450 Sutter – The Temple of Doom

by Seana Miracle

Specifically designed to house dentist offices, Four-Fifty Sutter is alternately referred to by locals as “The Tower of Terror,” “The House of Pain,” Four-Fifty “Suffer” and “The Temple of Doom.”  Many have pondered the meaning of the building’s mystical Mayan symbolism, but their curiosity was never quite satisfied…until now.


Four-Fifty Sutter was originally conceived of by an eccentric dentist who wanted a building that was exclusively for dental professionals.  When 450 Sutter opened on October 15, 1929, just two weeks before the stock exchange crash, it was the largest medical building in the world.


Four-Fifty Sutter was designed by San Francisco’s beloved architect, Timothy Pflueger.  Pflueger was born and raised in the Mission District, and so thoroughly mastered the art of architecture that he became the most sought after architect in San Francisco, and cemented his place one of the greatest architects in American history.


Pflueger chose an Art Deco, Neo-Mayan theme to distinguish his building from the standard Greco-Roman inspired buildings that dominated the landscape.  Unfortunately, the meaning behind his ingenious design quite eluded people.  In 1929, the SF Chronicle reported “Speculation has been rife as to the meaning of these graceful symbols, but their meaning is negligible, they justify themselves by being graceful and attractive…They tell the passerby any story that he chooses to read into them – and that is poetry.”

That may be a good enough explanation for some, but the overt symbolism of 450 Sutter was not lost on me, and the message seemed clear enough: Never underestimate the sheer brilliance of Timothy Pflueger.


Legend has it that once the Mayan language could be deciphered, a scholar from UC Berkeley tried to read the glyphs at 450 Sutter and concluded that they were blindly imitative and purely decorative.  Either this is an urban legend designed to console the mystified, or the Mayan scholar missed the point entirely.  Timothy Pflueger did not use hieroglyphs with which to communicate his message, but highly stylized and conceptual mythical-poetic symbolism based on the creation myths and cosmology detailed in the Mayan sacred texts, the “Popol Vuh” and the “Book of Chilam Bilam.”


The Neo-Mayan theme was an apt choice for a tower of dentist offices, because the Mayans practically invented the modern art of dentistry.  Ancient Maya, Inca, and Aztec cultures were obsessed with oral hygiene and made extensive use of the toothpick, toothbrush and toothpaste.  They used an unsweetened chewing gum called “chicle” to prevent tooth decay, and had numerous natural remedies to relieve pain, remove plaque and tartar, and treat gum disease. Ancient Mayan dentists  would drill teeth using bow drills and quartz crystal slurry, and were so skilled their inlaid stones have survived intact for thousands of years.



The facade of 450 Sutter features a central theme in Mayan art, the sacred World Tree, traditionally depicted as a giant, resplendent, flowering tree bearing fruit.  The World Tree has it’s roots in the underworld and it’s branches held up the sky.


According to ancient Mayan belief, the cosmos is made up of Nine Underworlds, the Earth, and Thirteen Heavens.  Through the center of the Mayan universe grew the sacred World Tree, a symbolic “axis mundi” that connects the Nine Underworlds and Thirteen Heavens with the terrestrial realm, which was the uppermost level of the Underworld.  The ancient Maya built their temples according to these cosmic principles and their pyramids were the architectural marvels of their time.


In Mayan art, the World Tree can also be depicted as a crocodile standing upright, it’s arms holding up the sky.  The Mayans believed the heavens were formed from the head of the crocodile, the earth from it’s center, and the underworld from it’s tail.  Pflueger expresses this idea beautifully on the exterior of the tower which features faceted windows that mimic an upright crocodile’s hide.



Above the entrance to Four-Fifty Sutter, below the awning and World Tree, are two feathered serpents spewing flowers from their mouths. These represent the creator god Quetzalcoatl, “The Plumed Serpent,” who sits on top of the World Tree, and his twin brother Xolotl, who resides in the Underworld.


According to Mayan mythology, Quetzalcoatl descended to the Underworld, defeated the Lord of Death and created our current world from the bones of the previous ones.  Then, like the mythical phoenix, he sacrificed himself on a funeral pyre, and his rising ashes transformed into thousands of brightly colored birds.


After Quetzalcoatl’s sacrifice, his heart ascended into the heavens where he became the Lord of the Morning Star, whose appearance heralded the dawn.  His twin brother Xolotl, who assisted Quetzalcoatl in bringing humanity up from the underground, became the Lord of the Evening Star, whose job it was to protect the sun in it’s travels through the Underworld at night.  The Venus symbolism is reinforced by the multi-petaled flower behind their heads, which is a symbol for the Mayan cycles of Venus, and the eight pointed star in front of their heads, known as the “Star of Venus.”


Xolotl, the Lord of Night and god of fire, was the protector of those who traveled through the Underworld, assisting the newly dead to their place in the afterlife.  The torches on the exterior of the building represent the guiding lights that illuminate the darkness of the Underworld.


