SF's Beautiful Flatirons

Flatirons are trianglar shaped buildings.  The name comes from their resemblence in shape to the iron you use to unwrinkle your clothes.    When a street cuts through the city grid at an odd angle, it creates triangular-shaped lots (called a "gore" lot) that provide the perfect place to build a flatiron.

 New York's Flatiron Building, 1903, Photo from the Library of Congress

New York's Flatiron Building, 1903, Photo from the Library of Congress

Perhaps the most famous flatiron is in New York, where Broadway hits Fifth Ave and 22nd Street. Built in 1902 it was designed by the famous Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. It has become one of the most photographed buildings in the city. 

But New York has only a few flatirons.  San Francisco has dozen or more of these distinctive buildings because it has two boulevards -- Market and Columbus -- that cut diagonally across the city.   this creates gore lots in various sizes that are filled with distinctive triangular buildings, large and small.

The Phelan Building on Market St. at O'Farrell is perhaps the closest to New York's famous flatiron, with the same three-part Beaux Arts style.  But the Phelan Building at 11 stories is half the size of its 22 story New York cousin.  Designed by architect William Curlett (who also did the Mutual Savings Bank on Market at Third)  it was built by James Duvall Phelan in 1908, after the 1906 fire destroyed a smaller flatiron built by his father on the same site.  Like his father, Phelan was a banker and later became a politician. serving two terms as Mayor of San Francisco before the 1906 disaster and later representing  California in the U.S. Senate.  The building is still owned by the Phelan family today.  

 Phelan Building, Market at O'Farrell

Phelan Building, Market at O'Farrell

But the Phelan building not the city's only flatiron by a long shot.  Perhaps the most well known San Francisco flatiron sits on the corner of Columbus and Kearny in the city's North Beach neighborhood. It's distinctive copper dome makes it city landmark. The building was under construction during the 1906 earthquake and finished shortly afterward.  It was built by lawyer Abe Ruef, who served time in  San Quentin after the 1906 earthquake after being convicted of bribery.  The building was under construction during the 1906 earthquake and finished shortly afterward.  In the 1960s it was owned by the Kingston Trio who recorded some of their most popular albums in its basement studio.  Today it's owned by film director Francis Ford Coppolla who uses it as offices for his film production company, his literary magazine and a restaurant on the first floor.  He also has a private apartment in the dome on the top floor. 

 Columbus Tower, Columbus and Kearny

Columbus Tower, Columbus and Kearny

Directly across the street from the Transamerica Pyramid, sits the original Transamerica Building at the gore point of Columbus and Montgomery.  Designed by Charles Pfaff,  It was built in 1909 for the Fugazi Bank.  The third story was added in 1914.  A.P. Giannini, founder of the Bank of America,  later bought it for his Transamerica Insurance Company, making it the original Transamerica Pyramid. Today it's owned by the Church of Scientology.  

 Old Fugazi Bank, built 1909, on Columbus at Montgomery 

Old Fugazi Bank, built 1909, on Columbus at Montgomery 

Not all flatirons are historic.  A modern take on a flatiron can be seen on Market Street at Pine. Built in 1987 it was designed by Skimore Ownings and Merrill.  Echoing the three-part design of Beaux Arts buildings, the bottom floor is retail space, the middle floors are office and the top seven floors are luxury apartments.  Note how the Front Street side of the building is curved -- this is for wind control.  

 1987 Flatiron on Market at Pine

1987 Flatiron on Market at Pine

A new City Explorer tour, the Angles of Market Street, will explore some of these flatirons and more.  It will be available on the City Explorer San Francisco app this summer.