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November 15, 2017
Photo via Wilson Meany

Go at Night - San Francisco's Best Illuminated Buildings

Thanks to advances in fully controllable light-emitting diodes (LEDs), artists, designers and even architects are using these colorful low-energy, eco-friendly lights to enhance our lives, from the very practical to the stunningly beautiful. Here are four illuminated buildings worth discovering – two of San Francisco’s oldest and two of its newest – that glow with a colorful luminescence after dark.

Night Bright Architecture 

Light has been used for architectural effect throughout human history. While important houses and civic buildings around the world had external torches or lanterns, and gas lights were used from the 19th century onwards, it was the development of artificial electric incandescent light sources and experimentation by modern artists of the Constructivist and Bauhaus movements that resulted in architects integrating illumination into building design. 

Everything is Illuminated at San Francisco City Hall

Built as the "People’s Palace" in 1915, San Francisco's City Hall is the crown jewel of Civic Center Plaza. On June 19, 2015, it also became a massive architectural “canvas” when a dazzling 100th Anniversary multimedia light show was created by San Francisco-based Obscura Digital for its Centennial Celebration. The digital multimedia projection system is now city-owned and can be used for a variety of events to beam everything from environmentally friendly forests upon the building, or ferocious dragons, cherry blossoms, and a brilliant illuminated rainbow honoring San Francisco’s Pride celebration — just about any motif fitting the array of groups and interests that make use of Civic Center Plaza.

Art Deco Brilliance at 140 New Montgomery 

The gorgeously restored and strikingly illuminated Pacific Telegraph & Telephone Building at 140 New Montgomery St., one of only a few large Art Deco buildings in San Francisco, is now Yelp’s headquarters. The 26-story tower has an "L" shaped floor plan and the architecture decoratively incorporates spotlights to light the outside of the building. Even details like the lobby chandeliers are old and new at once — carefully restored but also rewired to hold discreetly powerful LED lights that do away with the need for additional illumination. If you haven’t stepped inside its lobby or looked up at the towers’ details, it’s well worth your time.

Today, it's hard to grasp how startling this 26-story landmark would have looked when it rose triumphantly in 1925 to become, briefly, the city's tallest tower. The 435-foot building was like nothing else south of Market Street, a brash gamble on the future in a part of town dismissed by most San Franciscans as "south of the slot." Designed by Timothy Pflueger, the celebrated San Francisco architect who also created the Castro and Paramount (Oakland) theaters, the PT&T building was described at the time of its debut by poet Miles Overholt as "an architectural dream come true ... a shimmering, gleaming monument to TALK!"

During its two-year moment as the tallest building in the city, the roof of 140 New Montgomery served as the official city storm warning station. During the day, it flew symbolic flags, and at night, its powerful electric “decorative” lights could be used to deliver messages seen for miles around. Two red flags or one white and one red light meant a gale with winds up to 54 miles per hour; a red flag with a black center, or two red lights, signaled an even worse storm. 

Metallic Tapestry Light Show at 690 Folsom 

This repurposed parking garage looks like it's been renovated by Spiderman. Wrapping a two-story box with an illuminated metal skin would be too much; but in the right setting, this translates to a welcome shot of well-engineered art. The updated LED-lit facade of 690 Folsom resembles a spiderweb pulled tight around a box. The abstract metal screen draws attention to the new content inside and livens up the area. San Francisco-based Office of Charles F. Bloszies FAIA designed the aluminum sheets that envelop the second floor of the building and inserted two rows of LED lights between the original facade and the new screen, with lights that change colors according to a series of programmed scenes.  

What will you find inside?

Spin, a global “ping pong social club” chain, offers two bars, a kitchen, multiple private rooms and 16 ping pong tables. This type of “sport, design and entertainment" venue has been successful in other game-focused businesses like Urban Putt, Mission Bowling, and Oakland's Plank. 

Towering Achievement at San Francisco International Airport 
SFO’s new control tower ascends 221 feet skyward in a graceful flare. Completed in May 2015, the west face features a LED-backlit glass “waterfall” that reflects sunlight during the day and glows with interior lighting at night, the colors of which can be changed to celebrate important events. The tower is designed to achieve LEED Gold status by airport master architecture firm HNTB, with design partner Fentress Architects, and Hensel Phelps on the design-build team. Located between Terminals 1 and 2, the tower is seen from the freeway and upon driving into the airport. To see it close up, stand in the Pre-Security Public Corridor at the base of the tower. Look straight up through the skylight glass roof to enjoy the LED light waterfall. 

Be brilliant — shoot and share photos of these iconic San Francisco buildings or your other favorites using #illuminatesf

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