A 26-Story History of San Francisco

What Yelp's new headquarters, the recently renovated landmark 140 New Montgomery, could teach the city's tech scene
140 New Montgomery (Alexis Madrigal)


140 New Montgomery is the San Francisco headquarters of Yelp. The local business information company occupies nine floors of a newly refinished building that once served as the headquarters of the Pacific Bell Telephone Company.

The lobby has been beautifully reworked. Photographs of artificial lightning hang on the old black marble walls. The reddish ceiling is a glorious mélange of eastern iconography: unicorns, phoenixes, clouds, and other miscellaneous exotica. Three-fingered hands, perhaps mudra inspired, metaphorically hold up the building.

At the same time, this is a modern building designed for millennial appreciation: A smart elevator system, a xeriscaped courtyard, lots of bike storage, and excellent access to public transport. 2.3 million pounds of rebar and 10,000 tons of concrete have made the building more resilient. 

The renovation by developers Wilson Meany Sullivan with Perkins+Will architect, Cathy Simon, is a success. The building's slogan is "The Art of Work." Occupancy is already high.

Yelp is the anchor tenant, but other companies have nearly filled the remaining 17 floors: Lumosity, which makes brain-training software; an insurance firm with family roots in Levi Straus's fortune; Knoll, the modern furniture maker. Restauranteurs are creating two expensive, casual dining experiences on the ground floor. 

San Francisco is a city that's thriving. The unemployment rate recently hit a record-low of 4.8 percent. Businesses are setting up shop instead of moving to the suburbs. The restaurants are full.

It's also changing. Housing prices are absurd. Many residents are locked out of the prosperity of the tech industry. There are those damn buses running down to Silicon Valley. And don't get people started on Google *!#%$ Glass.

There's a sense, perhaps, that this latest round of young people to inhabit the shell of the city are somehow not of it, that these tech kids don't appreciate the city like the artists and weirdos do. And therefore they don't deserve it. 

I'm suspicious of those who would exclude the latest wave of arrivals, no matter how boorish or inelegant or rich, especially in San Francisco, a place that has historically been defined by greed and relentless desire for self-creation.

This is the story of 140 New Montgomery, but the building is also a way of thinking about the history and future of the city. 



The building looks like it is made of stone, perhaps granite blasted out of the Sierra Nevada range to the east. And at the very base, there is stone. 

But it ends about five and a half feet up the facade. After that, it's terra cotta to the top: clay.

The company that made it is called Gladding, McBean, headquartered in Lincoln, up north of Sacramento. They made the cladding for many of the buildings at Stanford. They're still around. 

Their work is ubiquitous in the old downtown core of the city. In the 1920s, Gladding McBean averaged work on more than 20 buildings a year in San Francisco. By 1928, the year after 140 New Montgomery was completed, the San Francisco Examiner declared "with clay from a hole in the ground in Lincoln, California, the modern city of San Francisco has come."

Nonetheless, the point remains: the building isn't made of stone. It just looks that way. 

Recently, a company that makes software to manage computer memory moved its headquarters to the 15th floor. It's called  Terracotta.



140 New Montgomery was heavily influenced by a building that doesn't exist: Eliel Saarinen's proposed design for the Chicago Tribune building. 

Saarinen's modern design placed second in the competition through which the Tribune selected an architect, so it was never built. (Instead, we got the neo-Gothic thing that sits in Chicago to this day.)

But Saarinen's proposal proved influential to many architects, including Timothy Pflueger. His biographer, San Francisco journalist Therese Poletti, believes he was "enraptured with Saarinen's tower." It was almost futuristic in its simplicity.

140 New Montgomery was Pflueger's first major work.



The first photograph of the city's new skyline wasn't real. 

As construction began to get underway, Pflueger and his partner, James R. Miller, made a clever composite image to show the city's residents what the new building would look like. They photographed the model of the building they'd created and pasted it into a picture of the extant city. 

When construction finished in 1927, the building was the tallest in the city. No building overtook it until 1964. 



Timothy Pflueger grew up  in the Mission when it was German and Irish, before it was Mexican and Guatemelan, and before it was where Mark Zuckerberg had an apartment. 

He lived his entire adult life at 1015 Guerrero Street, north of 22nd, which now has a Zillow estimate of $1.2 million. It was last sold in 1988 for $290,000.

41 years before the home was built, in 1859, a map was drawn of San Francisco. It shows the Mission in a state slightly closer to the condition in which Europeans found it.

Rumsey Map Collection

At that time, Mission Creek drained the Mission, running roughly along Treat Ave, and exiting into the Bay right near the current Giants Stadium.

Mission Street, which runs into the heart of SOMA, a few blocks down from Guerrero, was wooden planks laid over marsh. In the 1860s, the Oakland Museum of California informs us, humans began filling in the natural wetlands to create more land. During the 1906 earthquake, the "soft marsh soils underlying Mission street sank and buildings in this area collapsed."

To be quick about it: The heart of the Mission was a marsh and Mission Bay was still in the bay. When Pflueger began work to become an architect in 1911, that San Francisco was about as far away as the mid-1960s are to us. Perhaps a little unfamiliar, but recognizable.

Oakland Museum of California



Pflueger's skyscraper was a product of a telecommunications boom. As Syracuse information studies professor Milton Mueller notes, by 1920, "the U.S. telephone network was geographically universal," meaning it reached everywhere, but there were only 13 phones per 100 people.

What an opportunity! AT&T had done the hard technological and infrastructural part. They were a regulated monopoly. By 1920, all the telephone companies had to do was sell people on buying phones. 

And they did. 

In San Francisco, in the 1920s, the local arm of AT&T was Pacific Telephone and Telegraph, and business was good.

Recognize this kind of chart? This kind of growth was both aided by the monument of 140 New Montgomery, and provided the revenue to construct it. 



140 New Montgomery united two versions of the technological sublime, which historian David Nye has traced through American thought. It symbolizes both the dynamic and geometrical sublimes, or the conquering of space and time and the domination of nature. 

"The dynamic technological sublime was embodied in the telegraph, the steamboat, and the railroad, which conquered space and time. Equally important was the conquest of natural obstacles and forces, accomplished by bridges and skyscrapers.These natural structures were assimilated into a new version of the mathematical sublime that began to emerge as the public attempted to explain the feelings induced by seeing a vast panorama of man-made objects.

This new form, the geometrical sublime, had to do with triumphs over nature more emphatic than those of the antebellum period. Whereas the dynamic form of the technological sublime had emphasized the movement of information over wires and railways across the natural landscape, transforming it into a mere backdrop, the geometrical sublime was static and appeared to dominate nature through elegant design and sheer bulk. It found expression first in bridges and soon afterward in skyscrapers. All these structures expressed the triumph of reason in concrete form, proving that the world was becoming, in Emerson's words, 'a realized will'—'the double of man.'"


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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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