The Transamerica Pyramid at 50: From 'Architectural Butchery' to Icon

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An early-evening shot of a very tall, narrow pyramid-shaped building taken from a low angle, surrounded by other smaller buildings. The low light of a winter sunset is hitting the building from the right, making it a warm gold color.
The moon rises near the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco on Nov. 30, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The Golden Gate Bridge. The Bay Bridge. Sutro Tower. Coit Tower. Perhaps even (whisper it) the Salesforce Tower.

When it comes to instantly recognizable structures, San Francisco suffers no shortage. But if asked to pick their favorite, many people might go for a classic: the Transamerica Pyramid.

The Pyramid — officially known as the Transamerica Pyramid Center — first opened back in 1972, making it a half-century old this year. At over 850 feet high, back then it was the tallest building San Francisco had ever seen. It has over 3,000 windows, an exterior of white quartz, and an illuminated spire at its very top, like the star on top of a Christmas tree.

The Transamerica Pyramid as seen from Pier 7 in San Francisco on Dec. 6, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The Pyramid is no longer the tallest building in San Francisco; that honor now goes to the Salesforce Tower, at 1,070 feet. But even as this building officially turns 50 years old — the same age as The Godfather, the Honda Civic, Pong, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson — the story of how it came to be might surprise you.

That’s because what is now an architectural icon was once quite controversial.

A view from the bottom of the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco on Nov. 30, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

San Francisco before the Pyramid

Like a pin in a map, the Transamerica Pyramid marks the spot where the communities of Chinatown, North Beach, Telegraph Hill and the Financial District converge. And historically speaking, the Pyramid is built on hallowed ground.

In the first half of the 19th century, this area of San Francisco wasn’t several blocks away from the bay, like it is now. It was the Barbary Coast, right on the water. A whaling ship called the Niantic even ran aground here in 1849 after the crew jumped ship to make their fortunes in the gold fields. Like many ships around this time, instead of being removed or torn down, the Niantic was instead absorbed into the fabric of the city: It was retrofitted into a hotel and ultimately became part of the landfill as the city expanded into the bay.

A view of San Francisco looking toward the bay, by Frank Marryat, ca. 1850. (Library of Congress)

Back during the Gold Rush, Montgomery Street was at the center of city life. In 1853, workers constructed a massive building — appropriately known as the Montgomery Block — on the exact spot where the Transamerica Pyramid would later be built. “At the time, it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi at a towering four stories,” said author Hiya Swanhuyser, who is currently writing a book about the history of the building. “[It was] built, famously, on a foundation made up of redwood logs interlaced that were floated across the bay.”

San Franciscans, Swanhuyser says, even called the Montgomery Block “a floating fortress.”

Like so many spaces through San Francisco’s history, the Block — and the people inside it — lived many lives. Originally, the space was built to be law offices and a hangout spot for San Francisco’s high society. But when the city’s business folk started to migrate south to Market Street, artists moved in. The Montgomery Block entered its creative era.

A view of the Montgomery Block in 1856, by photographer G. R. Fardon (1807–1886) (Google Art Project/Wikimedia Commons)

“They were writers and sculptors,” said Swanhuyser, “people who were inventing journalism in the mid-1860s. People like Ambrose Bierce, who, according to some, was America's first newspaper columnist, and Mark Twain and Bret Harte. And Ina Coolbrith, who was California's first poet laureate.”

This area of Montgomery Street was known for its bohemian ways, a scene that attracted freethinkers from near and far. Just a block to the north, now-iconic artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived and worked here in the 1930s. But the Montgomery Block’s influence was also ideological, says Swanhuyser, a “hotbed of painters and political people”: The massive General Strike of 1934, which shut the city down for four days and brought class struggles to a head, was organized, in part, right here.

The lights went out on the Montgomery Block’s creative chapter in 1959. That year, explained Swanhuyser, “a man named S.E. Onorato bought it and tore it down, claiming he was going to make a parking structure.” But Onorato never got to build his parking garage, and the space remained a single parking lot for almost a decade.

That’s when the Transamerica Corporation — and the Pyramid — came into the picture.

A view from the bottom of the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco on Nov. 30, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Path to the Pyramid

Transamerica is now a financial services company, concerned with insurance and investments. Its story starts back in 1904 with the founding of the Bank of Italy in San Francisco — the brainchild of San José’s A.P. Giannini. That bank would become the Bank of America in the 1930s.

