Reaching for the Sky: How Kaiser Steel Helped Reshape San Francisco

posted on May 31, 2017

Topping out of Transamerica Pyramid, featuring Kaiser Steel, 3/28/1972.

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

 

Forty five years after the Transamerica Pyramid redefined the San Francisco skyline, the city is witnessing a new exclamation mark – the Salesforce Tower. The upstart’s roof is 970 feet above the ground, and a top spike sprouts another 100 feet. It’s easily the tallest building in San Francisco and the second-tallest building west of the Mississippi River.

Until now, the Transamerica Pyramid was San Francisco’s distinctive giant. And it was built with Kaiser Steel.

News accounts featured the Pyramid’s “topping out” (or “topping off”) on March 28, 1972. It was 863 feet tall, and would have been taller at an even 1,000 feet but for a taxpayer’s lawsuit and other community opposition. And its unusual shape, intended to reduce its upper mass and improve views, was denounced by S.F. Chronicle architecture critic Alan Temko, who sniffed it “…would be out of place, even in Los Angeles, or in Las Vegas, where it belongs. It certainly doesn’t belong in San Francisco.”

Wrong.

Last year the S.F. Chronicle’s architecture and urban design critic John King praised its glories – “… an unforgettable . . . high-rise in an unforgettable setting… [which] stands serenely above the clutter of overhead wires and sidewalk fuss.”

The accompanying AP wirephoto of the “topping out” ceremony clearly shows the final steel beam being hoisted by crane – both emblazoned with KAISER STEEL.

Transamerica Pyramid construction, 5/3/1971.

Of all the businesses built by Henry J. Kaiser, historian Mark S. Foster called Kaiser Steel the “linchpin” of the powerful Kaiser industrial empire. That global reach used to include aluminum, cement, electronics, and automobile manufacturing, but all that’s left now is the Kaiser Permanente health care program. The 1980s were not kind to the American steel industry. Kaiser’s massive Fontana steel mill, built to make plate steel for cargo ships during World War II, was shut down in 1983 and sold off in 1984. Within a few years the company was all but gone.

Jesse Lee Beeson, Sr., who passed away this year, was the longtime foreman of Kaiser Steel’s “raising gang.” That team worked on giant construction projects all over the world, and placed the steel and assembled the precast concrete outer surface on the Pyramid. Mr. Beeson always considered this to be his greatest accomplishment.

Another detail in the news story was mention that the last beam sprouted “… a 4-foot redwood sapling.” It’s barely visible in the photo, but “… according to local [ironworker] custom, [a sapling] must accompany the last unit of a skyscraper’s skeleton. The sapling will be taken down and later planted in a half-acre plaza at the foot of the building.” That redwood joined 79 other siblings brought from a tree farm in the nearby Santa Cruz mountains. The Cultural Landscape Foundation praises this urban oasis.

Rather than a “curious local custom,” topping out is a widespread early Scandinavian construction practice, and was also followed in a recent Salesforce Tower event, hosted by Salesforce CEO (and health care philanthropist) Marc Benioff.

Reaching for the sky, the Henry J. Kaiser way. Welcome to San Francisco, Mr. Benioff.

 

Did you know that Kaiser Steel built the transbay tubes for Bay Area Rapid Transit in the late 1960s?
More Kaiser Steel stories to come.

 

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