A Higher Calling: 140 New Montgomery
by Seana Miracle
Commissioned in 1924 in order to consolidate several smaller buildings into one main headquarters for the then newly formed Bell System, (now AT&T) the skyscraper at 140 New Montgomery Street in San Francisco, was designed according to the basic architectural principles of a Buddhist temple-monastery.
The Buddhist Bell System
A master of blending the secular and the sacred, architect Timothy Pflueger chose an exceedingly clever analogy by selecting a Buddhist theme for the skyscraper that would serve as the headquarters for the phone company. (i.e. the “bell tower”)
Buddhist temple bells were one of the earliest long distance communication systems, as their sound carried over such vast distances, it was believed they reverberated even in the underworld. Temple bells alternately functioned as alarm clocks, timekeepers, storm warning systems, calls to prayers, calls to arms and a symbolic communication system between worlds. Temple bells were rung to summon the monks to prayer, and likewise, it was customary for the faithful to ring bells as they entered the temple to signify the answer to that call.
Buddhist temples and monasteries were not solely religious in function, they were vital commercial enterprises, strategically located on important trade routes, that both served and employed the local community, while also connecting it to a much wider trade economy.
Chinatown’s Phone Temple
Timothy Pflueger was not the first to draw the comparison between the ancient bell system and the modern day one, as 140 New Montgomery is not the first phone company building in San Francisco designed like a Chinese temple. The first, of course, is in Chinatown. First built in 1894, and later rebuilt following the Great Earthquake of 1906, the Chinese Telephone Exchange at 743 Washington St. was modeled after the pagoda style temple, and is the site of the first switchboard for the Chinatown community.
As providers of long distance communication to China, the Chinatown switchboard operators were were faced with a unique set of challenges like nowhere else in the country. Because the Chinese found the idea of being identified by numbers offensive, operators were required to know everyone by name. Chinatown’s diverse population meant they had to be not just bilingual, but fluent in several different regional dialects as well.
Many buildings in Chinatown are built like a pagoda style temple, but its not hard to see how the place that could provide instant access to the homeland, where you communicate with your loved ones on the other side of the world, could be considered legitimately “sacred.” The phone building functioned much as a temple did, as the main hub of the community, expanding long distance trade, and the switchboard operators functioned much as high priestesses, facilitating communication between worlds.
The Mission Bell System
Similar to the Buddhist tradition, the ringing of church bells started and ended each day in the California Mission System, the first long distance communication system and trade network in the state. Mission bells signaled when it was time to wake up, time to eat, time to go to work, and time to pray. They helped orient and guide in long distance travelers, and alerted people living remotely of important goings on in the community, such as weddings, funerals, arriving ships, or impending storms.
Architect Timothy Pflueger recognized that the bell tower is the cornerstone of the community, because he grew up in the Mission District, and would hear the bells of the Mission San Francisco de Asissi fill the valley at that magical hour when the sun was going down, and the fog was rolling in.
“Bells of the past, whose long forgotten music/Still fills the wide expanse/Tingeing the sober twilight of the Present, with colors of romance:
I hear your call, and see the sun descending…”
-Bret Harte “Heard at Mission Delores”
Along Highway 101, which was completed at the same time as 140 New Montgomery, bells still function to guide travelers to San Francisco. Numerous cast metal bells mark the “El Camino Real” or Royal Road. The El Camino Real basically traces the path between the various mission churches that formed the California Mission System. The bells were installed between 1904 and 1908, before the first paved highways were built. Telephone poles would soon follow these same ancient arteries.
Blue Bells and The Fairy Bell System
All over the country, “Blue Bell” signs marked the site of long distance pay phones. On the exterior of the building, Pflueger incorporated the company’s signature blue bells, with frames of descending bluebell flowers, alongside flying phone books, to represent both the company’s Blue Bell logo, and the company motto: “Words Have Wings As Swift As Light.”
The bluebell flower was an appropriate symbol for the phone company, as ancient custom has it that fairies would ring the bluebells in order to call a fairy meeting. A human can also use the bluebells to call on the fairies, but few ever risk it, because superstition holds that if you were to actually hear the bells ring, this was a sign someone close to you will soon die.
