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Old Posted Jun 19, 2007, 6:14 PM
BTinSF BTinSF is offline
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Repairing a famous architect's "mistake"

Quote:
It's amazing what they can do with face-lifts these days
John King
Tuesday, June 19, 2007

What becomes a landmark most? In the case of 450 Sutter St. in San Francisco, the answer is a 6-foot-tall aluminum rod.

To be more precise, 1,400 of them -- one between each pair of windows racing up the streamlined 26-story facade of one of the city's true architectural icons.

They're key ingredients in a three-year restoration of this thoroughly San Franciscan gem, a flat-top tower wrapped in a taut skin of terra cotta tiles etched in what looks like an intricate Mayan code. At a deeper level, the makeover is a reminder that buildings aren't timeless works of art, even the memorable ones. They're works in progress, from the day they go up to the day they come down.

In the case of 450 Sutter, the reason there's now a wooden scaffold outside the building is that somebody dropped the ball when the building was conceived in 1928 -- perhaps architect Timothy Pflueger, perhaps one of his assistants. And it has nothing to do with design, a sophisticated shot of 1920s swagger that uses nips and tucks and florid ornamentation to bring a boxy shape to life.

No, the bad call involves a mistake in the materials used to produce the special effects.

The tower's upward sweep is accented by bays that project slightly outward, like shallow V's. Each V consists of two vertical panes of glass with a rounded metal mullion between them for support.

Everything was fine for a decade or two. But as the mortar between the tiles cracked or decayed, water got inside the skin and ran down into the window systems. So what? So this: The mullions are hollow pipes of steel, and the frame wasn't designed to eject the water that got in. As a result, the mullions play a destructive role. They're tubes circulating water back into the skin until it leaks out, cracking tiles and eroding the mortar even more.

Another problem: The steel isn't galvanized or stainless. It rusts. Over time, this corrosion has made it difficult to open and close many office windows.


If this were just another so-so building in the middle of the block (albeit a block from Union Square), the answer might be to strip off the skin or even tear down the tower, erect something glitzy and new. But despite its relatively modest size, 450 Sutter remains a distinctive presence on the skyline -- "the most original of San Francisco's pre-war high-rises and one of the city's best buildings," decrees Mitchell Schwarzer in last year's "Architecture of the San Francisco Bay Area: A History & Guide."

There's another reason for keeping things as they are. By virtue of the 145 dental and medical offices lining the corridors, this may be the busiest tower on the West Coast. Try squeezing into an elevator cabin at the top of the hour, and you'll see what I mean.

That's why, from 2004 to 2006, building owner Harsch Investment Properties and Architectural Resources Group worked out a restoration plan that would keep the tenants in business and also placate city planners, since 450 Sutter is a designated city landmark. They also turned 8,000 square feet on the eighth floor into a command center that Marchetti Construction can use as a base and a place to store materials.

For once, the regulatory process is less of a hassle than the actual construction. Dentists are a breed that plan far ahead (keep those teeth clean!) and require specialized equipment to do their job. A crew can't just show up one day and toss tarps over the X-Ray machines before wrenching window frames from the wall.

"The real key is schedule -- we notify tenants six months in advance that we'll need them out" for two or three weeks, says Steve Fogarty, who's overseeing the construction details for Harsh Properties. "We can't be a day late or a day early or there's a ripple effect through the whole building."

Here's how things will work. Each two-window unit, consisting of the vertical panes and the surrounding frames, will be removed. Then a new unit will be popped into place; it looks mostly the same, but the central mullion will be solid aluminum instead of hollow steel. The surrounding frame also has a hidden gutter of sorts to send water back outside.

As for the exterior, the terracotta skin is being cleaned with soft brushes and rinsed. All the mortar is being chipped away and replaced.


While Marchetti's crew massages the upper-floor skin, perched on what are known as "swing stage scaffolds," a smaller scaffold contains employees from Architectural Resources Group. They examine each tile visually and by systematic tapping, to gauge if it's damaged -- and if so, if it can be patched or, if necessary, replaced.

"The logistics are overwhelming, but it's a wonderful building to work on," says David Wessel, the ARG principal in charge of the project. "There's so much detailing. The more you look, the more you find."

If the schedule stays on course, the restoration work will be finished by the end of 2009. Most of us won't be able to tell the difference. And that's the way it should be.





Place appears on Tuesday. E-mail John King at jking@sfchronicle.com.
http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cg...DG47QGA0Q1.DTL
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Old Posted Jul 21, 2007, 7:03 AM
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Jerry of San Fran Jerry of San Fran is offline
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450 Sutter, San Francisco, The Mistake

Thanks for the info. BT. I just started going to a new dentist at 450 Sutter and sit in a dental chair facing the window and can clearly see the damage done by water to the building. Also, the wind comes in around the windows and makes for a miserable environment, not to mention the waste of energy to heat the place. I will now have a legs-up on what is happening and why the next time I visit my dentist.
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Old Posted Jul 21, 2007, 4:03 PM
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Lecom Lecom is offline
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Fascinating.
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