The City’s Biggest Inside Job

  • San Francisco Examiner
  • May 6, 1999
  • Rob Morse

SAN FRANCISCO -- IT WAS LIKE watching a ship being built in a bottle.

In the basement of One Market, just a few yards from diners in the elegant restaurant of the same name, a 125,000-pound drill rig was being assembled.

How do you assemble a drill rig inside a 10-story building? With a very big crane to lift the parts inside.

Why do it? Because One Market is a big piece of San Francisco history, built in 1917 by Southern Pacific Railroad as its headquarters. The idea is to gingerly lift heavy equipment inside the building to shore it up and save its exterior.

Sure, you could just knock it down. You also could live in Atlanta.

The Martin Group, renovators of the office building, should see its $100 million investment in the best address in The City pay off handsomely. They hope to attract tenants from the booming high-tech and financial industries. No one can predict how the economy will go, but the view isn't going anywhere.

In a narrow air shaft in the middle of the building, the 70-foot tower of the drill rig was being put together like a giant fishing rod - if you can imagine putting together a 62-ton rod in an enclosed, closetlike space.

The giant crane on the roof 10 stories above held one length of the drill, while a worker in the basement talked to the crane operator by radio. They couldn't even see each other, and they were assembling a drill rig capable of mining coal inside a historic San Francisco building.

The rig will drill 165 feet down, through the Bay fill and deep into the clay soil to place steel-reinforced concrete piers.

"We got a big piece of equipment in a confined space, a big crane on the roof and only one entrance in the back," said Bob Tigri, site manager for Plant Construction Co.

"We're on the cutting edge of construction, and the public never sees us."

Sure enough, from the sidewalk you'd never know anything is happening inside One Market other than lunch and office work.

Passersby didn't even look at flatbed trucks bearing 3-foot-diameter drill bits and screws.

To most people, they're just a few more flatbed trucks on the streets, the kind of trucks that lead people to curse downtown development. But this is a special kind of development.

"This isn't a glass box," said development manager Matt Field of the Martin Group. "We want to create something unique. San Francisco deserves something unique."

In fact, what they're building is a permanent concrete box 10 stories tall in the core of the building to brace it without interfering with the office space, windows or the beautiful exterior masonry.

Field, 36, the son of respected San Francisco architect John Field, also worked on the preservation and renovation of 1000 Van Ness for the Martin Group and obviously loves old San Francisco buildings.

"In 1917, when SP built One Market, it was really the state-of-the-art building," said Field. "At 10 stories, it was the tallest building west of the Mississippi. It had the first sprinkler system. It was the tallest of the palazzo style. This was just the beginning of steel-reinforced buildings."

SP sank 2,000 redwood trunks into the earth to anchor the building in the Bay mud. The building came through the '89 quake with flying colors, and only a few flying pieces of cornice.

The redwood will stay, even with the new and deeper steel-and-concrete piers. So goes the old with the new at One Market.

The building originally was supposed to be a rail terminus, and SP put in a diesel generator that is still capable of providing power to the building for four days. Railroads were at their zenith in 1917, and they built things to last.

The building is being rebuilt for the new technology, with fiber optics, high-speed access cables, T-3, FM-based communication on the roof, and everything else I don't understand - plus plenty of capacity for cables that haven't been invented yet.

"Basically, it has everything we've built for our tenants in Silicon Valley," said Field.

As we stood in gutted offices overlooking the Ferry Building, Field explained the strategy for marketing his building's 350,000 square feet of office space. He didn't have to explain much.

The marketing was right out the windows, which will open to the fresh air, unlike the windows of the glass boxes of the '80s. The developers also will open some windows that SP blocked with concrete in the '60s as protection against possible attack by the Weather Underground.

The building also offers high ceilings, brass-and-wood banisters and carved wood finishings that the glass boxes don't have. You get the idea. One Market is a way for high-tech nerds to go upscale and get up the Peninsula.

"The high-tech business is very employee-driven," said Field. "In the '70s, the Baby Boomers wanted to live in the suburbs. The Gen-Xers want an urban environment."

Never fear, though. Downtown won't be filled with people whose idea of lunch is Skittles.

Field says he's getting tenants of all kinds, not just high-tech. "It's a confluence of all the great things happening in the economy," he said.

"You couldn't ask for a better corner anywhere in the world. SP could have chosen anyplace in California to put their headquarters, and they chose that location. It's only gotten better."

Field showed me pictures of One Market as it was built in the eight months between September 1916 and May 1917. Those were the days of no OSHA and no codes, when SP ruled the West.

"Our project is about 16 months, which is pretty darn quick for what we're doing," said Field, "considering we don't have any way to get in the building."