The Sacred Biography
An important feature of Buddhist sacred architecture, is that the ambulatory path depicts the Buddha’s journey to enlightenment, so that as one moves through the temple, they are symbolically following in his footsteps.
Before he died, Buddha asked his followers to make a pilgrimage to the place where he was born, the place where he gave his first teachings, the place where he achieved enlightenment, and the place where he died. These four places mark his “sacred biography,” and in following his journey, you are learning not only the story of his life, but the basic tenets of Buddhist wisdom.
“Borobodur was built as a sacred microcosm of the universe, and its purpose was to provide a visual image of the teachings of the Buddha and show, in a practical manner, the steps through life that each person must follow to achieve enlightenment”
– Buddhist Art: the Temple of Borobodur, Java
Timothy Pflueger held this idea of the “sacred biography” first and foremost in his design of 140 New Montgomery, which, as you move through it, takes you from Buddha’s birth and first steps, to his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, and the place of his first sermons, and final teachings.
The Lotus symbol represents one of the highest and most inspirational teachings in Buddhism. The “Lotus Sutra,” a discourse given by the Buddha towards the end of his life, teaches that each of us has the capacity to overcome great adversity and transform suffering into something beautiful.
The lotus represents a pattern of growth and development, slowly unfolding towards enlightenment. The lotus begins as a seed beneath the mud, and bursting forth from the darkness of its genesis, pushes first through the thick mud, and then the murky waters, before finally breaking through to the surface. Despite great obstacles, the lotus continually strives past each threshold, growing ever stronger as it reaches towards the light. Many plants blossom on the surface of the water, but only the sacred lotus, owing to the strength of it’s roots, grows almost a foot above the rest before it blooms.
At 140 New Montgomery, a skyscraper which towered over surrounding buildings for decades, and still stands “head and shoulders above the rest,” architect Timothy Pflueger captures this idea beautifully.
Above the main entrance and exit are seven stylized lotus stalks that only begin to show their full leaves near the top. According to the legends, when the Buddha was born, he took seven steps, and at each footfall, a lotus grew out of the ground.
As you take your own first seven steps into the building, you peer in through the side doors shaped like temple doors, and adorned with bronze temple guardian figures inside their deeply recessed niches.
You then enter into the rich and fertile soil that the lotus stalks grow out of, represented by the black and white Levante marble that lines the lobby. Embedded in the marble, the heating vents are golden triangles, with a floral motif inside, representing the lotus seeds, bursting with potential.
On the exterior of the building, the lotus stem columns continue to grow, and bud, and grow some more, with each successive architectural setback, but as the building narrows only a select few reach full blossoming near the top.
Harold Gilliam writes in his “The Face of San Francisco,” that the lotus columns were like notes of a theme that repeat “each time with greater elaboration until it reaches a climax at the top in a grand architectural fortissimo.”
That Gilliam used a musical term for the visual iconography of the building is appropriate, as the lotuses resemble upside down ringing bells. In their bud form they resemble the “dorje” or bell handle.
Buddha’s First Sermons
Throughout the main entryway of 140 New Montgomery, the bell logo is paired with the Wheel of Dharma. The bell is one of the most important ritual objects in Buddhism, as the sound of the bell symbolizes the Buddha’s voice.
“The sutras, when they describe the Buddha’s first acts of teaching, prefer sound metaphors that emphasize a pealing or booming quality, sounds that are clearly identifiable and sustained and that carry for a long distance. These sounds are unified by their startling quality, communicating…a kind of “wake up call.”
The Wheel of Dharma, or “Dharmachakra,” is the oldest known symbol in Buddhist architecture, and signifies Buddha’s first sermons, known as the “Discourse on Setting the Wheel in Motion.”
If you look closely, where the walls meet the ceiling, you will see multiple three fingered hands running along the edge as though they are holding up the ceiling.
In Buddhist art, the hands of the Buddha are shown in different gestures known as “mudras” which represent different things the Buddha did in his life. The Dharmachakra Mudra, in which the thumb and forefinger are touching, leaving three fingers straight, is known as the teaching gesture, or “gesture of turning the wheel.” It signifies the Buddha’s first teachings, which occurred seven weeks, or 49 days, after his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree.