The tails of the twin serpents wrap around to the interior of the building to flank the exit doors as if they are coiled in the roots of the World Tree.  Above the exit doors, instead of the giant World Tree that looms above the entrance, is a spiderweb window made of radiating lightning bolts, both of which refer to Xolotl, who was god of lightning and associated with spiderwebs.


The duality symbolism of the heads and tails of the twin serpents above the entrance and exit to 450 Sutter has a striking message.  It tells us that the exterior of the building is Quetzalcoatl’s domain, the World Tree shining in the sun.  But once you cross the threshold of Four-Fifty Sutter you have entered the dark and shadowy realms of Xolotl. In other words, “Welcome to the mythical Underworld of Xibalba.”


The ceiling of the lobby at 450 Sutter is adorned with many skulls, severed heads, and swastikas on a blood red background.  In Mayan art, decapitation and ritual sacrifice were themes that were clearly emphasized.  The Mayans practiced blood sacrifice and human trophy collecting, often in the form of severed heads or necklaces made of bones.


The swastika was a common theme in Mayan art, and had a universally benign meaning when the building was built in 1929.  It wasn’t until after the events of World War II, when the swastika became associated with the atrocities of the Nazi party, that it was imbued with sinister connotations.  Though Timothy Pflueger could not possibly have predicted this outcome, the later post-war symbolism was strangely in keeping with the overall themes of 450 Sutter.  The Nazi Party was notorious for human trophy collecting, perhaps most famously, for extracting the teeth of prisoners in order to remove the gold fillings.

This unintended symbolism remains fairly appropriate for a building where men in white coats administer copious amounts of drugs, inflict various tortures, and keep jars of human teeth in the windows.  However, the swastikas seem to be also dripping with irony, in light of the fact that 450 Sutter was built on the original site of the former Temple Emanu-El, the oldest Jewish congregation in the West, founded by German immigrants escaping the Prussian War.


In spite of all this, I suspect that Pflueger originally intended the swastika to represent Xolotl, who was traditionally depicted carrying an X-shaped cross, his limbs forming a swastika shape.


Themes of sacrifice are appropriate to skyscraper building as well, because the work was so dangerous that loss of life was inevitable. One English reporter wrote: “Anybody in America will tell you without tremor (but with pride) that each story of a skyscraper means a life sacrificed. Twenty stories, twenty men snuffed out; thirty stories – thirty men. A building of some sixty stories is going up – sixty corpses, sixty funerals, sixty domestic hearths to be rearranged.”


The ceiling of Pflueger’s lobby is an inverted nine-step pyramid meant to reflect the most important of Mayan pyramids which were all built with nine steps to represent the Nine Underworlds of Xibalba.  The Thirteen Heavens are represented in the tower of 450 Sutter, which has thirteen windows, thirteen buttresses, and twenty-six floors that are approximately thirteen feet high.




In the sacred text, “The Book of Chilam Bilam,” the creation of the world is described as the birth of seven stones inhabited by the spirits of the wind, who rise from the waters that submerged the previous world.  These seven stones mark the very first count of ordered time in the Mayan calendar, and on their summits hung the skies, which previously lay flat against the Earth.  “The Book of Chilam Bilam” describes these pillars as germinating stalks of corn, which represent the bounty that comes from the death and decay of the Underworld.


Timothy Pflueger incorporates the “Seven Pillars” of Mayan myth above the exit doors, which show seven stylized stalks of maize that appear to be holding up the ceiling.  He also incorporates it into the seven embossed bronze doors in the lobby, which are decorated with large flowering stalks that extend to the ceiling.  Like the World Tree outside, the Seven Pillars bring the bounty of the Underworld above ground and connect all three worlds.


Dead center above the exit doors, are two faces, one right on top of the other, representing the Maize God and Earth Monster, which have a unique relationship to each other. The larger, more abstract face is the god of agriculture, Tlaloc, recognizable by his rimmed goggled eyes and curved jaguar fangs.  On his forehead is a symbol commonly associated with the World Tree, the Earth Monster, with blood spewing from his mouth.


The Earth Monster lived beneath the World Tree, he symbolized a mountain, and his mouth represented the mouth of a sacred cave.  The cave symbolism is reinforced by several elements surrounding the Earth Monster, such as the twin torches on either side of him, the leaf nosed bats in the tails of the serpents, and the cobweb motif above him.  The blood that spews from his mouth represents the dynastic bloodlines of the Maya royal family, who trace their divine lineage to Tlaloc, the Maize God.  This scene depicts the Maize God rising from the mouth of the sacred cave with the assistance of the Earth Monster.  You can find his resurrected self dancing triumphantly atop the central stalk of the Seven Pillars, which grows from out of his head, as he is the seed of all life on earth.


“Xibalba,” roughly translated as the “Place of Fear” or “Place of Fright,” is described as a court beneath the Earth ruled by the Lords of Xibalba, who were responsible for various forms of human suffering such as fear, pain, hunger, sickness and death.

