Not to bring up the “big one” or anything, but there are a few buildings in San Francisco that survived the 1906 earthquake and kinda lived to tell about it! And then there are the hidden treasures that you would probably never know about unless you’re a historian, or just one of those brainiac peeps with an innate interest in the past. In fact, some of the city's most interesting folks work out of its most famous historical hot spots, and visiting them revealed some incredible stories.
I first headed out for some Indian summer sunshine to the Hyde Street Pier. My elusive destination? The Sea Fox, a tiny tugboat with a history a bit like The Little Engine That Could. There I met Mariah Gardner, the education coordinator for the SF Maritime National Park Association, whose office is perched in the small upper deck of the tugboat. Apparently the Sea Fox was built in Oregon in 1944 and worked for many years as part of the Red Stack fleet of tugboats on the bay. Mariah was proud to tell me about her claim to fame: She valiantly rescued the wine tanker SS Angelo Petri in 1961, saving the ship from wrecking onto Ocean Beach (and spilling all of that precious cargo)!
Next, I made my way over to 785 Market Street to the dome of the former Humboldt Savings Bank building, which houses Gershoni Creative, an amazing branding think tank spearheaded by Amy and Gil Gershoni. In 1905, the bank commissioned the architecture firm Meyer & O’Brien to design its new San Francisco headquarters, but nature halted the ambitious venture with its ravaging 1906 earthquake and the resulting fires. Now restored, Amy and Gil work out of the building's amazing penthouse with exposed brick, 30-foot raftered ceilings, and panoramic porthole views of the city.
Amy and Gil have a particular passion for historical San Francisco. Their former office was Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo's old studio in North Beach, which was even older than the current location, having been built out of an old ship in the mid-1800s. When they heard there was an empty dome in a historical downtown landmark, they were curious. It was basically an abandoned space, but they saw its core appeal and turned it into an inspiring and completely unique work space.
I next photographed Christian Simm, the director of swissnex San Francisco, a company that connects the dots between Switzerland and America in science, art, and education. The office is on a cute little part of Montgomery Street right behind the Transamerica Pyramid in the Financial District. You would never guess the building’s storied past from the outside, but the inside is like a shrine to all things literary, with its original exposed brick and wood beams still in place. A San Francisco newspaper called the Golden Era became its first tenant in 1852, with famed writers such as Jack London and Mark Twain penning their articles.
Christian shared a funny story with me about a small brick alcove (which looked kind of like an antiquated bomb shelter) in the basement. When swissnex San Francisco first moved into the building, a door was discovered that seemed to lead into the depths of San Francisco’s underground (perhaps to tunnels used during Prohibition?). He and his fellow employees threw a party, champagne and all, to unveil the secret behind the portal. With a great moment of silence, the door was removed, only to expose the same brick wall that they all knew so well. But it was a good excuse for a party, right?
Finally, I had the pleasure of photographing Iwona Tenzing, the exotic director of Xanadu Gallery, which sits smack-dab in the middle of Maiden Lane, one of my favorite locations in the city. The retro design of the building, including the visionary circular ramp, is none other than the work of famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. “Most people think that the concept of the ramp is a prototype for the Guggenheim Museum,” said Iwona. “But it's not. Frank Lloyd Wright had the plans for the Guggenheim before he built this building, just no funds.” The circular shape of the gallery brings to mind the shape of a stupa, a rounded structure that contains Buddhist relics – so it seems fitting that the gallery sells rare Asian antiquities.
In the end, my adventure proved to be quite a fascinating one. I bumped heads with the ghosts of San Francisco’s past, hobnobbing with the likes of Jack London, Mark Twain, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Frank Lloyd Wright. It was kind of life changing, really. I mean, how often do you get to connect with some of the city’s most iconic figures in the presence of people making history themselves?
Interested in checking out these places? Visit Xanadu Gallery to see the only Frank Lloyd Wright building in San Francisco. A visit to the Hyde Street Pier is worth it to see the charming Sea Fox – at least from the outside. Attending a swissnex San Francisco event will allow you to see their digs. Gershoni Creative is not accessible to the public, but ticket holders will get the chance to scope it out the night of The Bold Italic's magazine launch party, September 16 (SOLD OUT).
Interested in moving your own office into an inspired space? While the places featured in this story might be among some of the most stunning, there are other historical buildings that you can rent in San Francisco. Check out CurbedSF to find out when spots hit the market.