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When the 1906 earthquake struck, construction of the Humboldt Bank Building was already underway. The building was completely destroyed, and construction had to begin all over again. The architect, Frederick H. Meyer, used this opportunity to incorporate every known fire and safety feature of the time into the new structure.

The Humboldt Bank Building is a classic Beaux Arts building.  One of the many Beaux Arts principals Meyer incorporated into the design was a hierarchy of space. In this case, a grand entrance lobby is topped by 19 floors of functional office space.

The entryway to the tower features a highly ornamented arch. Arched windows tied together with banded pilasters punctuate the tower-another classic Beaux Arts feature. All of this is complemented with richly detailed ornamentation.

Meyer chose to crown the building with a highly stylized dome. This dome was originally intended to mimic the Call Building, which was subsequently destroyed in the 1906 fire.

In his second (post-earthquake) attempt, Meyer kept his original design for the faà§ade, but changed the structural design significantly.

The exterior shell of the building was redesigned to be all concrete. Originally the entire building was to be clad in Colusa stone-from Colusa County, CA-however, Meyer knew that Colusa stone spalls (chips) when exposed to heat, so he limited the Colusa stone to the first three floors and clad the remaining floors in a terra cotta veneer.

The original plans called for the floors to be made of hollow tile; this was changed to reinforced concrete. Throughout the building, metal trim was used in place of high quality oak, at almost double the price.

The exterior windows are wire glass. Wire glass-thick glass with embedded chicken wire-is meant to prevent glass from shattering in the case of fire.

Many buildings built prior to the fire had water towers placed on their roofs. However, Meyer noticed that these often shook loose during the earthquake, rendering them useless in case of fire. As a result, the Humboldt Bank Building has standpipes and hoses on all floors. These are served by via pneumatic (not electric) pumps from a water tank in the basement.

Meyer saved his most advanced work for the elevators. Elevators often work as an air column during fires, and can feed a fire very rapidly. Meyer worked to separate the elevator shafts from the rest of the building. First, he completely lined the shafts in concrete. Then he placed “automatic doors”  on the top and bottom of the shafts. If fire were to occur, the doors would close, isolating the elevator shafts from the rest of the building.

While the 1906 earthquake and fire were tragic, the lessons learned from the catastrophe spurred design innovation. This is what allows us to continue to enjoy such great buildings as the Humboldt Bank Building.

Humboldt Bank Building [Map]
785 Market Street
San Francisco

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