You Are Here: A Tower to Show You the Way Home

The Transamerica Pyramid remains a constant in a changing city.

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My first year in San Francisco, I often found myself searching the skyline for the Transamerica Pyramid. It was the mid-1980s, and I’d moved back to California after a stint in New York. The futuristic-looking white cone, the tallest building, helped me understand where I was, that this city was now my home. It was also one of the most photographed, touristy landmarks, which is why I stayed away, content to see it from a distance. That changed the day I had an appointment nearby in the financial district and then, propelled by a blast of late-afternoon wind, ended up there.

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I looked up and felt dizzy, following the curve of the 48-story building as it narrowed. The stocky pillars that looped the bottom seemed as stark and cold as the approaching fog. But inside, the lobby was warm and deserted, and because fear of terrorist acts had not yet made security checks a fact of life and because no one told me I couldn’t, I took the elevator to the top-floor lounge. There might have been couches, chairs, or a bar, but what I remember is the view—the Bay Bridge, tendrils of fog reaching out across the waterfront, lights twinkling on across Russian Hill, Chinatown, North Beach. I let it sink in. I’d grown up in Los Angeles, gone to college in the Bay Area, and lived briefly in New York. I was drawn to San Francisco by its beauty, history, and sense of community—and because my mother, who lived in Los Angeles, had been diagnosed with cancer. It was closer than New York, and I was young enough to believe her when she said, “I am going to beat this.” That night, looking out at the city from that tower, I felt hopeful.

I must have stayed a long time because when I tried to leave, the elevator was locked. I started to panic, even though I’d fended alone as a journalist in riskier spots. Up there, I was a trespasser, representing no one. Would I get cited or fined? It was, of course, the days before cell phones, but luckily there was a landline on a desk near the elevator, and I called the police. The officer who answered the phone laughed. Apparently, I was not the first person who’d wandered up there after-hours. He notified the building staff, and 15 minutes later, a man with keys jangling from his belt unlocked the elevator.

I didn’t try to go back to the top until this past May as the building approached its 50th birthday. Neither a traditional-looking pyramid nor owned by Transamerica Corporation anymore, the building is no longer the top skyscraper. That distinction since 2018 has belonged to the 61-story Salesforce Tower in the South of Market neighborhood, the pre-pandemic beating tech heart of the city. From some angles, the Transamerica Pyramid is little more than a fuzzy white pipe cleaner dwarfed by a jumble of tall boxes.

The only fanfare for its milestone anniversary is a set of tony renovations proposed by the owners, New York–based real estate developer SHVO, which bought the building in 2020 for $650 million and now plans a $250 million makeover designed by architect Norman Foster. There will be an exclusive, members-only club with several restaurants on the lower floors, a private bar and lounge at the top, and upgrades to offices, as well as to neighboring buildings and the adjacent redwood grove that SHVO and partners own.

A security guard told me the 48th floor had been closed to the public for 20 years.

SHVO did not respond to my request to visit the top, so I just showed up one day, but as soon as I arrived, I could see the building and redwood trees were blocked off by a tall white fence. A security guard told me the 48th floor had been closed to the public for 20 years. And even if it weren’t, he said, it was off-limits now because of construction. Tall dividers reduced what was once a grand lobby to a single reception desk in one corner of the space. Outside, the building looked faded, and the pandemic-era sidewalks were nearly empty.

It wasn’t always like that. The Transamerica Pyramid drew huge public attention starting from when it was proposed in the late 1960s, becoming a lightning rod for activists and neighborhood groups worried about development. Opponents complained the building would eclipse bay views and shroud the streets in darkness. They lambasted it as a hollow dunce cap, a rocket ship, a slab of male anatomy. One Los Angeles architecture critic called the design “arrogant, exhibitionistic, yet strangely mediocre.”

Transamerica officials countered that it would be the first truly safe high-rise building in the country, with automated sprinkler and safety systems. In addition, the wide concrete-and-steel base offered earthquake protection. The innovative tapered design was not merely meant as a corporate statement, they said, even though Transamerica Corporation, initially a holding company for Bank of America, was not a household name. “Some pizza parlors are better known,” its chairman, John Beckett, quipped. The final $32 million project, lowered from 1,000 to 853 feet, was an obelisk topped with a 200-foot spire.

“It got a brutal reception, which you can only understand if you look at the time.”

As it approached completion, public passion seemed to die down. The San Francisco Chronicle editorialized in 1971 that it was “going to be remarkable, exciting and attractively different from the T-square cubes” of most American cities. Sure enough, it became a prized attraction when it opened the next year.

“It got a brutal reception, which you can only understand if you look at the time,” says Mitchell Schwarzer, a professor of architecture and urban history at California College of the Arts and an author of books on the design and development of San Francisco and Oakland. San Francisco was a place where people arrived, got involved, and then—call it a sense of romance or just human nature—wanted the city to stay the same, Schwarzer says. That was never going to happen. The fight against the tower helped galvanize neighborhood groups (which had already fought waterfront development and a freeway through Golden Gate Park), making them a stronger political voice in the city, Schwarzer says. In the years after the tower was built, the center of development shifted—away from the bustling financial district to South of Market—and the city would indeed change.

It would face a devastating AIDS epidemic, a major earthquake, and then COVID, but it would become a growing economic force. Multiple tech booms would create outsize wealth, more tall buildings, and waves of displacement. I stayed because I wanted to but also because I couldn’t afford to move. The Transamerica Pyramid became almost an afterthought, but I would watch for its familiar silhouette when I made my way home from downtown, perhaps as a link to a time when I was more idealistic.

Driving home after my attempted visit, I stopped at a hill near my house and gazed at the husky, taller skyline. I could still see the pyramid’s spire shimmer, even if it was off-limits to me. Yes, I have changed since moving here; my mother died, I made friends, got married, had children she would never see. The tower—fought over, derided, then prized for its originality just like this ever-more-expensive city—has changed too. I expect I’ll keep looking for it, an anchor in life and on the map, although I can no longer shut out the thought: Will there be a time when this city no longer feels like home?•

You Are Here is a monthly column that examines ideas about place and places in the West, written by members of the Writers Grotto.

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