San Francisco’s Skyline, Now Inexorably Transformed by Tech


That irked the new owners of the Call newspaper, the Spreckels family, who in 1895 commissioned a tower of their own mere feet from the Chronicle building. It would be more than half again as tall — 18 stories — and would be, they promised, “the finest building ever erected for a newspaper office.” It had a 60-foot terra cotta Baroque dome, four corner cupolas and spectacular flourishes.

It did the job, and then some, Ellen Klages wrote in a historical overview in 1993. One commentator at the time exclaimed, “From the summit of every hill as one views the city it rivets the attention of the spectator, reminding him forcibly of the story of the giant holding an army of pygmies at bay.”

That was just the beginning. Today’s inhabitants of Silicon Valley are no slouches at self-promotion, but even they could learn something from The Call, which published a report calling its new headquarters “the crowning achievement of mankind in the Western world.”

Salesforce, co-founded and run by Marc Benioff, is wisely saying no such thing. It makes software that lets companies handle their relationships with customers better, and so passes unnoticed by the general public. Next year, it will most likely surpass Wells Fargo as the largest private employer in the city.

San Francisco has always had conflicting feelings about growth and wealth. It was a gold rush boomtown but in the 1960s was home to the Diggers, a hippie offshoot that dreamed of a society without money. That notion lingered in a thousand communes.

“The mid-1960s and early 1970s in San Francisco simultaneously saw a downtown building boom and by far the nation’s strongest anti-skyscraper movement,” said Ms. Isenberg, author of “Designing San Francisco: Art, Land and Urban Renewal in the City by the Bay.” “They went hand in hand.”


The Transamerica Pyramid, whose plans were unveiled in 1969, was the tallest building in San Francisco until 2017. Credit John Arms/Getty Images

At the center of the conflict was the Transamerica Pyramid, whose plans were unveiled in 1969. An insurance company, Transamerica had deep roots in the city, but many residents thought its location on the edge of the Financial District, near Chinatown and North Beach, would overwhelm the neighborhood.

The leader of the opposition was Alvin Duskin, a dress manufacturer — he is said to be the first to use the peace sign in fashion — and local agitator. “Stop them from burying our city under a skyline of tombstones,” one ad urged, while another proclaimed: “New studies have shown that the more we build high-rise, the more expensive it becomes to live here.”

The protests had an effect. The Transamerica Pyramid was shaved down from 1,040 feet to 853 feet. A proposition in 1971 to limit buildings to six stories did not pass, but it was one of those defeats that is also a bit of a victory. The Transamerica Pyramid remained the tallest in the city until this year.

“A set of compromises was struck over heights and growth and redevelopment that held,” Ms. Isenberg said. “Now they will need to be renegotiated.”

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