A 26-Story History of San Francisco

What Yelp's new headquarters, the recently renovated landmark 140 New Montgomery, could teach the city's tech scene.

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140 New Montgomery (Alexis Madrigal)

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140 New Montgomery is the San Francisco headquarters of Yelp. The local business information company occupies nine floors of a newly refinished building that once served as the headquarters of the Pacific Bell Telephone Company.

The lobby has been beautifully reworked. Photographs of artificial lightning hang on the old black marble walls. The reddish ceiling is a glorious mélange of eastern iconography: unicorns, phoenixes, clouds, and other miscellaneous exotica. Three-fingered hands, perhaps mudra inspired, metaphorically hold up the building.

At the same time, this is a modern building designed for millennial appreciation: A smart elevator system, a xeriscaped courtyard, lots of bike storage, and excellent access to public transport. 2.3 million pounds of rebar and 10,000 tons of concrete have made the building more resilient. 

The renovation by developers Wilson Meany Sullivan with Perkins+Will architect, Cathy Simon, is a success. The building's slogan is "The Art of Work." Occupancy is already high.

Alexis Madrigal



Yelp is the anchor tenant, but other companies have nearly filled the remaining 17 floors: Lumosity, which makes brain-training software; an insurance firm with family roots in Levi Straus's fortune; Knoll, the modern furniture maker. Restauranteurs are creating two expensive, casual dining experiences on the ground floor. 

San Francisco is a city that's thriving. The unemployment rate recently hit a record-low of 4.8 percent. Businesses are setting up shop instead of moving to the suburbs. The restaurants are full.

It's also changing. Housing prices are absurd. Many residents are locked out of the prosperity of the tech industry. There are those damn buses running down to Silicon Valley. And don't get people started on Google *!#%$ Glass.

There's a sense, perhaps, that this latest round of young people to inhabit the shell of the city are somehow not of it, that these tech kids don't appreciate the the city like the artists and weirdos do. And therefore they don't deserve it. 

I'm suspicious of those who would exclude the latest wave of arrivals, no matter how boorish or inelegant or rich, especially in San Francisco, a place that has historically been defined by greed and relentless desire for self-creation.

This is the story of 140 New Montgomery, but the building is also a way of thinking about the history and future of the city.

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Alexis Madrigal

The building looks like it is made of stone, perhaps granite blasted out of the Sierra Nevada range to the east. And at the very base, there is stone. 

But it ends about five and a half feet up the facade. After that, it's terra cotta to the top: clay.

The company that made it is called Gladding, McBean, headquartered in Lincoln, up north of Sacramento. They made the cladding for many of the buildings at Stanford. They're still around. 

Their work is ubiquitous in the old downtown core of the city. In the 1920s, Gladding McBean averaged work on more than 20 buildings a year in San Francisco. By 1928, the year after 140 New Montgomery was completed, the San Francisco Examiner declared "with clay from a hole in the ground in Lincoln, California, the modern city of San Francisco has come."

Nonetheless, the point remains: the building isn't made of stone. It just looks that way. 

Recently, a software company that makes software to manage computer memory moved its headquarters to the 15th floor. It's called  Terracotta.

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140 New Montgomery was heavily influenced by a building that doesn't exist: Eliel Saarinen's proposed design for the Chicago Tribune building. 

Saarinen's modern design placed second in the competition through which the Tribune selected an architect, so it was never built. (Instead, we got the neo-Gothic thing that sits in Chicago to this day.)

But Saarinen's proposal proved influential to many architects, including Timothy Pflueger. His biographer, San Francisco journalist Therese Poletti, believes he was "enraptured with Saarinen's tower." It was almost futuristic in its simplicity.

The 140 New Montgomery was Pflueger's first major work.

Courtesy of Wilson Meany

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The first photograph of the city's new skyline wasn't real. 

As construction began to get underway, Pflueger and his partner, James R. Miller, made a clever composite image to show the city's residents what the new building would look like. They photographed the model of the building they'd created and pasted it into a picture of the extant city. 

