Something from the archives from way back in June 2004.
Columbus Tower (on the right), also known as the Sentinel Building, is a mixed-use building in San Francisco, California, completed in 1907. The distinctive copper-green Flatiron style structure is bounded by Columbus Avenue, Kearny Street and Jackson Street, straddling the North Beach, Chinatown, and Financial districts of the city.
Despite the 1907 finish, building work had begun before the San Francisco earthquake the previous year, but extensive damage to the building site, and the rest of the city, slowed down the construction considerably. For a relatively small building such as Sentinel Building, with the extensive workforce available in San Francisco at that time, taking more than a year to complete the building was slightly longer than would have been expected.
In 1949 or 1950, the nightclub hungry i, which would become very influential in the history of stand-up comedy in the US, was opened as a 83-seat venue in the Sentinel Building's basement by Eric Nord, who sold it to Enrico Banducci in 1951. After operating it as a venue for folk singers including Stan Wilson, Banducci began hiring comedians in 1953 with Mort Sahl, encouraging them to express themselves freely. Their success caused queues around the block, until Banducci moved the hungry i to the nearby International Hotel on Jackson Street in 1954.
In 1958, when the Sentinel Building's state had deteriorated and it was threatened with destruction, it was bought by Dutch-born investor Rob Moor and his wife Nella, who renovated it, renamed it to "Columbus Tower" and sold it one and a half years later at a profit to The Kingston Trio. The music group used it as their corporate headquarters during the 1960s. They built a recording studio in the basement which they used themselves and for many other artists including the We Five.
The Kingston Trio later sold the building to film director Francis Ford Coppola, who renovated it and changed its name back to the Sentinel Building. American Zoetrope, the film studio he co-founded with George Lucas, moved into the building in 1972 and remains there as of 2016.
The Transamerica Pyramid building (on the left) was commissioned by Transamerica CEO John (Jack) R. Beckett, with the claim that he wished to allow light in the street below. Built on the site of the historic Montgomery Block, it has a structural height of 853 feet (260 m) and has 48 floors of retail and office space.
Construction began in 1969 and finished in 1972, and was overseen by San Francisco-based contractor Dinwiddie Construction, now Hathaway Dinwiddie Construction Company. Transamerica moved its headquarters to the new building from across the street, where it had been based in a flatiron-shaped building now occupied by the Church of Scientology of San Francisco.
Although the tower is no longer Transamerica Corporation headquarters, it is still associated with the company and is depicted in the company's logo. The building is evocative of San Francisco and has become one of the many symbols of the city. Designed by architect William Pereira, it faced opposition during planning and construction and was sometimes referred to by detractors as "Pereira's Prick". 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." King also wrote in 2011 that it is "a uniquely memorable building, a triumph of the unexpected, unreal and engaging all at once. ... It is a presence and a persona, snapping into different focus with every fresh angle, every shift in light."
The Transamerica Pyramid was the tallest skyscraper west of Chicago when constructed, surpassing the then Bank of America Center, also in San Francisco. It was surpassed by the Aon Center, Los Angeles, in 1974.
The building is thought to have been the intended target of a terrorist attack, involving the hijacking of airplanes as part of the Bojinka plot, which was foiled in 1995.
In 1999, Transamerica was acquired by Dutch insurance company Aegon. When the non-insurance operations of Transamerica were later sold to GE Capital, Aegon retained ownership of the building as an investment.
The Transamerica Pyramid was the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco from 1972 to 2017, when it was surpassed by the under-construction Salesforce Tower.
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