301 Howard Street

The new design reorients the entrance toward Howard Street and features a luminous, bright white interior with scalloped ceilings and ridged sidewalls. Photography by David Wakely

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While aspects of music and fashion from the 1980s may seemingly be cool again, original postmodern interiors and architecture from the decade can feel dated. When New York–based Emmes Asset Management spent $200 million to purchase 301 Howard Street in San Francisco, it knew that the building, which opened in 1987, needed an update to attract today’s media, marketing, and tech tenants. The San Francisco office of Huntsman Architectural Group devised a solution that went well beyond a simple face-lift.

“We were thinking it would require a minimal lobby refresh,” says Colin Shinners, vice president of San Francisco–based Vanbarton Group, which spun off from Emmes in 2015. “It turned into a much bigger undertaking, and we ended up spending double what we originally budgeted. But I think it was the right thing to do for the building.”



The 23-floor office tower has a prime location at the center of the city’s burgeoning Transbay District, but the original dark glass exterior was not welcoming. The entrance was recessed behind a portico at a chamfered corner of the building, making it difficult to see the front doors. The oddly laid-out lobby had a diagonal approach across to the elevators. And the polished Jura limestone floor and walls, coupled with a vaulted ceiling and chandeliers, clearly spoke of a time past that was not worth preserving.

For the complete ground-floor renovation, the design team reoriented the entrance toward Howard Street, directly in front of the elevator bank. By reclaiming the corner outdoor area for the interior and reworking the floor plan, the designers also gained an additional 2,500 square feet of retail space. Two bays were enclosed with a glass curtain wall, providing transparency and natural light. “We wanted to make it light and bright, and very interesting, so that people on the street would want to look in,” says Shinners.

In the new 2,700-square-foot lobby, the luminous, bright white interior has an ethereal undulating quality. The scalloped ceilings— finished in Venetian plaster for a subtle texture— are accented by ribbons of light. Together with ridged sidewalls and curved control joints in the terrazzo flooring, the major interior elements work in tandem to shape the rectilinear space. The back wall is finished in precast concrete panels with deep grooves of varying widths.

LED lighting is integrated into the new interior architecture. Daylight sensors adjust the level of artificial lighting depending on the amount of natural light. “The sense of light is really important in a lobby—it has a strong psychological impact,” says Bill Puetz, a principal at Huntsman.

Acting as signature elements, two bent-oak benches designed by Brooklyn, New York–based Matthias Pliessnig are intriguingly sculptural. Their curving, organic nature contrasts with the sharp coolness of the polished stainless steel reception desk with turned edges.

“To make it fresh and modern in a way that was not a reflective white glass box, the materiality became a strong theme,” says Puetz. “There’s this lush detail to the space, and all the elements stand alone as really beautiful elements.”

“[The renovation has] definitely elevated the perception of the building in the market,” Shinners says. Google has since renewed its lease, while two new tenants—Bain Capital and FreeWheel, a division of Comcast—have signed on. Working with the bones of a 30-year-old building, Huntsman’s strategic design has enabled this postmodern tower to be relevant and profitable.

who Architect and interior designer: Huntsman Architectural Group. Project team: Bill Puetz; Susan Kaeuper; Alaina Ladner; Elise Beaty; Adam Murphy; Elvira Gershengorn. Julio Gutierrez. Contractor: Hathaway Dinwiddie Construction. Lighting: Birkenstock Lighting Design. Engineering: Saric Engineering Enterprises; Murphy Burr Curry. Graphics: Huntsman Architectural Group.
what Wallcoverings: Concreteworks. Walls: Stockham; Concreteworks; Design Workshops. Flooring: American Terrazzo. Carpet/ carpet tile: Shaw Contract. Custom drywall: Stockham. Hardware: Dorma; C.R. Laurence. Doors: B-Metal Fabrication. Architectural glass/ glazing: Old Castle. Lounge/ reception seating: Matthias Pliessnig. Reception desk: custom; Design Workshops; DeVincenzi. Architectural/ custom woodworking: Design Workshops. Signage: Thomas-Swan Sign Company.