Courtesy of Wilson Meany

When construction finished in 1927, the building was the tallest in the city. No building overtook it until 1964. 

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Timothy Pflueger grew up  in the Mission when it was German and Irish, before it was Mexican and Guatemelan, and before it was where Mark Zuckerberg had an apartment. 

He lived his entire adult life at 1015 Guerrero Street, north of 22nd, which now has a Zillow estimate of $1.2 million. It was last sold in 1988 for $290,000.

41 years before the home was built, in 1859, a map was drawn of San Francisco. It shows the Mission in a state slightly closer to the condition in which Europeans found it.

Rumsey Map Collection

At that time, Mission Creek drained the Mission, running roughly along Treat Ave, and exiting into the Bay right near the current Giants Stadium.

Mission Street, which runs into the heart of SOMA, a few blocks down from Guerrero, was wooden planks laid over marsh. In the 1860s, the Oakland Museum of California informs us, humans began filling in the natural wetlands to create more land. During the 1906 earthquake, the "soft marsh soils underlying Mission street sank and buildings in this area collapsed."

To be quick about it: The heart of the Mission was a marsh and Mission Bay was still in the bay. When Pflueger began work to become an architect in 1911, that San Francisco was about as far away as the mid-1960s are to us. Perhaps a little unfamiliar, but recognizable.

Oakland Museum of California

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Pflueger's skyscraper was a product of a telecommunications boom. As Syracuse information studies professor Milton Mueller notes, by 1920, "the U.S. telephone network was geographically universal," meaning it reached everywhere, but there were only 13 phones per 100 people.

What an opportunity! AT&T had done the hard technological and infrastructural part. They were a regulated monopoly. By 1920, all the telephone companies had to do was sell people on buying phones. 

And they did. 

In San Francisco, in the 1920s, the local arm of AT&T was Pacific Telephone and Telegraph, and business was good.

Recognize this kind of chart? This kind of growth was both aided by the monument of 140 New Montgomery, and provided the revenue to construct it. 

Courtesy of Wilson Meany

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140 New Montgomery united two versions of the technological sublime, which historian David Nye has traced through American thought. It symbolizes both the dynamic and geometrical sublimes, or the conquering of space and time and the domination of nature. 

"The dynamic technological sublime was embodied in the telegraph, the steamboat, and the railroad, which conquered space and time. Equally important was the conquest of natural obstacles and forces, accomplished by bridges and skyscrapers.These natural structures were assimilated into a new version of the mathematical sublime that began to emerge as the public attempted to explain the feelings induced by seeing a vast panorama of man-made objects.

This new form, the geometrical sublime, had to do with triumphs over nature more emphatic than those of the antebellum period. Whereas the dynamic form of the technological sublime had emphasized the movement of information over wires and railways across the natural landscape, transforming it into a mere backdrop, the geometrical sublime was static and appeared to dominate nature through elegant design and sheer bulk. It found expression first in bridges and soon afterward in skyscrapers. All these structures expressed the triumph of reason in concrete form, proving that the world was becoming, in Emerson's words, 'a realized will'—'the double of man.'"

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John Muir first visited the Sierras, 140 miles east of San Francisco across the great Central Valley, in 1868.

He became a man who proselytized about the holy glories of these mountains, several times in this magazine. "Benevolent, solemn, fateful, pervaded with divine light, every landscape glows like a countenance hallowed in eternal repose," he wrote in our April 1900 issue, "and every one of its living creatures, clad in flesh and leaves, and every crystal of its rocks, whether on the surface shining in the sun or buried miles deep in what we call darkness, is throbbing and pulsing with the heartbeats of God."

His sermons drew attention to the area, and eventually it was named a national park in 1890. Why was this place so special? Muir might say that, aside from divine inspiration, it was the way the land reflected the process by which it was made.  "Not a peak, ridge, dome, cañon, lake, basin, garden, forest or stream but in some way explains the past existence and modes of action of flowing, grinding, sculpturing, soil-making, scenery-making ice."

The landscape was its own Genesis.

