The Pacific Telephone Building is a beautiful paradox. The towering structure at 140 New Montgomery Street was the first Art Deco skyscraper in San Francisco, a forward-looking shrine to the new era of mass communication. Yet this jazz-age masterpiece is also firmly rooted in tradition, in particular the classically inspired Beaux Arts style displayed in the City’s magnificent Civic Center.
The Pacific Telephone Building’s soaring verticality and creative use of setbacks make it quintessentially modern, but its original and wondrously detailed terra-cotta ornamentation — with winged books above its entrance and majestic eagles on its crown — make it warm and approachable, a mighty yet harmonious addition to the skyline. And its Moderne lobby, with its black marble floors and fantastic, Chinese-inspired stenciled ceilings, is one of the finest in the City. Embodying the best of both old and new architectural worlds, the Pacific Telephone Building has been one of San Francisco’s great buildings ever since it opened in 1925.
The architect, Timothy Pflueger, was a local working-class boy who made good — and who left monuments all over town. As Therese Poletti writes in Art Deco San Francisco: The Architecture of Timothy Pflueger, he grew up in Potrero Hill, Glen Park and the Mission, where he attended Horace Mann Grammar School.
After the 1906 disaster, he was one of 1,700 city public school students to graduate in an open-air ceremony in Golden Gate Park. Pflueger was trained at the San Francisco Architectural Club, an organization that provided education and social activities for young architects who could not afford college. Even after he became one of the City’s most prominent architects and a member of exclusive private clubs like the Bohemian Club and The Family, he lived his entire adult life in his immigrant parents’ home at 1015 Guerrero Street.
After Pflueger joined architect James Miller’s firm, his first solo commission was the Castro Theatre. This eclectic building established his reputation, and Miller made him a partner. When Miller and Pflueger got the commission for the Pacific Telephone Building, the firm’s biggest project to date, the 30-year-old whiz kid was chosen to design it.
When it was completed, and for almost 40 years after, it and the 1927 Russ Building were the tallest skyscrapers in the City.
The Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company Building (its full original name) was one of two telephone company edifices built at the same time at opposite ends of the country — one in New York, one in San Francisco — by the expanding Bell system. The California iteration accommodated 2,000 employees, who were previously scattered in 12 different offices across the City. It was the largest company headquarters on the West Coast.
It’s hard to realize the impact that the 26-story, 435-foot-high building had after it was finished. Today it is only the 42nd tallest building in San Francisco. But when it was completed, and for almost 40 years after, it and the 1927 Russ Building were the tallest skyscrapers in the City. (The fact that there were no skyscrapers south of Market at the time made it even more dramatic.) It was immediately acclaimed as a quintessentially Western creation. Calling it “a monument to Western progress and foresight,” the San Francisco News Letter wrote, “This skyscraper graphically indicates the trend of business architecture from the ornate and rococo styles of former years to designs in which simplicity is tempered with a rugged beauty essentially Western in character.” Pflueger himself said that a weekend trip to Fallen Leaf Lake, near Lake Tahoe, inspired him to design a building that had “the clean uncluttered strength and light-reflecting textures of Sierra granite,” (as told to writer Harold Gilliam and cited by Poletti).
The Pacific Telephone Building’s mighty vertical façade also prompted rhapsodies in the local press. A poem in the San Francisco Call newspaper referred to it as “A Prayer in Stone and Steel,” and another in the San Francisco Examiner called it a “shimmery, gleaming monument to Talk!”
The Pacific Telephone Building has the distinction of being depicted in Diego Rivera’s great mural “Pan American Unity” (currently on view at SFMOMA). Rivera painted the mural while participating in a unique live exhibition of different painters at work, Art in Action, that Pflueger organized at the 1940 Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island. Pflueger had earlier commissioned Rivera to paint a fresco titled “The Allegory of California” in the Stock Exchange Luncheon Club, which is now the City Club.
One of only two San Francisco skyscrapers to be illustrated in Francisco Mujica’s 1929 History of the Skyscraper, the Pacific Telephone Building was a major influence on many local structures, including the Shell Building and the now-demolished Pacific National Bank Building. The Pacific Telephone Building was completely restored in 2012, and after a plan to make it into a 118-unit luxury high-rise was scuttled, it returned to office use, with Yelp as an anchor tenant. Pflueger’s great gray terra-cotta skyscraper no longer dominates the City’s skyline, but aesthetically it towers above just about every building in town.