By linking the bell with the Wheel of Dharma, Pflueger is pointing to the bell’s history as an ancient form of long distance communication, while also alluding to a “higher calling.” For the less spiritually minded, this pairing also has a more secular meaning, as 140 New Montgomery was the main “hub” of the Bell System.
Incense Burner Light Fixtures
The lobby features light fixtures that resemble hanging incense burners, with light issuing upwards and reflecting off the ceiling, like smoke rising.
Buddhist meditation rituals include several objects that symbolize important concepts in Buddhism. The burning of incense is one of the most important of these items, as is the bell, and the offering of fresh fruit or flowers.
The “Pot of Incense” was also a popular Masonic symbol favored by the Beaux Arts architects under whom Pflueger apprenticed, who based their architecture on ancient Greek and Roman temples. Incense pots can be found on buildings all over San Francisco, but tend to resemble more of a genie bottle. In both classical iconography and Masonic symbolism, the incense pot represents the heart issuing prayers to heaven like smoke.
As an architectural lighting designer, Pflueger would make innovative use of indirect lighting and reflective surfaces, as evidenced in his preference for black polished walls, and highly reflective floors and ceilings. Pflueger would continue with this signature “smoke and mirrors” technique to great effect in the lobby of the Stock Exchange Tower, the Patent Leather Room, and his final skyscraper at 450 Sutter Street, which was modeled after a Mayan temple.
Chinese Unicorns and Phoenixes
The lobby’s most memorable feature is the stunning colorful embossed ceiling adorned with mythical beasts, done in the style of cloisonné, an enamel technique popularized in Chinese art. The ceiling is covered in rows of “Fenghuangs” (phoenixes) and “Qilins” or “Chinese Unicorns.”
The “Chinese Unicorn” does not remotely resemble a unicorn. It is a strange hybrid creature that usually has two horns, the head of a dragon, a deer’s body covered in fish scales, and the tail of an ox. It is compared to the Western idea of a unicorn not so much because of its appearance, as for it’s kind and gentle nature.
However, because the Qilin are fierce protectors of good natured people, and since their sole job is to fend off evil, they can appear quite fearsome when feeling provoked, and issue flames from their bodies.
Because the Qilin ruthlessly hunt evil-doers, people who are involved in immoral or criminal activities should never bring a Qilin figure into their space. Both the Qilin and Fenghuang will only stay in a place inhabited by good hearted people, and led by a kind and benevolent ruler.
This is interesting symbolism because the Pacific Telegraph and Telephone Company had been recently embroiled in the corruption scandal of the “San Francisco Graft Trials” that took place between 1905 and 1908. The graft trials were an attempt to prosecute high level city officials for accepting large bribes from companies in exchange for lucrative city contracts. In that context, it almost seems that the creatures depicted in the lobby were put there as a sort of magical talisman, silently guarding against further corruption.
There is another creature in the lobby. If you look closely, you will also see several winged insects carved on the entryway’s interior pillars. At first, I thought they might be honeybees, which are important to the Buddhist tradition, but upon closer inspection, they appear to be Death’s Head moths, a.k.a. “hawkmoths.” Best known for their cameo appearance in the film “Silence of the Lambs,” the Death’s Head moth has a unique evolutionary feature. While other moths can only make sound by rubbing their legs together, the Death’s Head moth has a flute built into its proboscis that allows it to vocalize.
The Buddhist temple-monastery evolved out of early Hindu sacred architecture. Hindu temples are some of the earliest “skyscrapers.” Their exterior was designed to evoke the mythical “Mt. Meru,” which, much like “Mt. Olympus,” is the center of the universe, and the home of the gods. Countless temple complexes have been built as a symbolic representation of Mt. Meru, including Borobodur, and Angkor Wat.
The Chinese nicknamed San Francisco “Gum Saan“ or “Gold Mountain.” Mt. Meru is also described as a giant golden mountain. According to the ancient texts, the mythical mountain is supposed to have several different levels with a hierarchy of divine beings that correspond to different heights. The very top is reserved for the demigods.
