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Best Office Building Lobbies San Francisco 2008 -

Tucked among the Sturm und Drang of the Financial District are oases of splendor and beauty where questing culture vultures can take in some of the city's most breathtaking public works of art. These vintage lobbies were designed to dazzle visitor and company drone alike, and still succeed at doing just that. And, unlike many a museum or private gallery, the places listed below are free and open to the public. (Be prepared for the occasional security-guard fisheye, though.)

Merchants Exchange Building
465 California (at Montgomery)

With its columns, lanterns, paneled ceilings and intricately detailed bronze elevators, this grandiose survivor of the 1906 firequake looks like a particularly ornate Renaissance palace. The barrel-vaulted lobby's pièce de resistance, though, is the 16-story light shaft and enormous arched skylight that splashes sunshine across the foyer's encompassing marble. Erected in 1904, the building was designed by Daniel Burnham and Willis Polk with later additions by Julia Morgan: an all-star lineup of architects.

Hearst Building
5 Third St. (at Market)

Built in 1909, this onetime nexus of the Hearst empire got a new facade, entranceway, and lobby three decades later under San Simeon architect Julia Morgan. The results are still impressive in a Gothic, quasi-monastery sort of way: The pillars and sconces look like they were carved out of a quarry, the wall's honest-to-God gold leaf is preserved under glass, and an array of stone statuary (one cherub reputedly based on young Randy Hearst) peer down from above the elevators. Best of all is the seemingly hand-wrought circular stone staircase, wending its way 11 stories heavenward.

Russ Building
235 Montgomery (at Bush)

After passing t hrough a neo-Gothic vestibule of gargoyles, niches, and medieval folderol, you'll find yourself in a series of intricately vaulted chambers not unlike a catacomb, wine cellar, or beautifully accented dungeon. The granite floors are inlaid with travertine and draped here and there with ornately patterned throw rugs; lanterns of wrought iron hang from the cambered ceilings; gilt-edged elevators and marble wainscoting add a bit of joie de vivre. The state historic landmark was designed by George Kelham and built in 1927.

Hunter-Dulin Building
111 Sutter (at Montgomery)

Our very favorite office lobby is most striking for its Sistine-like ceiling — a fantasia of birds, branches, and abstract shapes in heraldic red, green, and gold — but there's so much more: the four different hues of marble, the elegant white-and-gold chandelier, the pillars and ironwork, and the Romanesque Revival excesses. Designed in 1926 by Schultze and Weaver, this 22-story French chateau of a skyscraper is a dazzler from tip to toe.

450 Sutter
450 Sutter (at Stockton)

The greatest San Francisco office lobby of all is at 450 Sutter, where architect Timothy Pflueger let his inner Deco run wild with all manner of Mayan-derived ziggurat-sleek accents. Intricate, snakelike designs in silver and gold complement the sheer black marble walls, three triangular ceiling lamps are adorned with what can only be described as High Priest physiognomy, while the elevator doors and low-slung ceiling are all chiseled gilt gods and ancient hieroglyphs. A nice option when you're in an especially aesthetic frame of mind.

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