Whereas when the Hetch Hetchy Valley was flooded in 1923 to provide a reservoir of water for a growing San Francisco, only its act of destruction was visible from the Sierras. The Hetch Hetchy project didn't just transfer water from a wild space to a city far away, but beauty.

Money had become the flowing, grinding, sculpturing, soil-making, scenery-making force. 

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Devils Postpile (National Park Service)

I met with Cathy Simon, the architect who designed the 140 New Montgomery renovation, at The Tadich Grill, a restaurant that's been operating in one form or another since 1849.

Simon told me that she thought Pflueger was inspired by Yosemite and the Sierras. "I think he was very influenced by Yosemite. I've never found this to be written down anywhere, but if you look at this building in context, New Montgomery is a pretty narrow street: You're always looking up at it," Simon said. "When you walk down from either direction, it just looks like Devils Postpile to me. It's very vertical and it's very granitic looking."

140 New Montgomery (Alexis Madrigal)

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Yelp can tell you something about any place. Take The Tadich Grill. It has 1,182 reviews and an average of four stars. (Every place with a sufficient amount of reviews seems to converge on four stars, but anyway.) 

From all those individual experiences, an algorithm has decided to highlight three things: 

“Eve award: best cioppino ever, best garlic bread.”

“very good seafood, authentic and old school with great service.”

“I think Tadich Grill makes the best creamy clam chowder.”

My own scan of recent reviews found the Tadich standing against the incursions of youth:

"The best restaraunt in San Francisco. In the new city of wealthy tech kids who have no sense of history . The Tadich is an oasis, a time warp of Old San Francisco. Long may it thrive !" Armando from Oakland writes. " The cuisine in awesome and very old school. Here there is no ' fusion'... And no trendy. The Tadich has watched trends come and go..it's fresh and honest American food. Put down your phone and breathe in the history, class and good food. Please ... If you know some tech brats ... Don't bring them here"

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When the Tadich was founded, it was a coffee stand on the Long Wharf, which extended into Yerba Buena Cove. In the decade after the gold rush of 1849, the cove filled up with ships and wharfs and buildings built on piles. In the next decade after that, the city extended itself into the cove until a seawall was built along the line of the Embarcadero. Long Wharf became a new section of Commercial Street. 

The ships, though, never left. They rotted or were torn apart for wood and burned. Or they were turned into basements or buried. 

SF Genealogy

Occasionally, construction crews digging a subway line or the foundation for a skyscraper run into one. The most famous is probably the Niantic. A division inside Google goes by Niantic Labs

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The lynchpin of the current Embarcadero is the gorgeous Ferry Building. Cathy Simon was also the architect on that building, which is one of the most popular attractions in the city now. 

Staring at the soaring clocktower at the bottom of Market St, the swarms of locals and tourists taking advantage of its food and views and transportation, it seems impossible to imagine that a freeway once cut the space off from the rest of the city. 

But there it is in the old pictures, real as anything.

The Ferry Building circa 1964 (flickr/telstarlogistics)

The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 damaged the Embarcadero Freeway and activists succeeded in having it torn down. Now a local urban planning group, SPUR, calls the change "one of the greatest urban planning success stories of the past twenty years."

In a sense, what made the current, renovated Ferry Building possible was the benign neglect that came from decades of being on the wrong side of the freeway. "Time saved it," Simon told me.

"The Ferry building, there were many many plans to tear it down. There was even a nine-block plan to build something like the World Trade Center where it is," she said. "After the ferry stopped, and then the freeway went in, the idea was to tear it down and build new office buildings a la the UN in New York. There were other schemes to gut it and put offices in it, too. But none of them panned out economically."

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140 New Montgomery was also forgotten in plain sight. The building had slowly emptied out, a process accelerated by Pacific Bell's creation of a new suburban headquarters in San Ramon. But it was a building owned by a single company, not leased out to tenants.

So when the developer Wilson Meany Sullivan purchased the property, they could do a complete renovation. It was theirs to play with. They poured $70 million into the base construction, including seismic reinforcements. Tenants building out their office spaces spent another $30 million. 