The summit of the Mt. Meru was fiercely protected at each of the cardinal points by celestial guardians known as “garudas.” Garudas are giant birds that are so large a man can hide in their plumage. At the very top of 140 New Montgomery, facing in the four directions, are eight 13 foot high “eagles” or Garudas, which are guarding a distinctly bell shaped rooftop ornament, known in Buddhist architecture as a “stupa,” which serves as the base of the flagpole.
Buddhist Temple Architecture
At first, the Buddhist temple was merely a place of pilgrimage, that housed a shrine, a holy man, or sacred relics. But when the function of the temple evolved to community and monastic based, so did the architecture. In order to accommodate human occupants, the temple soon had to provide individual sleeping quarters and communal living quarters known as a “vihara.” (monastery) In addition, it had to create an inner sanctum reserved for the high priests, known as a “garbhagriha” (Sanskrit for “womb room,”) as well as a library to store important temple documents and study the sacred texts, (a sutra library) and a gathering place for general worship, known as a “chaitya.” (prayer hall) Along with the “stupa,” a bell shaped sculpture that generally indicates a sacred site, these are the primary structures associated with the Buddhist temple-monastery complex.
Buddhist monastery design, though it changed according to the times and the local customs, generally adheres to the same basic formula: an open courtyard, around which were monastic cells, with a surrounding ambulatory path and vertical columns.
At 140 New Montgomery, Pflueger utilized the idea of monastic cells around an open courtyard, with a central hallway, around which were the individual offices. This unique F-shape ensured each office had a window and an unobstructed view, maximizing available light and natural air flow.
In order to accommodate the growing number of Pacific Bell System employees, he also created a communal dining hall and library, as well as a general assembly room and executive boardroom which he modeled after the traditional prayer hall, and “womb room” of sacred Buddhist architecture.
The “Chaitya” or Prayer Hall
Located on the uppermost floor of 140 New Montgomery is the assembly room, which functions as a general meeting hall, and is based on the Buddhist temple “chaitya.”
In Buddhist architecture a “chaitya”is a large prayer hall with a shrine at one end. The Assembly Room at 140 New Montgomery, has a large open floorplan with a curtained stage at one end, which is flanked by beautiful wood carvings that depict the most important scene in the Buddha’s life: his enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree.
In the Lalitavistara Sutra, when Siddhartha arrives at the “seat of awakening,” the gods transform the area so that it resembles a divine realm, making it a suitable environment for the fulfillment of the epic destiny that awaited the Boddhisattva. The term Lalitavistara has been translated as “The Play in Full,” because it was believed that the Buddha’s life, his “sacred biography,” was a theatrical performance played out on the world stage, designed to uplift mankind.
In the Assembly Room, the carvings on either side of the stage depict Siddhartha beneath the Bodhi Tree wrestling with the demon of desire, Mara, who is represented as a giant serpent. The demon Mara did everything in his considerable powers to lead Siddhartha astray. First he threatened him with a legion of fierce demons, and when that didn’t work, he tried to seduce him with beautiful women, but Siddhartha remained steadfast, and Mara was defeated.
Now, the “stage was set,” so to speak, for the big event, the grand finale, Siddhartha’s enlightenment, which is a gradual process that slowly unfolds throughout the night until he is “awakened” at dawn, becoming the Buddha. The carvings flanking the stage in the Assembly Room depict two elephants kneeling at his feet, in acknowledgement of his newly acquired divine status. Above the stage is a phoenix, the ancient symbol of resurrection, as well as the symbol of the City of San Francisco.
The Sutra Library
An essential feature in any Buddhist temple monastery was a library for the sacred texts ad chronicles of the temple’s activities. Similarly, Timothy Pflueger had to create a study space for the workers of the Bell System, as well as a repository for all the paperwork and files generated by the company.
The “Garbhagriha” or Inner Sanctum
In temple architecture, a “garbhagriha” is a shrine that is within, but separate from, the temple complex. Often compared to a “sanctum sanctorum,” only the highest level initiates are allowed to enter this room. The Sanskrit term means “the deep interior of the house,” from the Sanskrit words “garbha” for womb, and “griha” for house. Generally speaking, the garbhagriha is a windowless, dimly lit inner chamber that is designed to focus the mind.
