From Root to Ritz
After forty years of entombment behind a phony steel facade, Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root's 1888 San Francisco Chronicle Building, the city's first skyscaper, re-emerges into the light.
Expanded ArchitectureChicago Plus posting from June 6, 2006
Glancing through ads in the Sunday New York Times for pricey real estate I'll never be able to afford, one for the Ritz-Carlton Residences in San Francisco caught my eye. When it talked of being created in "the West Coast's first skyscraper", I immediately thought of Burnham and Root's Mills Building, which I recently wrote about as still surviving on the 100th anniversary of the great San Francisco earthquake.
Remarkably, however, the Ritz-Carlton Residences are actually in a second Burnham and Root building, designed for the San Francisco Chronicle. (I say remarkably because the two projects San Francisco has been able to preserve is exactly equal to the number of surviving Burnham & Root structures in downtown Chicago, out of what was once dozens of buildings throughout the greater Loop. Talk about being a prophet without honor in your home town.)
According to John Wellborn Root chronicler Donald Hoffman, it was 1887 when Burnham & Root were hired by Michael de Young to design a new headquarters for the Chronicle. It was placed on a sloping, highly eccentric lot on Market between Geary and Kearney. When completed in 1889, the 10 story structure was the tallest building in the city. It followed the model of Chicago's Monadnock Building, where the outer walls are loading-bearing, with cast-iron and steel columns and beams on the interior. Hoffman recalls that it was largely a speculative venture, "two presses in the basement, the paper's business offices on the ground floor and entresol, editorial offices on the ninth floor, and the stereotyping department and composing room on the tenth; the rest of the space was for rent."
Hoffman was derisive about the design. "The corbels were inanely repetitive . . . the tourelles were sheated in cold-rolled copper, ringed as though turned on a monstrous lathe, and capped with the most curious spools." The building was topped off by an enormous, four-story clock tower, topping out at 208 feet high, which the paper boasted "deviated only two seconds a month from Lick Observatory." A spiral staircase behind the clocks led up to loggias that must have provided spectacular views of the entire bay area.
Diagonal elements were added to give the structure additional strength to withstand a major earthquake, which it did in 1906, but only partially. "Fireproofing and partitions were of hollow tile," Chicago construction magnate Henry Ericsson recalled in his memoirs, Sixty Years a Builder, "This building had a wooden roof, and on its ninth floor were nineteen linotype machines. The burning of the wooden roof together with the contents of this top floor hurtled the linotype machines through the hollow tile floors, wrecking the entire interior of the building."
After the fire, architect Willis Polk was brought in to reconstruct the building. The Chronicle moved out in 1924, and in the 1962 the original building disappeared behind a "modernization" that saw a false front of steel panels placed over the original Romanesque facade. (Photo by Jeff Eichfield from the National Trust website.) As part of the $90,000,000 conversion into the Ritz-Carlton Residences, those steel panels are finally being removed. San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King tells me the building is still shrouded in scaffolding, but, even though the charmingly goofy, out-of-scale clock tower is long gone and not a part of the restoration, it should be a great coming-out party as Root's 1880's design will again be on view after a four-decade entombment. At least in San Francisco, I guess you can go home again.