The Russ Building, located at 235 Montgomery Street, is the forty-ninth entry on SFYIMBY’s countdown of the fifty-two tallest proposed or finished towers in the Bay Area. With a rooftop height of 435 feet, it is tied as the 48th tallest skyscraper. It is the first on our list to not be in SoMa, to share its position with another building, and to have once held the title as tallest in the city. It is also the second oldest skyscraper on our list, having opened in 1927. It contains modernized office space in San Francisco’s Financial District. After a 2016 renovation, it received LEED Platinum certification. Shorenstein Properties manages the building, with the Swig Company as the property owner.
Completed during the last century’s Roaring Twenties, the building has a tower-podium form, with an 18-story E-shaped foot-print and a 32-story pinnacle. It was named after a Californian Settler, Charles Christian Russ, by his children who earned their wealth in the Gold Rush. Russ arrived in San Francisco in 1847, just after the Mexican-American war, when a military interim government was in control of the territory.
The Russ Building contains fifteen elevator shafts installed by Otis, used by the building office workers and staff since it opened. The steel-concrete structure yields 653,250 square feet, of which 511,330 square feet is available for retail or office use. The remaining is the unconditioned area or part of the below-ground 350-car parking garage.
George W. Kelham is the building’s architect, with contracting by Dinwiddie Construction and structural engineering by H.J. Brunnier Associates. Clad with limestone-toned neo-gothic terracotta ornamentation, its soaring vertical lines, and decorative features make it a spectacular example of the era’s approach to design, a worship of height and the monumental scale of America’s booming economy.
Kelham’s work was inspired by Eliel Saarinen’s highly influential unbuilt submission for the Tribune Tower design competition of 1922. The unbuilt proposal has a wide-spread influence on the history of the skyscraper. This includes with the next skyscraper on our list, 140 New Montgomery, as well as the architect of San Francisco’s tallest structure, César Pelli. Pelli worked as a project designer for Eliel’s son, Eero Saarinen.
In a 1976 architectural survey by the Department of City Planning, the building was described in vivid and illuminating detail. Forty-five years ago, city staff wrote, “although somewhat backward-looking for its day in its Gothic ornamentation, in its massing and use of ornament to express soaring verticality, it reflects the latest thinking about skyscraper design and was tremendously successful on its own terms. In 1927, the Architect and Engineer wrote, ‘In nearly every large city there is one building that, because of its size, beauty of architectural design and character of its use and occupancy, has come to typify the city itself. Today the Russ Building takes this place in San Francisco.’”
Kelman was a graduate of both Harvard and the famed Parisian Ecole des Beaux-Arts school. His work includes the former public library now titled the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco at 400 Sansome Street, several projects for UC Berkeley, including National Register-listed Bowles Hall, and the Standard Oil Building at 225 Bush Street. He left an indelible mark on San Francisco and the Bay Area, making a name for himself as one of the most significant Beaux-Arts architects in the state.
Russ Building maintained its prominent position for several decades, tied as the tallest in the city for thirty-seven years until the 466-foot office building at 650 California Street opened in 1964. Only the Transamerica Pyramid would maintain the title as the tallest structure in the city for a longer period; forty-six from 1972 to 2018. Shorenstein acquired the building in 1988 for an unknown amount. City assessors last valued the land and structure at $40.35 million.