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13 enjoyable info about San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid

The Transamerica Pyramid is synonymous with San Francisco as the Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars. Arguably one of the most recognized building in the city’s skyline, it graces postcards and street art and has an IMDB credit list any working actor would be proud of. Yet an air of mystery surrounds the 50-year-old landmark. Perhaps that’s because its futurist design was embroiled in controversy when it debuted in 1969, or because only a special few have made it to the very top of the building.

This now well-loved fixture of San Francisco rises from the city’s financial district and spans one whole block on Montgomery Street. The neighborhood was once the center of the city’s life and commerce, but in 2022, in the wake of the COVID pandemic, San Francisco’s downtown was deemed as the most empty in America. That may be changing as the historical landmark undergoes an extensive renovation aimed at revitalizing the building’s interior and the surrounding area.

You’re likely familiar with the Transamerica Pyramid’s iconic shape that defines the city’s skyline, but you may not know these 13 fascinating facts about the famous San Francisco building.

1. The Transamerica Pyramid was opened in 1972 as San Francisco’s tallest building and the 8th tallest in the world

The original design called for a height of over 1,000 feet. At the time, city ordinances for the area imposed a 65-foot height limit and the proposal was met with resistance. Modest compromise with opponents of the building whittled the height down to 853 feet by the time it was constructed.

Still, that was tall enough for the pyramid to spend 50 years as San Francisco’s tallest building. (Sutro Tower is taller, at 977 feet, but technically it’s a TV and radio tower, not a skyscraper.) The Salesforce Tower, which rises to 1,070 feet, usurped the tallest title in 2018. Today the Transamerica Pyramid is San Francisco’s second tallest building and number 68 on the world’s tallest buildings list. It has 48 floors of office space, while the last 212 feet is an uninhabited cone.

Utility Engineer Rafael Ramirez with the “crown jewel” of the Transamerica Pyramid, a halogen 6,000-watts beacon that can be seen throughout the Bay Area.

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst N/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

2. At the very top lies the “crown jewel,” which you can occasionally spot throughout the Bay Area

The building is topped by a 32-pane, cathedral-style glass top, referred to as the “crown jewel.” Inside the room is a 6,000-watt light — the jewel itself — which is lit for holidays and other special occasions. The crown jewel room, about the size of a cubicle, is accessed by ascending steep steps and two steel ladders, but it’s not accessible to the public (it’s only been visited by a handful of people.)

One SF daredevil Brett Wise recounted his trip to the crown jewel to The Bold Italic, revealing he made it past the top floor thanks to a security guard friend who was about to quit.

3. The building’s interior and surrounding property is currently undergoing a $400 million redevelopment project

It cost $32 million to construct the building, which is currently undergoing a multimillion-dollar renovation by world-renowned architects Foster + Partners, with a team led by Pritzker Laureate Lord Norman Foster himself. The renovation won’t change the building’s exterior, but does promise a private bar and lounge on the uppermost 48th floor, new retail locations in the lobby and the surrounding blocks and an expansion of Redwood Park around the base of the building. The lobby will also receive a facelift, most notably by opening up the ceiling to expose the building’s lattice frame. During construction, the building and Redwood Park are only open to tenants and their guests, but organizers of the project promise “a dynamic new destination for the city” once complete.

The view from the very top of the Transamerica Pyramid, looking through wire-reinforced windows out over the edge of the financial district, the Embarcadero and the Bay Bridge.

The view from the very top of the Transamerica Pyramid, looking through wire-reinforced windows out over the edge of the financial district, the Embarcadero and the Bay Bridge.

San Francisco Chronicle/Hearst N/San Francisco Chronicle via Gett

4. An observation deck on the 27th floor was permanently closed following the 9/11 terrorist attacks

There was once an observation deck on the 27th floor of the building, but it was permanently closed due to concerns of another 9/11-like event. The building may have even been an intended target of a foiled attack in 1995, known as the Bojinka plot.

