Fun Facts about the Ronald M. George State Office Complex

Historical Essay

by Glenn Della-Monica

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Ronald M. George State Office Complex on McAllister between Polk and Larkin. Federal Building at 450 Golden Gate lurking in background.

Photo: Chris Carlsson, 2005

There is a 1.1-million-square-foot office complex that takes up the entire Civic Center block bounded by McAllister St, Polk St, Golden Gate Ave, and Larkin St. It is now known as the Ronald M. George State Office Complex. The two halves of the building are known as the Earl Warren Building and the Hiram Johnson Building, although the two addresses are actually two sides of one building.

The Earl Warren Building is named after the fourteenth chief justice of the US Supreme Court, previously the thirtieth Governor of California. It was completed in 1922.

The fourteen-story Hiram Johnson Building replaced the 1950's six-story glass and steel monstrosity that was damaged in the Loma Prieta Earthquake. It was named after Governor Hiram Johnson.

Joining a historic building to new construction isn't an easy task. They both were to have completely-independent seismic systems. The new side was constructed with seismic dampers and welded-steel construction. The old side got a new inside "shell" of reinforced concrete and its foundations were sliced and placed on seismic slip pads. Joining them is a really creative seismic separation joint.

As wonderful as the engineering was, things seemed to pop up from time to time that were amusing.

One was the shower in the governor's office. While the bulk of the complex was dedicated to the California Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, and the Administrative Office of the Courts, there were state legislators, the governor's SF satellite office, and a number of other state agencies.

Before construction was finally complete in 1998, the bottom half was occupied, but the top floors were still under construction. On the top floor, the governor was slated to be one of the very few officials to have a private bathroom, and it was to be one of only two private showers in the building.

During the initial phase of the bathroom construction, the plumber placed the pipes in the correct position and then screwed the drain loosely onto the drainpipe.

The concrete guy came in and looked at the blueprint. It gave the height above his concrete that he needed to leave below the drain fitting for the tile. He met that requirement to the millimeter. Unfortunately, the plumber did not screw the fitting down to the final height. So the mason sloped the concrete UP to the required spacing below the drain. After all, union masons are not allowed to adjust plumbing fixtures.

The tile layer came along after the concrete was poured, and he saw that the height between the concrete and the drain fixture was what was specified in the prints. He laid the tile flush with the drain. Like the union brother before him, he did not report the previous workers’ efforts.

The finished effect was much the same as one sees at the miniature golf course when putting up to the “volcano.”

Due to the fact that is very difficult to get shower water to run uphill to an elevated drain, the whole shower floor had to be jackhammered out and redone.

Another faux pas eventually led to an ecological enhancement to the building. The huge atrium has a terrazzo floor, a type of masonry in which a special concrete is placed between metal dividers. When the concrete has substantially cured, it is ground and polished to a matte finish, revealing the beautiful pebbles in the mix. It is then sealed and waxed.

The grand opening loomed, and the sealant and wax were applied. The term “substantially” means that the concrete is not fully cured, and the moisture of the curing terrazzo mixture was now trapped beneath the sealant. It slowly turned the metal strips black, with splotches spreading out. The wax and sealant had to be removed, the mix fully dried out, and then another sealant and wax application laid down.

Fortunately, someone took note of this, and a company came in to suggest an alternative to stripping the wax periodically, which resulted in the residue being flushed down the drain each time. The floor was diamond-honed to a wonderful luster, and no sealant or wax was needed. Not only did it save the taxpayers money, but it saved the environment from all of the zinc and other binders in the many gallons of wax that was not needed.

The polishing process was then applied to the granite, terrazzo, and marble steps and landings inside the historic side of the building. The suggestion was made to the building manager at the time, Glenn Della-Monica, and a decision had to be made. A building with stone stairwell steps that is about eight decades old has seen a lot of foot traffic. The steps were slightly dished in the middle, and a decision about flattening them had to be made.

