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The Call Building of San Francisco

by James R. Smith

San Francisco’s Call Building shared the spotlight with the Ferry Building as the city’s most notable landmark at the turn of the twentieth century. San Francisco’s first skyscraper, it was depicted by Thomas Kinkaid in his nostalgic painting San Francisco Market Street, and it stands as a point of reference in locating other structures in historic photographs.

We can credit the very public feud between two leading San Francisco families for the construction of this grand building.

Claus Spreckels dominated the sugar industry from the 1860s until 1905, when the new C&H co-op broke his monopoly. After gaining control of Hawaiian cane sugar production through his ownership of the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company, later renamed Spreckels Sugar, Spreckels had bought up huge tracts of land in California to grow sugar beets. Spreckels’s son Adolph, remembered today as the husband of “Big Alma” de Bretteville Spreckels, followed Claus in control of the Spreckels fortune.

The San Francisco Chronicle, and specifically its founder and owner Michael de Young, vilified the Hawaiian Commercial and Sugar Company, stating that their sugar plantations were little more than slave camps. Protecting the family honor, in 1884 Adolph shot and wounded M.H. de Young, a crime for which he was acquitted.

Continuing the feud, Adolph’s father Claus Spreckels bought the very successful San Francisco Call in 1895, intending to bring down de Young and the Chronicle.

Since the mid 1860s, the San Francisco Call had reigned as the leading newspaper on the Pacific Coast. Richly illustrated for the times, its wire photos, illustrations, and political cartoons by noted artists kept its reading audience fascinated. Magazine sections, syndicated comics, and supplements were added by 1904, and serialized novels drew interest. The Call tracked San Francisco Society with drawings and, later, photographs of notable events. The Chronicle tracked the issues, but the Call covered the events and the life of the city.

Spreckels followed his purchase of the paper by commissioning the construction of a tower to eclipse the de Young’s ten-story Chronicle Building. Aware of San Francisco’s earthquake risk, he hired noted local architects James and Merritt Reid and enlisted Charles Strobe, nationally recognized bridge engineer and inventor of the Z-bar structural steel design.

Located at 703 Market Street at Third, the Call Building stood 310 feet tall, measuring seventy-five feet on each side. An enormous base laid twenty-five feet below street level supported and stabilized the structure. The tower rose vertically for fifteen stories topped by the dome housing the sixteenth through eighteenth floors.

Each floor consisted of a series of steel polygons designed to resist stress and distortion from any angle. Filled with concrete, these polygons defined the eight bays of interior for each floor. The vertical steel girders in the columns connected to the floors with knee bracing, each connected to the next by diagonal X-braces of steel rods. The rods included turnbuckles for stress tuning, maintaining absolute plumb. Strobe used every structural trick in his bag to strengthen his structure. The building was clad in sandstone and the interior finished in white marble.

The ornate terra cotta dome and its associated corner cupolas defined the baroque architectural style. That style exemplified the sense of royalty, permanence, and power that Spreckels sought, and gave San Francisco its first skyscraper.

Located on the fifteenth floor, the Spreckels Rotisserie boasted some of San Francisco’s finest cuisine. “Dining in the clouds” invited tourists and San Franciscans to see the city from a unique vantage point. Spreckels hired the finest chefs, Stanislao Constantini and later Albert Wolff, to preside over the restaurant’s kitchen. Huge letters on the outside of the 15th floor proclaimed “CAFÉ,” a serious understatement. Open from seven a.m. until midnight, the restaurant featured the best fare California had to offer. A full seven-course dinner with wine came at a cost of one dollar.

The first two floors of the dome were reserved for meetings of the San Francisco Club, whose president was Adolph Spreckels. The sixteenth floor base of the dome housed a private dining room finished in marble, glass, bronze, and mahogany, hosting up to 200 guests. The seventeenth floor was reserved for meetings, with folding doors that could wall off meeting rooms or completely open the floor.

The Reid brothers occupied the eighteenth floor, with twelve porthole windows providing a panoramic view of the city. There was actually a nineteenth floor, but it only provided storage and access to the Call Lantern – a red light that signaled an Extra edition was imminent.

Photographs from San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake and fire show the Call Building erupting in flames. The structure itself fared well, but the intense heat of the fires surrounding the building shattered the windows on the third floor, igniting the wooden paneling, trim, furniture, and anything else that would burn, including paper.

A fireball ensued, blasting up floor by floor through the elevator shafts until it exited the dome. The smoke and flames darkened the sandstone and marble, and some pieces shattered. The terra cotta broke in place as well. Structurally, the Call Building remained sound and was refurbished, not rebuilt.

Contrary to common perception, the Call Building still stands, now called Central Tower, a name as nondescript as the building. After purchasing the Call Building, Albert Roller learned that the structure could easily support six full stories above the fifteenth floor. He demolished the “uneconomical” baroque dome in 1937, replacing it with a new structure in the moderne style we now call Art Deco, modifying the entrance, lobby, and elevators with the classic art deco adornments and initiating our building into the modern age of Metropolis. The current structure is a treasure to aficionados of that style, but the city lost sight of one of its most recognizable landmarks.

James R. Smith, author of San Francisco’s Lost Landmarks (2005, 2007), is a frequent contributor to GuideLines.

Photo credits: • Call Building courtesy of The Library of Congress, # LC-USZ6-2213.. • All other photos courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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The Call Building on Market Street burning on April 18, 1906. James R. Smith tells us about the feuding families who instigated the construction of this building, and also about “dining in the clouds.”

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TheCall Building circa 1900.

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The Call building in 1956, after the dome was removed.

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Material of San Francisco City Guides. Please give credit to the author and SF City Guides if referenced or reproduced.