San Jose preservationists move to protect Brutalist César Pelli building from demolition

Bullseye on Brutalism

San Jose preservationists move to protect Brutalist César Pelli building from demolition

What's not to love? (Courtesy Google Maps)

Before his name became synonymous with very tall skyscrapers, the late Argentine architect César Pelli completed a handful of projects in the 1960s and ’70s—all with Gruen Associates–that were decidedly, but not exclusively, squat: A (now demolished) shopping mall in Columbus, Indiana; an (endangered) former research facility built in Clarksburg, Maryland, for a Congress-established satellite communications company, and the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, which is long and large but not all that lanky.

Completed in 1973, two years before West Hollywood’s “Blue Whale” beached itself on Melrose Avenue, Pelli completed another “low” project: a Brutalist Bay Area bank building. An imposing structure with faintly sphinx-like attributes, the old Bank of California building at 1170 Park Avenue in downtown San Jose is now threatened with demolition as part of a redevelopment scheme headed by Jay Paul Company. Pelli’s building, along with several neighboring structures, would be razed to make way for 3.79 million square feet of commercial office space, housed in a cluster of shiny glass towers.

The crusade to save the concrete building is now being taken up by the city’s Historic Landmarks Commission. Acting at the behest of the Preservation Action Council of San Jose, the commission voted unanimously last week to initiate the process of recommending to San Jose City Council that Pelli’s work be declared a historic landmark.

As the Mercury News elaborated, if council members ultimately decide to approve the historic designation, the Bank of California building would not be immune to being razed in the future. But landmark status would up the stakes and place added pressure on officials to save the structure, which, in addition to being home to several banks, had most recently been used as a county courthouse. It currently sits unoccupied. Preservationists believe that with some alternations to Jay Paul’s proposed Cityview Plaza redevelopment plan, the new office towers and the nearly 50-year-old Pelli building can co-exist in harmony.

True to its looks, the building has been an easy target of public disdain over the years. Though, it has beenfited from the recent trend of appreciating and, more importantly, preserving buildings built in the same wrecking ball-attracting, monolithic style popularized in the late 1950s throughout the 1960s.

Per the Mercury News, the structure is the “best example” of Brutalist architecture in San Jose and, according to the city’s historic preservation officer Juliet Arroyo, is “significant because of its quality of design, attention to design detail, materials, and construction method.”

”It’s an asset to downtown San Jose,” Ben Leech, executive director of the city’s Preservation Action Council, told local columnist Sal Pizarro. “What we can do is learn from the past, and we know that every period of architecture goes through a phase where it’s overlooked before it’s appreciated. Buildings like this will be the future gems of the city of San Jose.”

To draw attention to the building’s endangered status, the council recently launched the “Save the Sphinx” campaign, which refers to the proposed demolition of the “historic, iconic building both shortsighted and unnecessary” and urges residents to show their support of the building’s preservation by signing a petition directed at city officials. The Northern California chapter of Docomomo and architectural critic and historian Alan Hess are among those who have written to the powers-that-be to urge them to safeguard the building.

Despite this growing faction of those rallying to save Pelli’s blocky edifice, others believe that its time has come including original project developer, Lew Wolff. He wrote to city officials in March, dismissing any notion that the building had historical importance while claiming, as reported by the Mercury News, that it was borne from a design created not by Pelli but by an intern.

“I like the building, but please don’t insult César or (Sidney) Brisker by over-identifying the build with those fine gentlemen,” he wrote in his email. “The real credit, if anyone is interested, should go to the intern who completed the plans.”

Unless the timetable shifts, the redevelopment plan that could ultimately do away with the Pelli building and the proposed historic landmark designation that could help save it are expected to be both considered at the same city council meeting this summer.