In the end, Glenn and his team decided that each step was a record of the justices, governors, attorneys general, and commissioners who trod them over the fourscore years. The steps were polished as they were. The results were magnificent, and the crystal structure of the stone was revealed. When Glenn sent out an email about the beauty of the steps, one of the supreme court justices replied that he had gotten on his hands and knees to look at the gem-like surface, and was amazed that he had been walking over that treasure for decades without noticing it.

Another gem of the building was the result of a little-known state law. Public bond-funded state buildings were required to reserve a small portion of their building budget for publicly-displayed art. When a building has a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars, that “small” portion becomes rather substantial. And it is even larger when a force multiplier exists.

The person in charge of the art program was the head of the California Arts Commission, Barbara George (the wife of then-Chief Justice Ronald George). Barbara was a vastly knowledgeable force within the art world, and she knew every artist of note in the state. She was able to call in favors, and the result was that the building was able to purchase several times the number of works that it would have been able to purchase at retail. Her imprint on the building’s art purchases created a museum-quality collection that is still enjoyed by the building’s workers and the visitors to the various state agencies sited there.

One art-related disappointment was a bank of telephones placed outside the Workers Compensation Appeals Board offices near the Golden Gate Avenue entrance. They were placed on a beautiful wood-paneled wall that had been eyed for a great impact piece of art. The arts committee was sorely let down. To ease the disappointment, Mr. Della-Monica had one of the didactic panels that explained each piece of art made for the telephone bank. It read, “Alexander Graham Bell – Telephone – 1998 – Mixed Media, Metal and Plastic.”

It was fun to watch visitors look at the didactic, then gingerly pick up a telephone receiver to see if the phones were actually real and working, or if they were non-working art pieces.

Other little-known facts:

The building was slated to be two stories higher, but it would have cast its shadow over the playground of a nearby school. Fourteen stories cleared the school.
The Workers Compensation Appeals Board heard an unusual case arising out of the construction of the building. The Earl Warren Building had previously been the home to many state agencies, with the Supreme Court on just one floor. Now it had the entire building, so the justices’ chambers were enlarged a bit and were on two floors. The old wood paneling was removed, cleaned of the old lead-bearing finishes, and put back together like a jigsaw puzzle. Interior stairwells were moved. In one case, there was a plywood sheet between two barricades over the old opening for one of those stairwells. A worker was told to remove the sheet of plywood, as the construction crew was there to begin filling the hole. The worker picked up the sheet and walked forward, falling through the hole. His injuries were covered under the State Comp rules, but he appealed, saying he was entitled to additional punitive compensation for employer negligence. The Workers Comp Appeals Board on the floors below his “accident” laughingly dismissed the appeal.
The concrete pour for the foundation was, at the time, the largest single monolithic concrete pour in San Francisco.
When the warm air in the Central Valley and over the San Francisco Bay rises, the cold air from the Pacific Ocean rushes through the Golden Gate and over the Hayes Street hill. The wind passes between the Federal Building and the Hiram Johnson Building with such force that pedestrians have to lean forward to make progress westward.

Less than four years after the initial occupancy, when the first seven floors were completed, there was a proposal to swap out all of the light fixtures. LED lights were not yet commercially available, but the new T5 bulbs were far more efficient than the old T12 bulbs. Every overhead light in the building was replaced, and the result was a payback within two years and resulting savings after that.

The technology gap was seen in other areas, as well. When the building was designed, for instance, the auditorium was slated to get the newest, greatest projection system in any state building of the time. A theater-quality video projector was installed, along with the latest development in video playback technology since VHS – the Laserdisc System. Of course, between the time that the building was designed and when it was built, Laserdisc was obsolete. But the plans were the plans, so the contractor had to go out and find a Laserdisc player to install. It was never used. A DVD player was purchased and retrofitted into the A/V room. The Laserdisc player was left as a monument to technological obsolescence.

The Ronald M. George State Office Complex is a San Francisco gem hidden in plain sight.