Transamerica began as the holding company for Giannini’s various financial ventures, which had by then become legion. The original “Transamerica Building” is actually still standing — it’s that flatiron-looking building that forms a junction between Montgomery Street and Columbus Avenue, just across the street from where the Pyramid now stretches into the sky.

Now it’s the San Francisco headquarters of the Church of Scientology, but in 1969, it was home to the corporation that wanted a new headquarters. And it turned out Transamerica wanted to build … a pyramid.

The corporation had brought in a Los Angeles architect named William Pereira who had worked as an art director in Hollywood. His brief was, apparently, to create something that allowed sunlight to filter down to ground level.

The moon rises near the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco on Nov. 30, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Pereira envisioned a pyramid more than 850 feet tall, with two wing-like columns running up either side to allow for an elevator shaft on one side and a stairwell on the other. Even with its pyramid structure, it would have a capacity of 763,000 square feet.

When the Transamerica Corporation shared the design with the public, the critics hated it. The San Francisco Chronicle’s architecture writer Allan Temko called it “authentic architectural butchery.”

And it wasn’t just local critics. The Washington Post said the Pyramid proposal was “a second-class World’s Fair Space Needle.” Los Angeles Times critic John Pastier called the design “antisocial architecture at its worst,” capturing a broader unease at how Transamerica was trying to smear its corporate vision on San Francisco’s skyline. “Corporations that are far more important to the city have exercised considerably more restraint in their architecture than Transamerica,” wrote Pastier, “which is blatantly attempting to put its ‘brand’ on the city.”

In 1969, San Franciscans protested against the Pyramid plans in the street, carrying signs that bore slogans like “Corporate Egotism” and “Stop the Shaft.” Some protesters even donned pyramid-shaped dunce hats. (You can see more photos from the protests in the San Francisco Chronicle's archives.)

Protestors at the old Transamerica Building march against the new Transamerica Pyramid, announced in 1969 and built in 1972, on July 23, 1969. (Stan Creighton/San Francisco Chronicle)

Those protesters included Hiya Swanhuyser’s mother. “She was a community-minded hippie and she didn't think that a neighborhood was the right place for a skyscraper,” Swanhuyser said.

There was even a lawsuit filed by nearby residents. At a City Hall hearing about the proposal, an attorney for the Telegraph Hill Dwellers Association spoke for those residents, in language that echoed the burgeoning environmentalism of the 1960s.

“The curse of this country is the worship of material things,” the residents’ attorney told City Hall. “We’ve polluted our rivers, our harbors, and our lakes, and our air — and we’re now about to pollute the skyline of San Francisco, one of its greatest treasures.”

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Yet at that same hearing, San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto made his support for the Pyramid — and its design — clear. Alioto urged those assembled to acknowledge the subjectivity of taste, proclaiming that the real issue was whether the Pyramid “is so bad that all reasonable men must agree.”

The design, Alioto said, wasn’t that bad. On the contrary, it would “add considerable interest and beauty to the San Francisco skyline.”

The city’s Planning Commission ultimately signed off. The Pyramid was officially coming to San Francisco.

The Transamerica Pyramid seen from Montgomery Street in San Francisco on Nov. 30, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Darkness and light in a most strange year

Construction on the Transamerica Pyramid started in 1969. And this was no ordinary year.

The Zodiac Killer murdered three of his four confirmed victims in 1969, in Vallejo, at Lake Berryessa and, finally, in San Francisco’s Presidio Heights neighborhood. That same year, Bay Area residents would open their morning papers to see strange symbols — ciphers that someone claiming to be the Zodiac Killer sent to the press.

This was also the summer that Charles Manson’s so-called “family” murdered five people in Los Angeles, co-opting the visual language of the occult in their heinous acts. Then, the very same month construction on the Pyramid began, the Altamont Speedway Free Festival outside Livermore turned from a celebration of the counterculture into violence, mayhem and murder.

This was the backdrop against which San Franciscans were now watching a gigantic, mysterious pyramid start to stretch into the sky: the same ancient symbol that’s loomed large in the worlds of magic, alchemy and superstition for millennia — appearing, that year of all years, between North Beach and Chinatown.

Some may have found it creepy. But Larry Yee, who grew up nearby, remembers it as exciting.

Yee is now president of the historic Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (also known as the Chinese Six Companies), and serves on the San Francisco Police Commission. But back in 1969, growing up in Chinatown’s Ping Yuen housing development, Yee was a basketball-obsessed teen running around this part of the city with his friends.

“We challenged ourselves to go into some of these vacant buildings that they developed,” Yee said.

