If I told you an early work by César Pelli, the architect behind San Francisco’s legendary Salesforce Tower, which was in danger of being demolished in San Jose, you might object. As you might say if one of the few remaining examples of a major architectural style in the city were threatened, or if the clock was ticking for a distinctive building from the first major downtown redevelopment project.
But if I showed you a picture of the Bank of California building without that context, you’d probably give your thumbs up to tear it down. You may even want to control the wrecking ball yourself.
The concrete structure on the corner of Park Avenue and Almaden Boulevard, which was built in 1973, isn’t pretty. But it’s the best example of Brutalist architecture in San Jose – a style that emphasizes geometric shapes, minimalist design, and building materials like smooth concrete and steel. Critics say it looks like the best of East Germany during the Cold War.
San Jose City Council is expected to approve the demolition soon, along with the rest of the 10-building financial center now known as CityView Plaza, to make room for a 3.79 million square foot mega-campus proposed by developer Jay Paul do. At the urging of the Preservation Action Council, the City’s Historic Landmarks Commission unanimously voted last week to recommend that the city council designate the building as a historic landmark next month.
Ben Leech, the new managing director of PAC-SJ, said the nonprofit had launched a campaign entitled “Save the Sphinx” on preservation.org. He doesn’t think the building, which later served as the Santa Clara County’s family court, is an obstacle to progress in the downtown area. “It’s an asset to downtown San Jose,” he said. “We can learn from the past and know that every period of architecture goes through a phase where it is overlooked before it is appreciated. Buildings like this one will be the future jewels of the city of San Jose. “
Overlooking architectural periods has set a precedent here. San Jose City Hall, dating from 1889, a towering building designed by Theodore Lenzen with Gothic overtones that stood in the center of what is now Plaza de Cesar Chavez. We love our Victorian-era buildings now, but they were viewed as an eyesore in the late 1950s when they were demolished. Years later, I spoke to people who worked in the building who called it a tight, moldy death trap that deserved its fate. But just imagine how interesting Plaza de Cesar Chavez would be today with this restored building as its focal point, which may serve as the San Jose Historical Museum.
PAC-SJ’s Leech believes San Jose would benefit from an eclectic mix of buildings showcasing styles from different eras. And you just have to visit San Jose State University to make that concept a reality.
While buildings have been demolished over the decades, the campus is still a mosaic of the university’s long history – from the iconic Tower Hall from 1910 to the newer Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to the new interdisciplinary science building under construction. Buildings from the 1930s to 1980s are scattered throughout the SJSU. There is even brutalism in the old student union building, which was included in a recent expansion instead of being deleted.
For the past few decades, San Jose has been fascinated by Art Deco-era architecture and earlier, but anything built between the end of World War II and the mid-1980s was viewed as passe and dispensable. The problem is, once you’ve “spent” a building, you can’t bring it back.
Long-time residents may remember the security-saving building located on First and San Carlos Streets across from Original Joe’s. The first “modern” building in this downtown area, when it was built in 1963, had white panels on the sides that created a staggered checkerboard effect and a rotating sign on the roof.
You know what? I hated the look of this building and cheered when it was demolished in 1999. Today, I have a great fondness for mid-century modern structures and I regret feeling that way. Part of my change of heart could also be due to the fact that while there are new plans for a number of high-rise buildings on the site, we lost that building only to have parking space there for the past 21 years.
According to Leech, the conservationists’ responsibility is to address these issues, even if they sometimes appear to be lost causes. “That way, I see myself as a public defender,” he said. “Not every building is found innocent, so to speak, but someone has to discuss the case.”
He hopes the city council will take seriously PAC-SJ’s alternative plan, which will change the project’s footprint so the building can stay where it is. “Our analysis of the CityView Plaza project suggests that the site is big enough for the new and the old,” said Leech. “The long-term argument that this building will be more valued in the future is paired with the argument that it does not stand in the way of progress at all.”
The San Jose City Council might find merit in this plan, or decide that the building is not worth saving, that it lacks historical significance, or is just too ugly. I suspect Jay Paul Co. invested too much in downtown San Jose for the council to vote otherwise. But if this building is demolished, we shouldn’t cheer.