By Lauri Puchall
Photographer Ansel Adams turned his camera from natural California landscapes 46 years ago to capture an image of man-made magnificence: the iconic aluminum and glass facade of Oakland’s Henry J. Kaiser Building. From across the shore, Adams photographed the perfectly detailed curtain wall—the building’s outermost skin—reflecting in the rippled waters of Lake Merritt.
Adams must have recognized a constructed counterpart, equal in scale and beauty, to some of the West’s most striking natural features.
At a distance, the smooth curve of the Kaiser Building’s porte-cochere mirrors the bowed skyscraper hovering above it. At the entrance, the terrazzo flows to the lobby atrium where the click of heels echoes on the polished floor.
Henry J. Kaiser—California’s most famous industrial tycoon of the mid-20th century—selected the lakeside site to create his home base for Kaiser Aluminum around 1958. He chose Welton D. Becket and Associates of Los Angeles, perhaps the largest architectural firm in the United States at the time, to design the building. Becket, best known for his prolific output in Los Angeles, including Bullock’s Department Store in Pasadena, also designed McKessen Plaza (Aetna Life) and One Market Plaza in San Francisco. He was voted the Businessman’s Architect of the Year in 1960, the year Kaiser Aluminum moved into its new headquarters in Oakland; the Kaiser Building at 300 Lakeside Drive was then the largest building west of the Rockies.
Pierluigi Serraino, architect and author of NorCalMod: Icons of Northern California Modernism, describes the “breathtaking” Ansel Adams image that makes the Kaiser Building look as if it’s “been dropped from the moon.”
“Buildings like this don’t happen out of the blue,” says Serraino, who considers the accomplishment a testament to Kaiser’s powerful personality and vision.
Lisa Sullivan, publications manager of Places, an urban design journal, was a frequent visitor to the building in the 1990s while working for the city of Oakland. She likens the lakefront to “a mini Chicago,” with the Kaiser Building as its architectural highlight.
Up the escalator from the two-story-high lobby to the second floor are a 393-seat auditorium and exhibition space, retail shops and other services—including a dry cleaner, shoe repair and post office. On top of the neighboring garage, a three-and-a-half-acre garden designed by landscape architects Osmundson and Staley attracts office workers who sit beneath its flowering cherry and magnolia or stroll across a bridge on the reflecting pond. And above the auditorium rise another 26 floors of office space.
The Kaiser Building is efficient and utilitarian in substance, like Kaiser’s own projects: the Hoover Dam, miles of California highway and underwater foundations of the Bay Bridge. But the building is also about form and image. It’s an example of midcentury, modern high-rise architecture at its most progressive.
Becket knew how to create a corporate image through architecture. Kaiser the industrialist excelled at recognizing and seizing opportunity. The building served as a larger-than-life billboard for Kaiser Industries, the umbrella company that contained Kaiser Aluminum and a host of other businesses. Housing all the businesses together was a coup from a corporate management perspective, as it solved the problem of having to oversee too many separate facilities.
Some 50 years ago, Henry Kaiser’s companies were scattered throughout the country in 25 to 30 separate buildings, supplying the resources to create today’s urban infrastructure. Kaiser dealt in sand and gravel as well as concrete for new freeways, viaducts and roadbeds. He eventually contributed aluminum for the shells of BART trains and the third rails that carry electricity.
Prior to the construction of the Kaiser Building, Holy Names College owned the landscaped seven-acre parcel on Harrison near 20th Street. A bird’s-eye view above this site just prior to Kaiser’s purchase of the property would have shown a ring of freeways and overpasses beginning to encircle Oakland to the south and west. The Oakland skyline consisted of low-rise buildings and a smattering of high-rises, like Oakland City Hall (1914), the Tribune Tower (1923) and Bellevue-Staten Apartments (1929) at the lake’s edge. To the east, the curves of brackish Lake Merritt, then dubbed the San Antonio slough, filled with salt water from the Bay to estuary channel to lake at high tide and emptied, in reverse order, at low tide—the same as it does today.
Urban paradise: Different views of the Kaiser Building’s garage rooftop garden, including from street level, lower left. Photo by Aengus McGiffin.
