San Francisco Tour Tales

Early Skyscraper Being Restored

by Jason Cohen

San Francisco’s first skyscraper, whose original façade has been hidden for more than 40 years, is presently undergoing restoration. Located at 690 Market Street at the corner of Kearny and 3rd Streets, the structure was originally the Chronicle Building, but has been known in recent years by its tenant, Washington Mutual. It was the Chronicle’s home until 1924 and shares the important “newspaper corner” intersection with the Hearst and former Call buildings.

The building’s 1889 brick and stone façade was covered with white enamel sheets in a 1962 modernization, but at least some of the original material was preserved underneath. Interestingly, although it is historically known as the Chronicle Building, the restoration work has revealed “de Young Building” carved into the stone entryway to memorialize the Chronicle’s founders.

The building was designed by the Chicago architects Burnham & Root and rebuilt by San Francisco’s Willis Polk (who ran the San Francisco Burnham office) after it suffered major damage in the 1906 earthquake. Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn Root were among the most important early designers of skyscrapers. In fact, they designed several buildings that were the world’s tallest at the time of construction. Unfortunately, Root died quite young, and many of his buildings have not survived. After Root died, Burnham teamed with other designers and became world famous as both architect and urban planner.

Another Burnham & Root structure in San Francisco is the Mills Building at Montgomery and Bush, which was built in 1891 for Darius Ogden Mills of the Bank of California. The world’s first skyscrapers were only built in the mid- to late- 1880s, so 690 Market and the Mills Building are very early examples.

The current project on Market Street will include an eight-story addition and will convert the former office building into residences and a luxury time share hotel. In reference to the revealing of the original façade, Charles Bloszies, the project’s architect, called the project “the architectural equivalent of raising the Titanic.” And since the building sits directly across from Lotta’s Fountain, the newly restored façade should lend an authentic feeling to images of the earthquake centennial.

Editors note: This article originally appeared in the August, 2005 issue of Guidelines, a publication of SF City Guides.