Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Lost negatives of the Transamerica Pyramid

Transamerica Pyramid under construction May 1, 1972
600 Montgomery Street - Financial District

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With structures presently going up supplanting the dominance, in theory, of the Transameria Pyramid, I thought it a good time to pause and reflect on the City's original iconic skyscraper that has reigned for over forty years, and share the story about our archive content on its construction.  We will add more images to this page as we scan from the approximate 1,000 original 2 1/4" square negatives in our collection.  This archive consists of the professional still photography, documenting the site development and construction, then CEO Becket signing the "first beam" as it was put in position, the gradual rise of the Tower, the demolition of the structures and retail stores on the site that preceded the skyscraper to its completion in 1972, and shots inside its tip.

"The Lost Negatives"  • Saving the Film from Oblivion ____________________________________________________________

Most of this content has never been seen before, in fact it was nearly lost.  We saved it from certain doom, which would have been silver reclamation to be specific.   This was the time when the Hunt Brothers were trying to corner silver, trading about $50 an ounce.  About the time I was producing the cover for Huey Lewis and News' epic album SPORTS in 1984, I attended an auction and purchased a massive collection of hundreds of thousands of original negatives, transparencies and prints when a local photo studio closed its doors, an entire career left for the highest bidder.   I say 'rescued', because my opposing bidder had only the plan to chemically dissolve the film to sell its inherent value converted into silver.  'Melting your film and prints down for its silver is a fate worse than death for a photographer's life work and images.   This I was intent to thwart and I won the highest offer for the lots involved.

After making this purchase, we moved about twenty loaded 4-drawer file cabinets and 300 linear feet of shelving jam packed with content, filling nearly a half semi-truck of film and prints to our studios on what was then called Army Street, the 'Old Sears' building. We proceeded to gradually shift through box and box of material, tossing the obvious worthless, yet gradually hidden treasure was revealed, most notably, the original negatives of the construction of the pyramid.  Saved! *
(*PS shout out to Bob and Connie Trupp for their part in this herculean process)

This process, culling the collection, is still going on today, with tens of thousands of images not yet reviewed, and likely it will never be completed.  Nonetheless, an important part of San Francisco history was saved.

Flickr Gallery on the Transamerica Pryamid

Construction Process
Construction began on the 3,478-windowed structure in 1969 and finished in 1972, overseen by San Francisco-based contractor Dinwiddie Construction (now Hathaway Dinwiddie Construction Company). The building's foundation is 9 feet (2.7 m) thick, the result of a 3 day, 24-hour continuous concrete pour. The four-story base contains 16,000 cu yd (12,000 m3) of concrete and over 300 miles (480 km) of steel rebar.  The building's fa├žade is covered in crushed white quartz, giving the building its light color, which undergoes a “brightening” about every 10 years, involving about 18,000 work hours.

Hand-tinting © Bennett Hall

Construction Progress from a standard position overlooking project 
July 30, 1971 • May 1, 1972 • November 15, 1972

(order print of this triptych - black and white)

Building the Pyramid

The Pyramid, which has no public access unfortunately other than its lobby, created considerable controversy in the day, yet it surprised everyone and eventually became a beloved symbol for the City, even a key component of Herb Caen's immortal logo.  The 48-story Pyramid has reigned as the tallest building in San Francisco since its construction, third highest California.  The Transamerica building was commissioned by Transamerica CEO John (Jack) R. Beckett, who made the claim that the design intent was that he wished to allow light into the street below versus the impact a conventional building may have upon the street experience.  It was designed by architect William Pereira, (check out this article on his work)

 Transamerica Pyramid under construction - June 29, 1971


Originally designed to be 1,150 feet tall, the building was lowered to 853 feet due to protests against changing the City skyline dramatically, it was sometimes referred to by detractors as "Pereira's Prick".  The proposal was rejected by the city planning commission, saying it would interfere with views of San Francisco Bay from Nob Hill.  However, its slender, pyramidal configuration does in fact allow more light to reach the street than a conventional, box-like building design and it ultimately succeed as a City icon.



Inspecting the-steel near the top of the TransAmerica Pryamid, San Francisco 1972
"Several thousand dollars in quarters and change were thrown
into the pit by observers surrounding the site at street level during the pouring, for good luck."

Ever wondered what it looks like INSIDE the San Francisco Transamerica Pyramid uppermost tip?
This is shot from inside of the tip of the Transamerica Pyramid as construction was being completed of the shell in 1972.

A Little Vertigo anyone?


Transamerica under construction from Montgomery and Clay Street •  June 29, 1971

The diagonal trusses and horizontal X-bracing at the base of the pyramid, along with the shape of the building distribute the shear force of the quake and reduce the moment impact of the wave.
Learn more about the seismic engineering including the base horizontal X-bracing crtical to keeping this building safe in the event of a major temblor
(thanks Dennis M. Barry
for sharing this)

Transamerica Building from Montgomery Street, Telegraph Hill • 10-15-1971

Did you know that only two of the building's
18 elevators reach the top floor?

Transamerica Building and other buildings under construction,  I know this plaza but cannot recall excatly where this was shot from  - If you recognize it - please let me know!
location TBD January 1972

Inside the tip of the Transamerica Pyramid, 1972

A glass pyramid cap sits at the top and encloses red aircraft warning light and the brighter seasonal beacon.  This 6,000-watt beacon was envisioned by the architect as the building’s “crown jewel”.

Montgomery Split by future site of Transamerica Pyramid c1885
Montgomery Ave ( left fork) later renamed Columbus Ave.


San Francisco Bay and its sloughs used to come up to Montgomery Street, and ships were anchored only feet from where the Transamerica Pyramid stands today.  Neighboring excavations have revealed the remains of ships where dry land is now throughout San Francisco.   The Pyramid was erected on the site of the historic Montgomery Block.  The hull of the whaling vessel Niantic, an artifact of the 1849 California Gold Rush, lay just a few feet from the base of the Transamerica Pyramid, the location marked by a historical plaque outside the building (California Historical Landmark #88). 

Old Transamerica Building, 4 Columbus Avenue, c. 1928 to the Pyramid.

Charles Paff designed this ornate flatiron building in 1907 for Banco Populare Italiano.
It was founded by Italian immigrant John Fugazi, who expanded his travel business into an independent bank. The Transamerica Corporation, established in 1928, was based here from 1938 until it moved to the Pyramid.
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John King of the San Francisco Chronicle summed up the improved opinion of the building in 2009 as "an architectural icon of the best sort - one that fits its location and gets better with age."

Today, there are four cameras pointed in the four cardinal directions at the top of the spire which provide visitors with a virtual observation deck.  This lobby system was installed after the 27th floor observation deck was closed after the September 11, 2001 attacks. Four monitors in the lobby, whose direction and zoom can be controlled by visitors, display the cameras' views 24 hours a day.

Tip in the fog, by Bennett Hall

All content shown from original negatives in the collection of
Bennett Hall / San Francisco Images © 2014 • All rights reserved

Order Prints of San Francisco History

Reference on the Pyramid

San Francisco Gate Article on History of Pyramid

 Recent images inside the Tip by a seismologist via Huntington Post