With over 52 stories, the 555 California Street building is one of the most prominent and currently, the fourth tallest skyscraper in San Francisco’s skyline. Conceived by the world-renowned architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) along with architect Pietro Belluschi and Wurster, Bernardi & Emmons, the structure sits right in the heart of the city’s financial district since its completion in 1969. 

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With its number of detailed local elements, scale, and the emphasized verticality, the building has become a visual centerpiece and a modern monument to the bold landscape of the city of San Francisco

555 California Street Building by SOM : The Triple Nickel Sheet1
555 California Street Building Aerial View_ ©Colin McRae
555 California Street Building by SOM : The Triple Nickel Sheet2
The Magnificent Structure Street View_ ©Frederick Charles
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Night View of the Building_ ©Frederick Charles

The Design and Its Elements

The signature building by SOM was constructed for the Bank of America to serve as its headquarters. With its apt location in the financial district, it had to be a display of wealth, power, and importance of the organization. While it had to be unique, it could not be too bizarre as it was a commercial building whose functioning depended on the users. 

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555 California Street Building by SOM : The Triple Nickel Sheet4
The Plaza at the Entrance_ ©David Wakely

For the same reason, the modern structure was endowed with thousands of bay windows, very commonly found in residential areas of San Francisco. However, using such a common element in repetition throughout its verticality provides an emphasis and helps in improving the rental value as well. At the top, the irregular cut-out spaces provided a very abstract resemblance to the jagged landscape of Sierra Nevada, a mountain range in the central valley between California and the Great Basin. 

SOM had successfully designed a building that represented the power of the Bank of America but at the same time, became a display of the city heritage. 

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The Entrance_ ©David Wakely

The Spaces

With a total floor area of 1.5 million square feet, the tower is set back 140 feet from the main street with a pavilion in the northeast corner of the site. Around fifty percent of the whole site is paved into a granite-built spacious plaza, which leads up to a grand entrance to the lobby of the whole building. The plaza becomes a much-required social space for such commercial buildings, for the users to socialize, respite, and sometimes, even an outdoor office space. 

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The Carnelian Room_ ©Roberto Ventre

The beautiful landscape elements with the constant activities provide a happening and enjoyable view to the passers-by as well. Along with the exterior plaza, the building also has a glass banking hall pavilion with galleries on two levels, a four-level basement, a retail concourse, a 220-seat auditorium, and parking.

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The View from Top Floors_ ©Eduardo Manchon

Along with all these spaces, the topmost floor, 52nd, was a restaurant famously named “Carnelian Room”. The restaurant’s visitors could enjoy the whole view of the city from one of the tallest skyscrapers in the area at the time. The elevator to the floor was also one of the few publicly accessible high-speed elevators in the city. However, the restaurant was closed at midnight on New Year’s Eve of 2009. 

With numerous walkways, sideways, and 38 elevators, the tall skyscraper by SOM has a well-thought and intricate vertical as well as horizontal circulation.

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The Facade and the Bay Windows_ ©/keepitupdavid.wordpress.com

The Specifications and Materiality

The 779ft high building is cladded with a polished-carnelian-granite façade and the thousand bay windows have bronze tinted glass, giving the whole structure the modern look. The façade with a blend of granite has a continuous and sparkling surface throughout its verticality, from the lower levels to the highest setback floors. 

The usage of the dynamic reddish-brown color granite is not left limited to the façade but is used across the interior spaces, and as well as various sculptures built across the site of 243ft X 144.3ft. One of the many sculptures built on the site is “Transcendence” by Masayuki Nagare which is often locally referred to as the Banker’s Heart. 

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The 555_©Frederick Charles

The SOM-designed building over the years has seen many changes of ownership as well. Bank of America, after the competition of the structure in 1969, soon sold it to the San Francisco real estate magnate Walter Shorenstein in the 1980s. The building was sold at a surprising sum of $660 million, the largest sum paid for any building in the United States of America at the time. Even after the transfer of ownership, the building was still known as the “Bank Of America Headquarters”. 

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In 2005, Hudson Waterfront Associates bought the building, and with this change of ownership, there was a change of name from the earlier one to the “555 California Street”. Currently, the 555 California Street building is owned by Vornado Trust in partnership with the Trump Organization. 

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555 California Street Building_ ©Owen Byrne

Winning numerous awards by the American Iron and Steel Institute in 1974 and Architectural Award of Excellence American Institute of Steel Construction in 1970, the structure still stands tall while being the focal point of the whole financial district. Over the last 50 years, the building has never lost its modern look but at the same time became a monument for the local people. 

The timelessness of the structure can only be attributed to the marvelous design and the efficient structural system. 555 California Street Building is an astounding example of another iconic skyscraper by SOM!

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References

  1. SOM, Bank of America World Headquarters. [online]. Available at: https://www.som.com/projects/bank_of_america_world_headquarters [Accessed 05 June 2021].
  2. Vornado Trust, 555 California Street. [online]. Available at:  https://www.vno.com/office/property/555-california-street/3311899/landing [Accessed 05 June 2021].
  3. Huntsman Architectural Group (2021), 555 California Street. [online]. Available at: https://www.huntsmanag.com/555-california.html [Accessed 04 June 2021].
  4. Ted Anderson (2020)., City’s 4th largest skyscraper, partially owned by Trump, may find new buyer [online]. Available at:  https://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/news/2020/06/24/555-california-trump-skyscraper-sf-new-buyer-sell.html [Accessed 06 June 2021].
  5. Emporis, 555 California Street. [online]. Available at:  https://www.emporis.com/buildings/118721/555-california-street-san-francisco-ca-usa [Accessed 05 June 2021].
  6. SFGATE (2009), Carnelian Room calling it quits (Last Updated 2012). [online]. Available at: https://www.sfgate.com/restaurants/article/Carnelian-Room-calling-it-quits-3218151.php [Accessed 05 June 2021].
Author

Trying to explore architecture and design with words and a fresh perspective, Rashi is still a student in her Undergrad. Her curiosity drives her to learn new things in life while her passion for writing makes her capture her experiences in her play of words.

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