The original building was built in 20 months for $4 million. 

140 New Montgomery, June 1924

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Courtesy of Wilson Meany

Seen here from the west, before the construction of its neighbor, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the distinctive F-shape of the building is easier to see. People marveled.

Poet Miles Overholt wrote that the building was "an architectural dream come true ... a shimmering, gleaming monument to TALK!"

Overholt, himself, was called to create verse on topics most people did not consider worthy of commemoration. In 1926, while the 140 building was under construction, he visited Lake Merced, a natural feature that had become a part of the vast water distribution system of the Spring Valley Water Company. He wrote a poem about it in the San Francisco Examiner, which was then reproduced in San Francisco Water, the journal of the Spring Valley Water Company. It was introduced as an ode to infrastructure: "So far as the editor knows, this is the first lyric ever inspired by any unit of the Spring Valley system."

Courtesy of Wilson Meany

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The Spring Valley Water Company had a monopoly on San Francisco's supply. They controlled much of the water in Alameda County, pumping the watershed from Sunol through a little gap in the hills to Niles, and thence across the Bay and up the peninsula to the city.

Courtesy of Wilson Meany

In 1930, the city of San Francisco bought out the Spring Valley Water Company, bringing the source of its water supply under municipal control. It was a great accomplishment: no longer would such an important part of the city's fate lie in the hands of a few rich men. Instead, power would rest with a utilities commission nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the board of supervisors. It wouldn't be perfect—everyone knew that—but it would be democratic. 

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For the architect, Simon, the grid is almost sacred. "The whole idea of the grid is that you can make choices about where you can go," she told me. One-way streets, traffic calming measures that prevent easy access to certain neighborhoods: these things are a "defiance of the way the city was planned." 

"I'm just a real city person," she said. Simon grew up in Greenwich Village, and moved to the city in 1970 with her husband, a writer. "I think all the projects that I do as having a public purpose."  

140 New Montgomery is a different kind of project, though, than the Ferry Building. The latter was all about community. 140 was a monument to a private company. But for Simon, the gift of a skyscraper, especially one as gorgeous as Pflueger's tower, is beauty. 

"The building is exposing these young people to an idea of beauty in their lives that a lot of them don't know," she said. "The building subliminally has a great message that is very nuanced. It's an old building that's repurposed with intelligence."

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Standing at the base of the tower, watching the flow into and out of the lobby, I realize that the median age of people interacting with the building is probably 25, and the distribution is tight. At 31, I'm probably older than 80 percent of the workers passing into 140 New Montgomery. 

They are a model of the new economy: casually dressed, ethnically and racially diverse, no doubt savvy in the ways of email. 

They are hardly distinguishable from the students who pass by on their way to the Academy of Art University building next door. The Academy is a pioneer of for-profit education. It owns dozens of  buildings in the city of San Francisco, up from just seven in 1994. The Academy also runs private shuttle service for its students that now seem like a precursor to the private bus system that takes tech workers to Silicon Valley. 

The mission of Academy of Art University is to educate students in beauty. But the business of the place is to make money converting old apartment buildings into dormitories. "If you were to set out to imagine a more lucrative business for old apartment buildings, you'd be hard pressed to better the housing system run by the Academy of Art University," a 2004 San Francisco Chronicle found.

At least they've found a way to create housing stock within the city limits. For the past twenty years—basically since the start of the first .com bubble—only about 1,500 new units have been built each year. That's not nearly enough to accomodate all the people who'd like to live in the city. This is not rocket science. Constrained supply with increasing demand equals higher prices. 

And sure, the (lucky) tech people with their cash hoards are like dragons who can swoop into any real estate situation and carry away the lease or title.

But the fact remains: San Francisco needs to build more places to live. Even Simon, who has managed to get so much done in the city, sounds a plaintive note. "Frankly, we need to build a lot more housing," she said, "and it's so hard to get anything done here."

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Courtesy of Wilson Meany

The 18th floor of 140 New Montgomery used to be home to the telephone company executives. It had the kind of old, sumptuous, wood-paneled boardroom that makes you want to squash the bugs who wander the streets below. 

