Newsletter | Mar/Apr 2007

The Russ Building
by Margaret R. Goglia, AIA

Little did I know what venue treat was in store as I arrived in San Francisco for OWA's February 13th Estate Planning program. Nancy Jarvis provided an illuminating talk and answered many of our questions in her Russ Building office. The Russ Building is an office structure with an entry reminiscent of a cathedral, a building with operable windows, and a marvelous place with origins in another era.

Built in the roaring 20's, it was billed as the West's largest office building. It is 335,245 square feet and housed 1,370 offices. It is 435 feet tall (divided into 31 stories) and typically served 3,500 "inhabitants" in the 1930's. Construction started in 1926 and completed on September 1, 1927, five months ahead of schedule. (Don't you wish this would happen to your projects?) It had many of the latest features such as 16 elevators, the capacity to park 400 cars in its garage, and in the sub basement a 20-ton refrigeration plant to supply filtered, sterilized, chilled drinking water to each room (in addition to the usual hot and cold water service).

Our speaker, Nancy Jarvis, kindly provided me with a reprint of the 1933 publicity brochure compiled by D'Evelin & Wadsworth, Inc. the advertising agents for the Russ Building Company. It is interesting for what it says about the building and the society at the time and for what it does not say. Nowhere is the architect mentioned. The brochure is squarely aimed at "business men". Note was taken of steam baths and showers available so, "returning from train or motor trip direct to his office- or staying downtown for dinner, the Russ building tenant can thus spend an invigorating quarter-hour and emerge with new zest for the work ahead". There is even a description of the Women's Rest Room as, "attractively furnished to afford a homey atmosphere." The brochure noted a matron staffed the Women's Rest Room in order to be available to, "care for women in the building in emergencies".

Some of the building's touted attributes would be right in step with current design thinking. Abundant light, of the natural variety, was a big selling feature. The building had a "service floor", the 11th, where shops catering to tenants were located: drug store, barber shop, branch library focusing on business volumes, coffee shop, conditioning club (what would be called a fitness club today), valet, and haberdashery. The garage offered washing, fueling and renewal of license plate services for tenants. On three of the floors large office suites complete with common reception and phone answering services provided small individual offices with all the advantages of the "best building in town" but not with the added expense of private services.

While the Russ Building has evolved over the decades it still fulfills it's original function: it is an office building . Today the ADA rest rooms, self-service elevators, the operable windows, high ceilings, day lighting and original ornamentation are prized by tenants both business men and business women alike.