Most major cities can be easily identified by their skyline. Paris has the Eiffel Tower, and New York has the Empire State Building and One World Trade Center. The City of San Francisco is no different. In fact, San Francisco has one of the most unique shaped buildings in the world. Most people ask when gazing across San Francisco’s skyline, what is that pointy building?
The Transamerica Pyramid is the large, pointy building that stands out from the rest of the gorgeous San Francisco skyline. The unique skyscraper was completed in 1972, and it held the record for being the tallest building in San Francisco until 2017.
Visitors are often intrigued by the history and design of the Transamerica Pyramid. Continue reading for more information on how the building was designed, where to get the best views, and why the Transamerica Pyramid might be one of the most earthquake-proof structures on the planet.
What is that Pointy Building?
Visitors to San Francisco can’t miss the iconic pointy building that makes up part of the city’s skyline. This building is officially known as the Transamerica Pyramid. The skyscraper is located at 600 Montgomery Street in the busy Financial District of downtown San Francisco between Clay Street and Washington Street. The building contains both retail and office space for commercial tenants.
The building is named for the company that commissioned its construction and used it as a headquarters for nearly 40 years — the Transamerica Corporation, a holding company for various life insurance and investment firms. Despite having moved its corporate headquarters to Baltimore, Maryland, in 2011, the company holds a strong connection with this landmark and still uses the silhouette of the Transamerica Pyramid as a part of its corporate logo.
The structure contains 48 stories of occupiable space, totaling 763,206 square feet (759,131 square feet of office space and 4,075 square feet of retail space), and covers a whole city block.
The Transamerica Pyramid was the tallest building west of Chicago and 8th tallest in the world when construction was completed in 1972. The Transamerica Pyramid, standing at 853 feet, held the record of being the tallest building in the city until the Salesforce Tower was constructed in 2018 at 1,070 feet.
Even though the Pyramid lost its ranking as the tallest skyscraper in San Francisco, it is still one of the city’s most recognized buildings and continues to fascinate visitors and residents alike with its unusual architecture.
Why is the Transamerica Pyramid Shaped Like a Pyramid?
So, you are probably wondering why the pyramid shape? Wouldn’t it have been way easier to build something simpler?
Longtime CEO of Transamerica, John (Jack) R. Beckett, commissioned the innovative building. Because traditional buildings block natural light from urban areas, the building was to be made into a pyramid shape to allow sunlight to reach the streets below.
Another factor that influenced its shape was the city code that restricted the amount of office square footage that could be built on the plot of land. If each floor were built the same size, the building would have been much shorter, making for a very unimpressive and unremarkable building.
While the building is a San Francisco icon today, the design wasn’t always loved. The Transamerica Pyramid was designed to have a futuristic look. Designed by architect William Pereira, the building faced fierce early criticism from the public. Many felt the design was ugly and would ruin the look of the existing skyline.
The builder finally received approval, and construction began in 1969. The total build took three years to complete and cost $32 million (which equates to about $209 million today).
Because of its shape, the more than 3,000 windows can’t be washed using traditional window washing methods. Instead, all of the windows are designed to swivel 360 degrees so they can be cleaned from the inside of the building. The building itself is made from steel and reinforced concrete. The outside of the building is covered in crushed quartz to give the surface its light color.
In addition to the main pyramid shape, the building has two separate wings that can be seen on the outside of the structure. One wing contains a stairwell and smokestack. The other wing is to accommodate the 18 elevators that operate in the building, two of which go all the way to the top floor.
Bay Area Answers Fun Fact: The hull of the whaling vessel Niantic from the 1849 gold rush lays almost beneath the pyramid and is commemorated with a plaque.
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Who Owns the Transamerica Pyramid Today?
The Transamerica Corporation was the original owner of the building until Aegon acquired the company in 1999. Aegon later sold the company to GE Capital but retained ownership of the building as an investment.
In 2020, Aegon sold the building to a partnership between Deutsche Finance America and New York City real estate investor and developer Michael Shvo for $650 million.
Although the Transamerica Corporation moved its headquarters, it still holds a small amount of office space. Today, the building is home to various companies and corporate tenants.
Does the Transamerica Pyramid Have an Observation Deck?
The fantastic architecture of the Transamerica Pyramid building just screams out as a logical place to view the city when you are in the Bay Area and leads many to wonder what is at the top and is there a way to get up there?
The top 212 feet of the building is an unoccupied spire. The building was initially constructed to have an observation deck on the 27th floor that was open to the public and provided sweeping views of downtown San Francisco. Unfortunately, this deck was closed after the attacks of 9/11 and was never reopened.
Can You Visit the Transamerica Pyramid?
Today, tourists can visit the building and take in the views from a virtual observation deck that streams live footage from a series of cameras that are mounted at the top of the building’s spire in the four cardinal directions (North, South, East, West). This virtual observation can be found on the ground floor, the only floor of the building that is open to visitors.
Visitors can also relax in a small, beautifully designed half-acre park at the base of the building, which has a handful of the famous California redwood trees that were relocated from the Santa Cruz Mountains.
The park has a fountain, pond, and a bronze statue of a frog jumping to lily pads to commemorate writer Mark Twain, who spent some time living in the city. There is also a bronze plaque honoring Bummer and Lazarus, two popular stray dogs that used to roam the city in the 1860s.
What Makes the Transamerica Pyramid Earthquake Resistant?
California is known for its earthquakes, right. So, you might be wondering how this odd-shaped office building would fare when an earthquake occurs.
One of the revolutionary features of the Transamerica Pyramid’s design is its ability to withstand major earthquakes. The building uses its shape to its advantage. The broad base and narrow top help keep the structure stable. The construction of the building also includes a series of diagonal trusses at its base. These trusses protect against both horizontal and vertical movement. These trusses are visible from the outside of the building.
To date, the largest earthquake that the building has experienced was the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. However, based on a review after the earthquake, experts believe that the Transamerica Pyramid could endure a much larger earthquake.
The results of this review were good news considering the State of California has been awaiting the “Big One.” During the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, the Transamerica Pyramid was recorded to have swayed an entire foot but received no damage.
Getting a View of the Famous Pyramid
The Transamerica Pyramid building has grown to be one of the most beloved and recognizable buildings in San Francisco. When visiting San Francisco, your gaze can’t resist being drawn to the view of this iconic building.
Since you can’t go up into the building itself, the best views of the Pyramid are likely from somewhere else in the city. The two most popular vantage points of the Transamerica Pyramid are from the nearby Coit Tower or from the water on the Sausalito Ferry. But, no matter where you are in the city, you won’t be able to miss this architectural wonder.