Feb. 14--It's hard to imagine a future where people gaze upon the ruddy red sandstone and almost kitschy clock tower of 200 California St. and see an architectural gem -- zirconium, maybe, but no diamond in the rough.
But it's still troubling that in a few months, we'll lose the chance once and for all.
That's when the six-story office building from 1989 will be neutered. The colorful masonry will be stained an innocuous beige. The crowning feature -- the pert clock tower with a pointy hat that caps the rounded corner bay -- will be lopped off.
The structure's crime is that it fell out of style.
No landmark in itself, 200 California's fate is troubling for what it shows about the cavalier treatment doled out to buildings that are yesterday's architectural news. Buildings that suffer the most often are the ones that most strongly reflect their time -- structures of cultural value, for better or worse.
They stand out in a crowd. Because of that, they're vulnerable.
In this case, the structure at risk was built in 1989 by Home Savings of America, a now-defunct savings and loan. It stands at the entrance to the diminutive Front-California Conservation District, a masonry nook tucked between massive Embarcadero Center and 48-story 101 California St., a sawtoothed shaft of granite and glass.
Home Savings took pride in eye-catching architecture and artwork, so when it decided to build an outpost for itself in the Financial District -- on a cable car line, no less! -- the firm embraced the architectural spirit of the time. Postmodernism was the name, and faux history was the rage, especially in settings where older neighbors meant anything new should "assure maintenance of the character of the district," to quote the city's Downtown Plan from 1985.
An endangered species
The designer, Whistler-Patri Architects, pushed the stocky stone norm of the district by adding details that now look as dated as Joan Collins' shoulder pads. There's a rough stone base, big square windows and a cornice emphasized by gold trim in a solid line above the top floor. The circular clock tower concludes with a gaudy gold flourish that looks as though it were applied by the world's largest soft-serve ice cream dispenser.
These days, of course, sleek modernism is back with a glassy vengeance. PoMo is the embarrassing uncle who won't shut up about the first time he saw Depeche Mode.
San Francisco isn't the only city where postmodernism is out of vogue. The movement's endangered species list includes perhaps the most important example of all, Michael Graves' 15-story Portland Building. It opened in 1982 and set the stage for redone skylines across the country, but now the Oregon city that calls it home may tear it down because of the cost of deferred maintenance.
Meanwhile, 200 California is owned by a Vermont investor who wants to reposition the corner for deep-pocketed tenants. In December, the city's Historic Preservation Commission approved an alteration that, in essence, does away with everything that makes the structure distinct. Work should begin by early summer.
The walls of red sandstone and white limestone will be coated in two shades of beige -- ostensibly to remedy a generation's worth of discoloration but also to match nearby buildings "of similarly understated coloration," according to the presentation by Huntsman Architectural Group. The same desire to join the crowd justifies the severed clock tower: Removing it "allows the building to blend better with the adjacent historic structures."
Planning staff had no problem with the change, going so far as to state in the department's review that the clock tower "is not a distinctive feature." Only architect Jonathan Pearlman voted no.
"If we as a city celebrate our architectural history," Pearlman said this week, "it's strange to wipe away a decent example of a recent period and turn it into a generic historic box just because we don't like it."
He's absolutely right.
Gawky but endearing
Honestly, I've never been a fan of 200 California. It's the garish embodiment of an era that treated mainstream architecture as drapery more than serious design.
But it has character, a gawky flair that (almost) makes it endearing. All involved had fun and turned up the aesthetic volume. Nor did they skimp on materials -- limestone and sandstone aren't cheap.
Who knows? In a decade or two people might have viewed the corner with genuine affection, the same way Victorians were embraced by newcomers in the 1960s and '70s after a previous generation had dismissed them as ugly ducklings and razed them as blight.
No turning back clock
For all our late '80s towers with their funny hats and thin stone skins, San Francisco has few smallish buildings of note in the postmodern vein. There's plenty of stuff that never aspired to more than background status, but only a handful that tried at once to fit in and stand out.
And if theatrical postmodernism comes back into favor 25 years from now, tough luck. There will be no turning back the clock. After all, there won't be any clock.
John King is The San Francisco Chronicle's urban design critic. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @JohnKingSFChron
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