5. Despite the name, the Transamerica Corporation is no longer even in the building

The Transamerica Pyramid got its name from its founding owners, the Transamerica Corporation, an insurance and financial services company that wanted to convey a sense of forward thinking and stability with its headquarters. Transamerica Corporation moved its headquarters to Baltimore, Maryland, but has kept the building’s iconic likeness as its logo, while touting its San Francisco roots on its website. And in turn, the company’s logo remains on the San Francisco building.

The building is now owned by SHVO, a real estate development and investment firm. Founder and CEO Michael Shvo purchased the building in 2020 in partnership with Deutsche Finance America for $650 million.

6. An elite, private club is coming to the Transamerica Building in 2023

Core, a members-only club (with membership fees of up to $100,000) has plans to expand its NYC and Miami locations to three floors of the Transamerica Pyramid, as first reported by the San Francisco Business Times.

7. The design was almost universally hated when it was unveiled in 1969

The Transamerica Pyramid wasn’t always as loved as it is today. When the design by futurist architect William Pereira debuted in 1969, The San Francisco Chronicle’s architecture criticized deemed it “authentic architectural butchery.” Residents protested the construction by wearing dunce caps to poke fun at its pointed shape. San Francisco’s Mayor Joseph Alioto was one of his most ardent defenders. He predicted its success as a landmark and played a key role in winning approval for construction from SF’s Board of Supervisors.

8. It’s one of the most photographed buildings in the world, with strong Hollywood ties

Not only was the designer from Los Angeles, but according to FoundSF, the Transamerica Corporation had ties to United Artists, which gave its headquarters an in for prime Hollywood placement. The building makes cameos in several films, such as the 1978 remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” where it becomes a visual motif. A computer-generated timelapse depicting the construction of the building gets a scene in the 2007 film “Zodiac.” And you’d have a hard time finding montages of San Francisco that don’t feature the iconic skyscraper.

View of the Transamerica Pyramid, Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower and Alcatraz in San Francisco, Calif.

View of the Transamerica Pyramid, Golden Gate Bridge, Coit Tower and Alcatraz in San Francisco, Calif.

Jeremy Duguid Photography/Getty Images

9. Its futurist design has many features that have withstood the test of time

The Transamerica Pyramid has more than 3,000 windows that are designed to pivot so they can be washed from the inside. The two “shoulders” of the pyramid, located right below the cone, are more than just cool to look at, according to the building manager: one acts as an elevator shaft and the other is for ventilation. The pyramid shape also has benefits: it reduces obstruction to views for any building in Transamerica’s shadow and allows for more natural light and airflow on the surrounding city streets than classic rectangular buildings. In a birds-eye view facing north, the building even acts as San Francisco’s own sundial.

10. San Francisco’s most famous cocktail was invented where the Transamerica Pyramid stands today

Before the Transamerica Pyramid was built, its location was home to the city’s swankiest building, the Montgomery Block, which housed the renowned saloon the Bank Exchange, where the Pisco Punch was invented. It quickly became one of San Francisco’s most iconic cocktails. The saloon closed in 1920 and the Montgomery Block was torn down in 1959. Today, historical plaques surround the building, including one for the Pisco Punch.

11. Sunken ships were excavated around the base of the pyramid during construction

San Francisco’s waterfront used to be much closer to Montgomery Street than it is today, so when construction began, sunken ships dating back to the 1849 California Gold Rush were discovered around where the Transamerica Pyramid now stands. A historical plaque outside the building honors the whaling vessel Niantic, which was excavated from this location.

12. Crushed white quartz on the building’s facade gives it its light color

It will be blasted clean during the renovations.

13. The building shook for more than a minute and swayed a foot during the Loma Prieta earthquake, but emerged damage free

The Transamerica Pyramid is built to withstand earthquakes thanks to its bottom-heavy design and concrete and steel foundations that reach 52 feet deep. In 1989 it received its hardest test yet when a 6.9-magnitude earthquake rattled the city. Though the building swayed more than a foot (as it was designed to do), no one was injured and no damage was sustained.

This story was edited by Hearst National Editor Kristina Moy; you can contact her at kristina.moy@hearst.com.

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