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Gems of the City: A List of S.F.'s Top 25 PDF IconDbp-04'07-chronicle-gems

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By John King
San Francisco Chronicle
April 2007
San Francisco's Top 25 Buildings


Grace Cathedral (Lewis Hobart, 1928)

St. Mary's Cathedral (Pietro Belluschi, Pier Luigi Nervi and McSweeney, Ryan & Lee; 1971)

Temple Emanu-el (Arthur Page Brown, 1926)

Swedenborgian Church (Arthur Page Brown, 1894)

First Unitarian Church (George Percy, 1888/1970, Callister Payne & Rosse, 1970


Plaza Apartments (Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects and Paulett Taggart Architects, 2006)

Curran House (David Baker + Partners, Architects, 2005)

3200 block of Pacific Avenue (Houses designed by Ernest Coxhead, Bernard Maybeck, Willis Polk, and William Knowles; 1900-1913)

Russell House (Erich Mendelsohn, 1952)

Haas-Lilienthal House (Peter R. Schmidt, 1886)

Street-level mural at Curran House in the Tenderloin.

So say hello to the semiofficial list of San Francisco's top 25 buildings, divided neatly into five choices in five categories: religious, residential, commercial, historic and civic. And let the second-guessing begin. There are beloved landmarks such as the Palace of Fine Arts and controversial newcomers, including the steel-sheathed federal tower at Seventh and Mission streets. You've got a block of century-old homes for the wealthy across from the Presidio, and low-income apartment buildings on Sixth Street and in the Tenderloin. There's the big-eared Transamerica Pyramid and the sublime Palace Hotel—two very different icons from very different eras.

"Our goal was to find the gems in our city that can be enjoyed by both architects and the public," says Zigmund Rubel, president of the local chapter's board and a principal at the firm Anshen+Allen. "We also wanted a mixture of turn-of-the-century buildings and more contemporary works. The list comes two months after the national AIA released the results of an online survey that produced what it calls "America's 150 favorite structures." Gimmicky as all get-out, but irresistible—which is why the institute's Web site received more than 5 million hits in the next three days. This list doesn't involve a public survey. Nor is it the result of a consultation with the San Francisco chapter's 2,300 members.

Instead, the board was prodded to take a stand by chapter Executive Director Margie O'Driscoll. (Note: The chapter covers only San Francisco and Marin counties. That's why the rest of the Bay Area is ignored.) "Our objective was pretty clear," O'Driscoll says. "We want to inspire people to look at buildings and think about them critically, in both a positive and negative sense." O'Driscoll wanted a brazen batch of just five faves—but architects are a breed that loves nothing more than to finesse details, so instead there are five discrete lists with five buildings each. The board gathered in March and started whittling away. Many choices are irrefutable—you can't fight City Hall, at least not Arthur Brown Jr.'s Beaux Arts masterpiece&mdah;and other buildings deserve acclaim simply because they bring joy.

I'm thrilled to see Curran House and the Plaza Apartments on the list: Each of these young housing complexes is a humane example of high design for people with low incomes.

Discussing the list, architecture writer John King referred to Curran House as a "triumph of turn-of-the-century affordability."


San Francisco Federal Building (Morphosis/SmithGroup, 2007)

1 Bush Street, formerly the Crown-Zellerbach Building (Skidmore Owings & Merrill and Hertzka & Knowles, 1959)

Hallidie Building (Willis Polk, 1917)

Transamerica Pyramid (William Pereira, 1972)

JPMorgan Chase Building (Cesar Pelli, 2002)


Palace Hotel, (Trowbridge and Livingston, 1909)

Circle Gallery (Frank Lloyd Wright, 1948)

Palace of Fine Arts (Bernard Maybeck, 1915)

War Memorial Opera House and Veterans Building (Arthur Brown Jr. and G. Albert Lansburgh, 1932)

Conservatory of Flowers (1878/Architectural Resources Group, 2003)



M.H. de Young Memorial Museum (Herzog & de Meuron and Fong & Chan Architects, 2005)

City Hall (Bakewell & Brown, 1915)

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts ( Fumihiko Maki, 1994); Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater (James Stewart Polshek, 1994); Metreon (SMWM, Gary Handel + Associates, 1999)

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (Mario Botta, Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum, 1995)

Palace of the Legion of Honor (George Applegarth, 1916)
Source: American Institute of Architects