It's gone, of course. The wood now forms the walls of a DIY bike repair shop in the basement parking garage. 

Today, the software company Lumosity will host the grand opening of its new office on the floor. Lumosity makes games for "brain training" that attempt to increase memory and sharpen focus. It markets heavily to aging boomers, who would rather not grow old and infirm.

The research on whether the games have real-world benefits is mixed, but the company has prospered. They've got 50 million users and have taken $70 million in venture capital.

Like many growing businesses within the city, they have a friendly relationship with the city. Though he couldn't make it in the end, Mayor Ed Lee was scheduled to appear at the grand opening.

Hot interior designer Lauren Geremia created the office's look and feel. Her current roster of clients says something about the current state of San Francisco: "Geremia’s Emeryville, California, firm is currently is working with about three restaurants, 15 owners of private residences, and roughly six tech companies.

Lee, Geremia, restaurants, property developers, even your humble correspondent in an indirect way.

Who doesn't depend on tech for revenue in this town?

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Diego Rivera once painted 140 New Montgomery. It appears in panel 2 of his Pan-American Unity mural beneath diver Helen Crlenkovich and above the sculptor Mardonio Magana, who is working on Quetzalcoatl's head. The Bay Bridge stretches to the right, and the city's grid up and back to the top of the mural. In the foreground, political figures like Simon Bolivar, John Brown, and Abraham Lincoln sit beside artisans working their crafts. 

It is not unlike the lobby of the building, the very definition of a mélange, which also happens to be the name of the drug of choice in Frank Herbert's sci-fi classic Dune. The mélange spice extends one's life and awareness. It would be a good name for the next Lumosity product.  

Herbert lived in San Francisco, working at the Examiner for a decade before he wrote and sold the book.  Tim O'Reilly, founder of the influential publishing company, O'Reilly Media, and the guy who coined the phrase Web 2.0, wrote a book about Herbert in 1981

"It is a general principle of ecology that an ecosystem is stable not because it is secure and protected, but because it contains such diversity that some of its many types of organisms are bound to survive despite drastic changes in the environment or other adverse conditions," O'Reilly wrote. "Herbert adds, however, that the effort of civilization to create and maintain security for its individual members, 'necessarily creates the conditions of crisis because it fails to deal with change.'"

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Before the anti-bus protests of this past year, which were themselves a stand-in for a larger fight about gentrification (however defined), before Snapchat, before Facebook, before anyone had heard the phrase Web 2.0, before Google, before restaurants with names like Craftsman and Wolves, there was the Mission Yuppie Eradication Project. 

These people, however few of them there were, wanted to keep the rich people out of the Mission, and they actively advocated sabotage. 

Courtesy of Wilson Meany

Their leader was a guy named Kevin Keating, who had come to the Mission eleven years before he started his Yuppie Eradication Project, or a bit less time than has passed between then and now. 

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The offices of G2 Insurance occupy the 21st floor of the building. G2 was founded by two members of the Goldman family, who can trace their family's wealth back to Levi Strauss, of your jeans fame. 

Strauss died childless and left his company to his four nephews. Elise Stern was the daughter of one of them, Sigmund Stern. She married Walter Haas in 1914 and he entered the family business, eventually becoming its president in 1928, the year after 140 New Montgomery was completed. 

Under his leadership, the company became a global powerhouse, and the Haas family became the kind of rich that gets your name on buildings on university campuses. 

Walter Haas had a daughter named Rhoda, and Rhoda, who was often called an heiress, married a man named Richard Goldman, who himself founded a very successful insurance brokerage firm. Their foundation, formed in 1951, donated more than $680 million to environmental and other causes. 

The founders of G2 Insurance are Matthew and Jason Goldman, Richard's grandsons, and Larry Colton, who was hired in the 1970s by Richard. They emphasize this history in describing their "retro-radical" approach to the insurance business.

See, not all the money in San Francisco comes from the technology business. Some of it is old.

