By Adam Brinklow
The Russ Building, a Jazz Age San Francisco landmark at 235 Montgomery, is an old building but apparently not yet an outdated one, as it managed to snag a LEED Platinum designation last week for its green building standards.
That’s a step up from its previous Gold award. (Historic buildings have to be reevaluated every five years to maintain their ratings from the US Green Building Council.) Judges were impressed by things like the electric vehicle charging stations and the recycled materials that go into the building’s bones whenever there’s interior construction.
While it’s nice that the city’s landmark properties are setting a good example ecologically speaking, the best value of the award might be just in highlighting one of the city’s most storied but most often overlooked buildings. While we’re all distracted by the construction of the city’s tallest tower, the Russ sits a mere 1,750 feet away, and at 31 stories was our tallest for nearly four decades.
The high-rise tower (presently owned by Shorenstein [Company]) bears the name of Polish silversmith Emanuel Charles Christian Russ, who in 1847 bought the land at 235 Montgomery for $75 (the equivalent of about $2,000 today) and built a house there out of scrap lumber and old ship’s bunks.
Russ’ sons struck it rich during the Gold Rush, and his jewelry business took off. Later, he built hotels and public gardens. Nothing Russ made himself remains anymore, but they put the family name on the new building in recognition of the Russ legacy.
Built in 1927, the Neogothic tower by George Kelham (whose many other contributions to the city include the plan for the 1915 World’s Fair and the building that now houses the Asian Art Museum) was hailed as an all-time great. Critics dubbed it the defining building of the San Francisco skyline.
But these days, it’s easy to miss. Thirty one stories was enough to stand out for a while, but by the early ’60s, taller buildings were literally overshadowing the Russ. Soon, it was positively dwarfed by its own neighbors, and since then it’s become just part of the background of the Financial District.
Still, the old number has its devotees, including local critic John King, who dubs it “not San Francisco’s tallest, but maybe its best.” Most people probably prefer the Pflueger designed building at 140 New Montgomery (itself briefly the city’s tallest, until the Russ unseated it for that honor), but Kelham’s soaring addition to San Francisco still holds its own.
So next time you’re passing by Montgomery Street, pause to appreciate one of San Francisco’s most enduring gems, and the memory of an old San Francisco family whose legacy grants it what you might call an original silver and gold designation.