A metaphor for the tensions and hopes of the entire city
July 28, 2014 9:40 PM   Subscribe

Mr. Phelan's Building. Medium's Sarah Agudo and Marcin Wichary investigate the building they work in: "Ancient and modern at the same time; multiple slices of time meeting under one penthouse-sporting roof."

Methodology: Researching the Phelan Building. Via Alexis Madrigal's 5 Intriguing Things newsletter: "Everyone should do this for the buildings they work in. I'm serious."

Marcin Wichary previously on Metafilter: The Yard.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle (9 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
What a beautiful building. Thanks.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:10 PM on July 28, 2014

Awesome. This has long been one of my favorite buildings in SF and it's great to learn so much more about it.
posted by zachlipton at 10:21 PM on July 28, 2014

That's catty-corner across the Market/O'Farrell intersection from our building, the Bancroft Building. It's kind of an odd mix of buildings in that stretch of Market street.
posted by tavella at 10:30 PM on July 28, 2014

Man, it seems a huge waste for that bungalow on the roof to be unoccupied. When I was 17 and thinking about living somewhere, anywhere, other than home, that sort of place was exactly what I wanted (of course, assuming it was habitable, it would be an insane rent these days).

Now I'm curious what medium does that warrants three floors, and what their revenue is from. Hm.
posted by maxwelton at 10:38 PM on July 28, 2014

Excellent piece! I worked with Marcin at Code for America last year, and he puts this level of detail and care into everything he produces.

I think Medium's revenue is pretty just Ev Williams, and three floors are to avoid a repeat of Twitter's many disruptive office moving experiences.
posted by migurski at 12:01 AM on July 29, 2014 [2 favorites]

I love this kind of urban modern archeology. I would love to read a lot more of this kind of thing.

I have a mild obsession with the evolution of downtown Spokane and have been longing to have the time and energy and contacts to do this kind of thing for many of the buildings and building spaces there.
posted by hippybear at 1:34 AM on July 29, 2014

Everyone should do this for the buildings they work in. I'm serious.

I did this for a building I used to work in, inspired by the article, and it was fun even though I was much less thorough: 717 Market Street (the Kamm Building). This is an ordinary office building with no cool secret bungalows, but Google did turn up a couple interesting things. The Federal Writers' Project had an office there where they wrote a nice guide to California in 1939 — and during WWII, it had an office for the Twelfth Naval District Intelligence Office, "engaged in extensive counterintelligence operations against the Japanese community on the west coast". Amusingly, I recently went to an anti-surveillance hackathon hosted there. The ordinariness of the building means that its changing uses have reflected San Francisco's changing industries pretty well: merchant offices, government offices, ordinary company offices, tech company offices, flexible work space.

I also ended up researching another San Francisco building: the grimy old Mission Police Station, which I'd figured had been vacant since decommissioning as a police station. Nope! It's mostly been an office building, including a fascinating period from 1996-1998 where it was...a dot-com tech company office. That sent me into a really weird few hours of reading the first generation of news articles about tax breaks to get tech ("multimedia"!) companies to stay in SF, tech companies gentrifying the Mission, and race and gender discrimination in the industry.

Also, Alexis Madrigal started a Medium collection called Open City to encourage writing these kinds of articles, including advice for researching your building and a story he wrote about 140 New Montgomery (the PacBell Building).

I picked LocalWiki as my host instead of Medium though. My stories are history-driven instead of narrative-driven, and I want them to be part of an organized collection of knowledge about the city, usable for whatever purposes people might find for them (licensed CC-BY). If your city has a LocalWiki, you might consider it as a nice place to write down a few facts about your building without needing to write an elaborate essay; somebody else can add to it later if they know something you don't. LocalWikis have more relaxed standards than Wikipedia about sourcing, notability, and point-of-view; they usually encourage writing down personal knowledge. I like writing for Wikipedia, but these two buildings wouldn't fit the notability guidelines there, and I had fun including a tiny bit of personal perspective.
posted by dreamyshade at 2:16 AM on July 29, 2014 [8 favorites]

This is fantastic. Just kept getting more interesting as it went.

I work in a 110 year old wood building that has gone from: fire station (there's where the pole was and here's where they loaded the hay for the horses) --> police station/fire station (there's still bars on one window where the holding cell was and signs of the old shooting range in the basement) --> grade school --> public library (there's the book drop) --> free clinic --> now community health center. It's a registered historic landmark and it's hard to imagine a building that has given more to the life of a community than this one. Everyone in the neighborhood has a story of personal connection from new families in the area whose babies were delivered by us to the little old ladies who would bring sandwiches to the fire fighters. I'm sure anyone in Seattle knows which building I'm talking about.

Anyway, I know of no on-line history of the building and now I'm inspired to put one together. I'm sure I'm the only non-bat that has been up in the tower in 40 years.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 8:21 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

Anyway, I know of no on-line history of the building and now I'm inspired to put one together.

...and now I see there are links in this thread that show exactly how to do this. This is really the best kind of Metafilter post, something obscure and geeky that inspires you and teaches you to do it yourself. Well done.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 9:45 AM on July 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

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