Built at the height of the automotive boom, 450 Sutter features a vast underground parking garage that was considered fairly revolutionary at the time, and remains today the busiest parking garage in San Francisco.  The underground parking garage was inspired by the nearby Russ Building, built in 1927, which was designed as a medieval castle, adorned with mythical beasts, and featured the city’s first underground parking garage.


Timothy Pflueger evokes the Entrance to the Underworld at the end of the lobby, with a bronze garage door flanked by black marble with burgundy veins that, when the heaters are turned on, appear thermodynamic.  Above the door, the reflection and shadow of the lighting fixture gives an appearance of a radiating all-seeing eye.  The seven levels of the underground parking garage (being 7 and not 9) seem to refer to the “Seven Caves of Chicomoztoc,” the seven sacred caves that are the mythical origin place of the Mayan and Aztec  people.



Mirrors were very important to the Maya, who used highly polished obsidian mirrors for various shamanic rituals and ceremonial rites.  The mirror was used as a conduit for supernatural forces, to see into the future, and to facilitate communication with the other side.  Mirrors allowed one to peer into other worlds and other times without actually entering into them.  In Mayan culture, the mirror was associated with a fiery hearth, and was a metaphor for a sacred cave.


Texcatlipoca, or “Smoking Mirror” was the adversary of Quetzalcoatl in the Underworld. Smoking Mirror could communicate with humans through the obsidian mirror and also keep an eye on them, much like the NSA use our smartphones today.  Because of this, the mirror and the eye are symbolically interchangeable.  An eye is often used as a symbol of a mirror, and the deity Smoking Mirror is depicted as having inlaid obsidian eyes.  Obsidian eyes were also used at Mayan sites such as Teotihuacan.


Mirrors were often symbolized as circles with rims of flower petals and still waters at their center.  At the top of each elevator door, which are decorated with flowering stalks, is a “smoking mirror” flower symbol with a reflective center.  Inlaid in the stalk is the elevator light, which, when not lit, appears as a black jewel, mimicking the inlaid obsidian eyes found at Mayan sacred sites.

In fact, the entire lobby is lined with “smoking mirrors,” the highly polished black Levante marble with its red and white veins gives the appearance of flames licking the walls and smoke rising to the ceiling.


The expression “smoke and mirrors” is used to describe a virtuosity in pulling off an elaborate deception.  The reflections of the polished black marble and resplendent embossed bronze ceiling make the space seem like it is three times the size of what it really is. It gives the illusion that you have entered into another world, and obscures the reality of what is otherwise a rather mundane elevator bank.



Smoking Mirror’s greatest trick was to drug Quetzalcoatl in the underworld. First he gave him a highly intoxicating drink, then encouraged a myriad of vices.  When Quetzalcoatl was in his most inebriated state of debauchery, Smoking Mirror held up a mirror to show Quetzalcoatl just how weak and powerless the great god had become.

Many who enter into 450 Sutter will also enter into a state of non-ordinary consciousness, and be rendered powerless by a powerful cocktail of sedatives, opiates, nitrous oxide, dissociative drugs and anesthesia.  It is under the influence of these drugs that the highest frequency of paranormal phenomena occurs, such as leaving the body, seeing beings of light, having profound spiritual insights and talking to dead relatives.  The introduction of anesthesia has brought up so many questions regarding the nature of the human soul and human consciousness that a field of study has arisen known as “anestheology.”


Pflueger’s Underworld/Upper World, smoking mirror symbolism is once again appropriate to the dentist’s commission.  Like being led through the Nine Underworlds of Xibalba, patients are guided through the various levels of sedation.  Taking anesthesia is referred to as “going under,” and taking other drugs such as nitrous, is referred to as “getting high.” Later we come down to earth through the elevator shafts, the hallowed out trunk of the World Tree, and like the Maize God above the exit door, we emerge from the sacred cave resurrected.

Thus, as Pflueger so emphatically insinuates, by crossing the threshold of 450 Sutter we are briefly entering into another realm. Four-Fifty Sutter is no ordinary Medico-Dental office building, but a physical representation of the cosmos, where we are initiated into the ancient mysteries of the Maya.

Further Reading:

The Popol Vuh 

Maya Dental Mutilation 

“The Sacred Tree of the Ancient Maya” by Allen J. Christensen (.pdf) 

“Aztec Myth: Quetzalcoatl Rescues Humanity in the Land of the Dead”

“Nine Underworlds and Their Corresponding Levels of Consciousness”

“Xolotl, God of Sickness, Deformity and Misfortune” 

“Obsidian Mirror Travels” Getty Research Institute

“See and Be Seen: Smoking Mirrors”

“The Nitrous Oxide Experiments of Sir Humphry Davy”

“O Excellent Air Bag! Humphry Davy and Nitrous Oxide”

“The Mystery of Anesthesia” by Courtney Humphries

“Anesthesia and the Soul” by G.M. Worlee