The Gate Is Always Open For You!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Transamerica Time!

I'll never forget seeing director Chris Columbus's Mrs. Doubtfire in the theater back in 1993. Now that I'm living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area, it never ceases to amaze me how much that film influenced me. My first exposure to the Transamerica Pyramid happened in that dark, butter scented theater way back in Newport, Arkansas. That theater is no longer there, but it was there that the great city and county of San Francisco swept me over for the very first time.

Towards the middle of the film the camera pans down the length of this impressive triangle shaped office building as Frankie Vallie & The Four Seasons are singing "Walk Like A Man". Mrs. Doubtfire is crossing the intersection of Montgomery and O'Farrel and suddenly gets mugged by a thug. He tries to take her purse, but she switches over to her male voice and fights off the goon with a yowling "Back off asshole! Stupid bastard broke my bag!" and she keeps on walking on. The image of the Transamerica Pyramid never left me. I told myself that one day I would go there.

The Transamerica Pyramid is San Francisco's tallest skyscraper. It towers over the city at 853 feet and is the second most recognizable structure next to the Golden Gate Bridge respectively. "The Pyramid" as it's referred to by locals, is located on Montgomery Street within the heart of the financial district. Even though it's the tallest building in the city, it looks overshadowed by the former headquarters of Bank of America ( a gorgeous carnelian granite tower that pays homage to San Francisco's fetish for bay windows), which is located at 555 California Street. Fact: The Bank of America Center looks taller simply because it was erected on a higher elevation. It's actually 779 feet.

The history of the Transamerica Pyramid fascinates me. I've taken on the burden of giving one of my favorite skyscrapers the attention that it deserves.

Way back in the golden glory days of San Francisco, an Italian business tycoon by the name of A.P. Gianini founded the Bank of Italy. That bank eventually became known as the Bank of America. After these tremendous financial successes Gianini decided that he wanted to get into the business of life insurance: thus the Transamerica Corporation was born. The original Transamerica headquarters, which is now the San Francisco Church of Scientology, is actually located across the street from where the gigantic pyramid now stands. In the present, Transamerica no longer occupies the pyramid. In 1999, the company was bought out by the Dutch insurance company AEGON. However, Transamerica kept their logo, which is a picture of their prized iconic structure.

The pyramid started being constructed in 1969. It might astonish you, dear readers, that a great deal of San Francisco's financial district is erected on landfill, the Transamerica Pyramid being the most famous building. Behind the pyramid there's an alley which is consumed with small fine dining restaurants. In the middle of the street of this alley you can see these rippling waves which are etched into the concrete. These waves span the length of this delicious alley. These markings represent where the water used to be. While the basement (a parking garage) and foundation was being dug out and planted for the pyramid, construction workers stumbled upon an archeological treasure: the hull of the whaling ship Niantic which was abandoned at its San Francisco pier during the 1849 Gold Rush. 

As construction continued the pyramid was raised taller, but not without controversy and a n intelligent serial killer with a grudge running around massacring couples. The East Bay was being taunted and polarized in fear. The Zodiac Killer was on a spree of spreading death and terror throughout northern California. The San Francisco Chronicle was receiving cryptograms with the delightfully devilish introduction: THIS IS THE ZODIAC SPEAKING. The Zodiac Killer was never captured and the case still remains open. The last message sent to The Chronicle, located by the Old Mint on Mission Street was later deciphered, but not all the way: ILIKEKILLINGPEOPLEBECAUSEITISSOMUCHFUNITISMOREFUNTHANKILLINGWILDGAMEINTHEFORRESTBECAUSEMANISTHEMOSTDANGEROUSANIMALOFALLTOKILLSOMETHINGGIVESMETHEMOSTTHRILLINGEXPERIENCEITISEVENBETTERTHANGETTINGYOURROCKSOFFWITHAGIRLTHEBESTPARTOFITISTHATWHENIDIEIWILLBEREBORNINPARADICEANDTHOSEIHAVEKILLEDWILLBECOMEMYSLAVESIWILLNOTGIVEYOUMYNAMEBECAUSEYOUWILLTRYTOSLOWDOWNORSTOPMYCOLLECTINGOFSLAVESFORMYAFTERLIFE

The people of San Francisco hated the Transamerica Pyramid simply because it's design was ahead of it's time. Nothing like it had been constructed in it's likeness, let alone for office space, save the Egyptian and Mayan pyramids which were used for burial tombs and human sacrifice. Herb Caen, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist from The Chronicle led a campaign against it's completion. He also had a hatred for Sutro Tower which is a large radio/TV tower located on top of Mount Sutro. It was constructed because the hills blocked many of the air wave frequencies. Caen joked, "Sutro Tower is the crate that the Transamerica Pyramid came in!" I honestly think he was an idiot to advocate a hatred for the pyramid, and personally, I love Herb Caen. His work is wonderful and the love he had for his city was pure and loyal. He later succumbed to the pyramid and included it in his daily column's logo. 

The general public of San Francisco was much harsher no the Pyramid than their beloved journalist. They started nick naming William L. Pereira's masterpiece "Pereira's Prick" because of it's phallic shape. And it should be noted that since San Francisco is Gay Mecca, it only seems appropriate that Babylon-by-the-Bay be dawned with a building to represent all it's radiant decadence. They were also concerned that it's futuristic shape would mare the city's Victorian architecture.

Pereira logical visions for his building are as follows:
1. The pyramid is an ideal shape for a skyscraper.
2.  The building is to have the appearance of an architectural sculpture.
3.  The unconventional shape of the Transamerica Pyramid resulted from careful planning as to how the  building would affect the surrounding area. 
4.  Unlike a conventional skyscraper, the pyramid's tapered design casts a smaller shadow, allowing more sunlight to filter down into the streets than a conventional high-rise. The building's shape was also the result of of the city's unique shadow-restriction laws, which dictate a certain ratio must exist between a building's surface and height.
5. It would be energy efficient. 

The Transamerica Pyramid has 3,678 windows. I order for the windows to be cleaned, they can be turned inside out. It takes two months to clean the windows. The building holds a maximum amount of 500,000 square feet of office space with footage varying from floor to floor due to its shape. The floors get smaller the higher you go. The pyramid has 48 floors, the top floor is a conference room. The two wings on the side hold a staircase and the elevator system. Only one elevator takes you to the top. The Pyramid is composed of crushed quartz which makes it glow, glitter, and sparkle when the sun casts it's rays upon it. Unfortunately, because of the September 11th attacks, the public is no longer allowed to go up inside for a view. This is extremely disheartening to me. I've been inside the lobby and bowed down before it proudly. The Pyramid was completed in 1972 and at the time was the tallest building West of the Mississippi. It's one of the 200 tallest buildings in the world. It has now been accepted by the people and is now one of San Francisco's most loved icons.

Perhaps the neatest feature of the Transamerica Pyramid is the aluminum spire. It's 200 feet tall, its hollow so the fog can pass through it freely, and at the pinnacle there's a 1,000 watt jet light which is lit at special times of the years: predominantly the Christmas season and New Year's.