his design, which are characteristics of the Bell Telephone Building. (Set backs are step-like recessions in walls, initially used for structural reasons.)
In 1926 The San Francisco Examiner called 140 Montgomery “the shimmering gleaming monument to talk.”
The lobby floor is black polished marble. Overhead a red stenciled ceiling features intertwining black and gold designs of unicorns, phoenixes, clouds and odd creatures. All this is complimented by very elaborate elevator doors.
The building’s exterior is a paean to the Bell Phone system. The logo over the main entryway is surrounded by stylistic blue bells, the company’s iconic flower. There are small bells in panels across the facade as well.
The building has no Historic Landmark Status meaning it is not recognized by the US government for its historic significance. Because, however, it is categorized by the City of San Francisco as being of “individual importance” and “excellent” in architectural design, it is protected from demolition.
Bought in 2007 by developers Wilson Meany, the building is undergoing a $50 plus million renovation. The new owners worked closely with numerous preservation boards and organizations responsible for historic building oversight to keep as much of the building intact as possible.For example, bas reliefs depicting a snake charmer, a bear, and other exotic figures on the walls of the assembly hall’s proscenium (the area between the curtain and the orchestra) will be saved. The original Bell logos will be recreated, mounted on hexagon medallions, and placed over each of the elevators in the lobby. Much of the terra cotta will need to be repaired, and every single window frame above the third floor will be replaced.
A large part of the construction process includes seismic retrofitting, which involves the modification of existing structures to make them more resistant to earthquakes. The engineers were concerned mostly with the exterior shell of the building: the terra cotta had not been maintained properly and there was some concern that it was in danger of breaking off in pieces and falling.
Originally slated to be high end condominiums in 2007 when it was purchased, the project focus changed when the office-space boom came back. The building is slated to hold 280,000 square feet of office space. The space will include amenities like a private outdoor tenant garden, showers, bike parking and repair rooms. There is plans for either first-class ground-floor dining or retail. The building is expected to open sometime this year. (2013)