Glass on Strike

The Commonwealth Club’s San Francisco headquarters honors its union history

Architecture Open Preservation West
Embarcadero Boulevard, Commonwealth Club building on the far left. (Bruce Damonte)

The slow days of summer are a good time to catch up on important projects that somehow fell through the editorial cracks during the year. One such project is the Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects (LMS)-designed headquarters for the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. The Club, one of the institutions that make San Francisco such a unique and progressive city, was founded in 1903; as a public affairs forum, it presents more than 450 events a year. It has been looking for a home since it was founded and its “early plans to acquire a headquarters building were derailed by the 1906 earthquake.”

The facade design heavily features glass and creates a sense of openness with the historic street. (Bruce Damonte)

A few years ago, the organization purchased a site fronting San Francisco’s Embarcadero waterfront boulevard that was occupied by a building almost as old as the organization and once the home of the city’s Longshoreman’s Association. The dock workers union was led by Harry Bridges, who famously shut down the city for four days in 1934, and for a city proud of its union history, this qualifies as an important historic site. LMS have created a fitting monument and organization headquarters on the Embarcadero. The firm designed a workable plan for the Club that includes two auditoria, meeting rooms, a library, gallery, boardroom, roof terrace, catering facilities, and a state-of-the-art audio/broadcast system and high-tech communications platform for the club’s weekly radio broadcast. But the firm’s most important addition to the new headquarters is its facade design, and the building, as a pass-through property, has two entrances.

The aftermath of the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike. (Courtesy Online Archive of California)

The Steuart Street entrance was the principal entry for the longshoremen, and is where three workers were shot (two of whom died on what is called “Bloody Thursday”), which was preserved by the architects as an important historical marker. But on the Embarcadero, which is one of the most important thoroughfares in San Francisco, LMS designed a beautifully detailed new glass curtain wall facade. The curtainwall is clear glass with operable windows that highlight the top floor auditorium where the lectures and talks take place, and opens up to welcome the city inside. It’s a beautiful and elegant public face for this important public policy institution, and Marsha Maytum claims “we were thrilled to be able to create a home for civil discourse that is needed more than ever.”

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