Although it's impossible to admire the glass-and-concrete monoliths that have been destroying the city's Mediterranean skyline since the mid-1960s, a few examples of great urban architecture still exist in the canyons of the Financial District. The category means we've had to leave out some of our (relatively diminutive) favorites — the 11-story Phelan Building, the city's largest flatiron; the Mills Building, a 10-story Chicago School survivor of the 1906 earthquake; Willis Polk's eight-story Hallidie Building, the first glass-curtain edifice in the country. The four following structures, while loftier in altitude, are as aesthetically individual in concept and execution.
111 Sutter (at Montgomery)
This Gothic castle of a skyscraper deserves its place on the National Registry of Historic Places: Not only was its top floor the West Coast headquarters of NBC from 1927 (the year the building opened) until 1942, it was from his office in the Hunter-Dulin that Dashiell Hammett's shamus Sam Spade conducted his search for the Maltese Falcon. Schaltze & Weaver's 22-story French Chateau beauty, fully renovated a few years ago, boasts rich terra-cotta detailing, a Romanesque Revival entryway with green marble pillars in its dazzling lobby, and a copper-trimmed mansard roof towering over the Crocker Galleria next door. The Hunter-Dulin was the tallest high-rise in the city until the 31-story Russ, then the tallest building west of Chicago, opened its doors a few months later.
Shell Oil Building
100 Bush (at Battery)
Strongly influenced by the works of art deco founding father Eliel Saarinen, Shell architect George Kelham employed many of the style's salient characteristics: a beautifully proportioned base, shaft, and crown; a conscious attempt to complement the surrounding urban landscape; a preference for streamlined, Machine Age tech over the natural rococo of art nouveau. Kelham, the chief architect for the 1915 World's Fair and UC Berkeley's supervising architect from 1927 to 1936, ornamented his stunning 28-story skyscraper with an apropos shell motif and clad the result in glazed terra cotta. The building was erected in 300 days in the early months of the Great Depression.
450 Sutter (at Stockton)
The soaring artistry of the Egyptians, the Assyrians, and other ancient civilizations was as big an influence on art deco as the Machine Age and the jagged ziggurats of Georgia O'Keeffe, and the archaeological excavation of a Mayan pyramid in the late 1920s was a profound inspiration to architect Timothy Pflueger as he designed this 28-story medical-dental building. Pflueger utilized Mayan-esque spandrels above and between the windows of this richly textured, steel-and-terra-cotta structure, Mayan-inspired bas-relief all around the magnificent entrance, and further Mayan ornamentation in the lobby's gilded ceiling and ornate elevators. The ultimate effect is of a massive pre-Columbian temple carved out of gold by a Jazz Age Tenochtitlán artisan.
600 Montgomery (at Columbus)
Herb Caen once said the Transamerica Pyramid was shaped that way so the pinhead who built it could live on the top floor, but after 30 years we have come to admire (even like) this gleaming, graceful icon of modern-day San Francisco. You can't miss it — at 48 stories and 853 feet, it's the tallest building in the city — but unlike, say, the Bank of America building, its pastel facade isn't a blot upon the landscape. The dramatic pyramid shape (20,650 square feet on the sixth floor, 2,412 square feet on the 48th floor) is topped off by a 212-foot spire that's illuminated with appropriate shades and colors on major holidays. And the setting is incomparable: the intersection of North Beach, Chinatown, Jackson Square, and the Financial District, with a tiny redwood grove alongside to boot.