Construction progresses at the Transamerica Pyramid Building, on June 3, 1971. (Joe Rosenthal/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Yee recalls how different San Francisco looked before the Pyramid. “Yeah, it was flat!” he said, adding that it was rare to see “buildings like this, that pop up through the skyline.”

He and his friends were getting a front-row seat to the construction of San Francisco’s most talked-about landmark, and one of his most enduring memories is of the constant construction noise. Far louder than the rattle of the California Street cable car that ran nearby, Yee said, was workers “pounding down on the pillars: ‘bom, bom, bom, bom.’”

Initially, he and his friends didn’t even know it was a pyramid being built down the street. They just saw a building being built up, and up … and then up even further, getting narrower. He laughs recalling how he and his friends worried the strange new building “could tip over.”

Yee has still kept his enthusiasm for the Transamerica Pyramid, decades after he watched it being built. He likes what it represents, and its place in the visual fabric of the city — and the neighborhood — he’s always called home.

It is, he says, still “magical.”

The Transamerica Pyramid can be seen reflected in the front window of a 1 California Muni bus in San Francisco on Nov. 30, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The more things change

San Francisco is a place of relentless change, and the Pyramid's reputation is no exception. For a building that’s literally built on the site where creative genius flourished — a structure whose design was so fiercely contentious — the Transamerica Pyramid Center is now thoroughly uncontroversial.

"What's good about the Pyramid overwhelms what's bad about it,” architect Henrik Bull told The San Francisco Chronicle on the building’s 40th anniversary. Once a loud opponent of the plan, he’d changed his mind. "It's a wonderful building," he said. "And what makes it wonderful is everything that we were objecting to."

The Transamerica Pyramid, a 48-story skyscraper in San Francisco's Financial District, on Nov. 18, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The Transamerica Pyramid is no longer the headquarters of its namesake — the corporation moved to Maryland — but its offices are still leased to financial services companies. Among insurance, wealth management and private equity, a 21st-century Montgomery Block artist’s haven this is not.

Here's another thing: For the most public, visible local icon you could imagine, the Transamerica Pyramid is also not very public. First-time tourists might naturally assume that a trip up the Pyramid is one of the City’s must-see attractions — like climbing the Empire State Building in New York City, or Seattle's Space Needle. But you can’t go inside the Pyramid Center beyond the lobby, let alone climb to the top to see the view, unless you’re visiting one of the offices inside. There used to be an observation deck up there, but it closed in the '90s.

Supervisor Aaron Peskin (from left), state Sen. Scott Wiener, Deutsche Finance America partner Jason Lucas, SHVO Chairman and CEO Michael Shvo, Mayor London Breed and former Mayor Willie Brown break ground at the Transamerica Pyramid during a 50th-anniversary celebration of the building and a groundbreaking ceremony for a $400 million redevelopment of the site in San Francisco on Dec. 6, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

To add insult to injury, it’s also currently covered in construction fencing — at least, its base is. That’s because it’s now undergoing a $400 million-dollar renovation by Norman Foster’s architectural firm. The Pyramid's owner, Michael Shvo, says he's in talks to bring three restaurants to the building, which apparently will be open to the public.

But among other interior changes, the renovation will also see a high-end club moving into the Pyramid.

It'll be private, for members only.

Present meets past

For all this site’s corporate credentials, the ghosts of the original Montgomery Block and this area’s Barbary Coast roots still linger here — if you know where to look.

A grove of redwood trees grows at the base of the Transamerica Pyramid in San Francisco on Dec. 6, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Architect Pereira's design includes a small park at the east side of the Pyramid’s base: the Transamerica Redwood Park, which was planted with 80 redwood trees shipped north from the Santa Cruz Mountains. Next to those redwoods you’ll find Mark Twain Place, named for one of the Montgomery Block’s most iconic figures.

When excavation began in the late '70s for the plaza complex adjacent to the park, construction workers found none other than the remains of the Niantic, that whaling ship that docked in 1849. The vessel hadn’t been lost to time after all. Instead, it was pushed down over the decades by a city that has been compulsively remaking itself in all directions since European colonizers arrived, buried deep underground. It’s said that champagne bottles were even found resting in the ship’s hull.

A man stops to look at the view of the Transamerica Pyramid at dusk in San Francisco on Nov. 30, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

And just steps away from these markers of our past is the once-hated Pyramid. It may still be a symbol of the city’s money and power. But it’s an icon that’s finally found acceptance here — even affection — nonetheless.

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