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The dining room in 1925.

The twenty-second floor of the building was once the women's cafeteria. At the peak, hundreds of women worked at 140 New Montgomery, though almost exclusively in secretarial roles. The executives who sat around the boardroom on 18 were all men to a man. 

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The historian Nye described how people reacted when they first traveled to the tops of skyscrapers: they marveled at "the wonderful quality of seeing actual objects as if they are pictures, maps, or panoramas of themselves." 

Being so high meant seeing where they lived from an "olympian" perspective. The city, as viewed from a skyscraper, meant that nature and civilization had done battle, and the people had won. 

But some people had won more. Viewing from above was viewing from power. 

"The logic hidden within this representation resembled that of Bentham's panopticon, transforming the city into a site controlled from above and dividing its populace into the majority who scurry along the ground and the few who survey them from above," Nye wrote. "If the skyline suggested the creation of an artificial nature, the olympian gaze from atop a pinnacle of commerce suggested subjugation as the obverse side of mastery."

Top-down mastery is now retrograde, though. The Facebook executive sits in the middle of the room, not at the top of the tower, trusting that the invisible currents of power are all that's necessary to exert authority. 

 

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Churchill at 140: he's the chap in the center with the bow-tie (Pacific Telephone Magazine)

Winston Churchill paid a visit to 140 New Montgomery in September of 1929, about a month before the stock market crash augured the Great Depression. He and his wife called the family back home—both a transcontinental and transoceanic call—and reported back in a letter that they were "thrilled and cheered by the wonderful experience of talking to our family across the enormous distance of land and sea." 

It was, before modern telecommunications, quite a treat to speak with people far away. It was not assumed to be possible, let alone nearly free. 

The copper through which Churchill spoke stayed in the building until the recent renovation. Though it was not a major location within the telephonic infrastructure of the area, Joshua Callahan of Wilson Meany told me that the building as vastly overserved. There were thick cords of copper wiring running into the place.

Replaced with fiber optic cables, the copper was sold as scrap metal for recycling into new products. 

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Silicon Valley took root south of San Francisco, in simpler places, where the streets were not interwoven with ships that docked and never left. Over the past two generations, the innovation machine has crept up the 101 and into the city. 

This has happened at a moment when the screen and the city are the two hottest ways for young people to spend their time. It would seem these activities were in competition, but it appears that engaging with one drives desire for the other.

On the screen, all the richness of human codes is available: knowledge, communication, all the furious chaos of one's social life can be compressed and sent to hand.

But a flatness prevails. There is no sense of decay, of time passing, of Treat Ave following a curve that turns out to be the spine of old Mission Creek. At any point in the physical world, there is infinity in all directions, a grid that is not just spatial but temporal. 

No matter how one tries to quantify any piece of land, any building, any space, it will always escape the spreadsheet. There will always be more that could be known. 

So many people want to talk about what tech companies and people are doing to San Francisco. But this is just one city, and the people building the companies that are the Internet control communications for vast swaths of the world. 

What can San Francisco, the place, teach tech companies about the full measure of the world? Perhaps historical depth will seep into the applications made inside the walls of a place like 140 New Montgomery. Who knows how precisely the streets we walk shape the way we walk them, but they do.  We know this. 

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While it was the tallest building in the city, the roof of 140 New Montgomery served as the official city storm warning station. During the day, it flew symbolic flags, and at night, powerful electric lights could be used to deliver messages seen for miles around. Two red flags or one white and one red light meant a gale with winds up to 54 miles per hour; a red flag with a black center, or two red lights, signaled an even worse storm. 

Futurist Bruce Sterling recently gave his annual keynote at SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. The conference (and the keynote) are a yearly ritual for many of the technology workers in the Bay. Sterling told them, "The future is about old people, in big cities, afraid of the sky."

For now, those old people are the young people jauntily striding into the lobby, taking out their earbuds, checking Facebook, and preparing to work. Before them stretches a day, and also a life. "The best cities I've been in have a continuum of time," said the architect Simon.

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

  • Alexis C. Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology.