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450 Sutter, iconic Neo-Mayan skyscraper where you get your teeth cleaned, turns 90

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“Shining like silk and lovely as old lace”

450 Sutter.
Photos by Brock Keeling (unless otherwise noted)

Built long before San Francisco’s malignant fear of heights, 450 Sutter Street, located one block away from Union Square, turned 90 years old Tuesday.

The circa-1929 Neo-Mayan Art Deco skyscraper, designed by Timothy Pflueger (the mind behind the Castro Theatre and the Paramount Theatre), it’s chock-a-block with detailed ornamentation, from its lauded exterior to the intricate lobby.

Most notably, 450 Sutter is also the home of many medical offices, including a bevy of dentists, giving root canal-bound patients at least one reason to enjoy a visit.

The building was designed as a mixed-use facility, which was pretty innovative in 1929. It was also unusually tall at the time—a whopping 344 feet tall—remaining one of the tallest buildings in the city until the building boom of the late 1960s.

Inverted faux gold pyramid light fixture illuminates the ceiling of etched panels in bronze.
Photo by Shutterstock

Shortly after opening, a 1930 issue of The Architect and the Engineer said it “opens up a new epoch [of building],” saying: “The new building derives its inspiration in its decorative features from the New World, from Central America. It is as devoid of artificial form, deliberate articulation or structural relief as it is possible for any building to be. But the indescribably delicate quality of its surface is its crowning glory, patterned like a brocade, shining like silk and lovely as old lace, a metamorphosis as it were from brick to fabric.”

Few SF buildings merit such flowery prose as 450 Sutter does.

Its mesmerizing facade is clad in terra-cotta adorned with Mayan-inspired tracings ascending from a faux gold base. The building’s triangular thrust window bays inspired the similarly faceted exterior of circa-1983 555 California.

Intricate metal work above lobby doors.
Photo by BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

But the pomp doesn’t stop outside. The interiors are as detailed as the exterior, with an inverted gold pyramid ceiling in the lobby to mimic the interior of a Mayan temple, detailed elevator doors and aluminum spandrels, and burgundy marble walls next to etched panels in bronze and gold leaf. Next to 140 New Montgomery, another Pflueger creation, 450 Sutter claims bragging rights to one of the most gorgeous lobbies in town.

Harsch Investment Properties undertook a massive restoration project in 2012, including replacing all the windows and cleaning and repairing the terra cotta surface. In 2010, the tower was named to the National Register of Historic Places.

See why SF’s newest nonagenarian remains one of the skyline’s biggest stars.