Kaiser, then in his mid-70s, was preparing to hand over Kaiser Industries to his son Edgar, but first he had to decide where to base his empire. He might have picked Chicago, the center of the market for Kaiser Aluminum, or Los Angeles, location of Kaiser Steel’s plant. But when an employee suggested the headquarters move to San Francisco, corporate legend has it that Kaiser rejoined, “You can go anywhere you want, but I am staying right here in Oakland!”
The choice of Oakland for such a mammoth project is not difficult to explain. Many Kaiser operations were already located in Oakland. Kaiser himself lived on the shore of Lake Merritt in a house that would eventually give way to a modern high-rise. According to Places manager Sullivan, “The building fits in a moment in time when the East Bay was its own center. Oakland was the business capital of the East Bay.”
After the building’s completion, Kaiser occupied a penthouse apartment on the 28th floor for several years. He purportedly commissioned the roof garden so he would not have to look down upon the ugly garage roof.
Underneath its youthful skin, the steel structure has riveted connections, a technology that fared well for the building in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. William Glass, an architect with an office on the 19th floor of the Kaiser Building, says that the engineering was stronger than it needed to be for the building code of its day.
The building exceeded requirements in other ways as well. Nineteen elevators divided among three banks are more than enough for a 28-story building. Ever efficient, Kaiser didn’t want his employees to waste time hanging around waiting for the elevator.
The heating and cooling system remains innovative to this day. The Kaiser Building is one of about 20 in the country to use the Burgess-Manning system of radiant heating and cooling, a rarity in commercial buildings. The long, thin shape of the high-rise ensures that there are very few places in the building where you are more than 30 feet from natural light, says Glass.
Most people in Kaiser’s era didn’t know that asbestos exposure was linked to illness. Perhaps it was a stroke of luck or maybe just good business sense that led Becket to use an unusual mix of cement and ground-up seashells instead of asbestos as spray-on fireproofing over the structural steel; he often experimented with different building materials, according to his son, Bruce Becket.
Kaiser, as an industrialist, was most interested in showcasing different uses of aluminum. He told the architect to use aluminum everywhere he possibly could. Becket went all out, outfitting the building envelope down to the elevator cladding with aluminum panels. Even the undercarriage of the escalator was aluminum. Today, molded sheet metal is still visible over the doors at the second level opposite the auditorium, the old entrance to the employee cafeteria. The building management replaced the undercarriage and anodized aluminum elevator cladding during a spate of remodeling in the 1980s and 1990s that introduced the lobby seating area, the tubular fountain below the escalator, and lots of marble and granite.
Early in her Kaiser career, April Mayfield was the receptionist at the entrance to the lobby atrium. She occupied the “hole” of a doughnut-shaped desk made out of wood, and, yes, corrugated aluminum. Mayfield worked alongside “Kaiserama,” an ongoing exhibit in the lobby. Each of Kaiser’s industries had a display where he could showcase products that were made with the materials they supplied. The displays on the ground floor and the building itself fostered a sense of pride among employees. The building, from the wide-flange structural steel beams to concrete decorative panels and floor slabs, derives from products Kaiser’s companies once sold or fabricated from its materials especially for this project. Eighty percent of the original structure, finishes and furnishings could be traced back to Kaiser Industries.
At one point in the 1970s, Kaiser owned and filled both the Kaiser Building and its neighbor, Skidmore, Owings, and Merril’s (SOM) Ordway Building (1970), the two tallest skyscrapers in Oakland, with its employees. Along with the three-story mall and five-story parking garage and roof garden, today they comprise Kaiser Center. Still, it is just part of Kaiser’s original 6-million-square-foot master plan.
When Kaiser Aluminum declared bankruptcy in February 2002, it was the end of an era. Summit Commercial Properties of El Segundo bought the building for $100 million. After spending millions on upgrades, they sold it to the Swig Company, the current owner, in 2004 for an estimated $200 million. Today, Kaiser Permanente, The University of California at Berkeley Office of the President, and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) administrative offices occupy more than half the available office space.
With the new cathedral for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, by SOM, going up next door, the Oakland city grid continues to fill in horizontally and vertically. At the same time, the City has projects lined up to revitalize the Lake Merritt neighborhood. Kaiser Center and vicinity promises to become more of a mixed-use lively hub, if not the hub of an industrial empire Kaiser envisioned half a century ago.
Lauri Puchall writes about architecture and the environment. In addition to her regular column in The Monthly, she writes for ArchitectureWeek.