The Executive Board Room at 140 New Montgomery, which no longer exists after recent renovations, was located on the 18th floor. It featured wall to wall, floor to ceiling oak paneling, a large marble fireplace, heavily draped windows, and a concealed door that led to a secret staircase.
The fireplace was framed by a sculpted marble relief of a male and female figure sitting along the edge, with a globe in between them, holding two poles, as if they are holding up the mural above them.
Above the fireplace is a mural painted by renowned artist, Arthur Frank Mathews, and commissioned by Timothy Pflueger, that depicts an expansive mountain top view with what appears to be the ruins of a bell tower in the background.
Arthur Mathews had his own highly personal and profound reasons for depicting the ruins of a bell tower. Following the Great Earthquake of 1906, Mathews had climbed the bell tower at the Mark Hopkins Art Institute to survey the destruction being wrought by the fires. In the distance, he could see his wife’s parents house burning, and ran off to save them, leaving his studio and all his artwork behind. By the time he returned, the Art Institute had been utterly destroyed, leaving nothing but the ruins of the tower that Mathews had just been in.
The new art institute was built in 1926, immediately following the construction of 140 New Montgomery Street. It was designed based on Spanish-Colonial architecture, and is most well known for its distinctive Mission-like bell tower, which is purported to be haunted with the unrealized dreams of frustrated artists. Directly below the Bell Tower is a mural by Diego Rivera that depicts Timothy Pflueger (green hat) and Arthur Brown, the architects of both bell towers in question.
The Buddha and the Architect
Its not hard to imagine why Timothy Pflueger would be inspired by the story of Siddhartha’s journey to enlightenment, as in many ways the life story of the architect parallels the life story of the Bodhisattva.
Siddhartha, (much like San Francisco’s namesake St. Francis de Assisi) was a wealthy prince who led a sheltered life, until one day he left the confines of his palace walls, and was shocked by the disease, poverty and death he saw all around him. He then renounced his privileged life and decided to devote himself to solving the problem of human suffering. He became a disciple, and studied under many teachers. After a period of strict asceticism, Siddhartha decided to turn his attention to more material concerns. He got a good job working for a wealthy merchant, and learned well his trade. Pretty soon, he was an affluent member of society, and had anything he could want for. It is then that discontent set in, and he began his quest for enlightenment.
Timothy Pflueger was not a wealthy prince. He grew up in a large working class family in the Mission District, and took his first job when he was just 11 years old. When Timothy was 13, his whole world was turned upside down in the Great Earthquake of 1906. He graduated from school in a mass ceremony in Golden Gate Park, and immediately began work as a draftsman for a local architectural firm, joining the massive rebuilding effort that was going on all around him.
Like Siddhartha, the walls of Timothy’s palace had come crumbling down in the earthquake and subsequent fires, exposing him to death, loss and suffering on an unprecedented scale. Like Siddhartha, Timothy would leave his former “privileged” life behind, and become a disciple, studying under many teachers.
The Great Earthquake, more than any other event, crystallized for Timothy Pflueger that he had not only a challenging and laborious job ahead of him, but a higher calling; to build a bigger and better San Francisco than the one that came before. After being so rudely awakened that sad April morning, he decided to devote his life to not only rebuilding his devastated city one brick at a time, but also to creating buildings that served to edify the community, and elevate it’s consciousness for generations to come.
“When we build, let us think we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such a work that our descendants will thank us for it, and let us think, as we lay stone upon stone, that a time is to come when these stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, “See! This our fathers did for us!”
– John Ruskin
Timothy Pflueger would go on to become Senior Partner of the same firm that hired him at 14 years old, President of the elite architectural organization that trained him, co-founder of the Museum of Modern Art, and go down in history as one of the most accomplished and creative architects to emerge from the Bay Area. 140 New Montgomery, his first skyscraper and most ambitious project, stands as testimony to his genius, and nearly 100 years later, though it’s copper guts have been long since stripped out, it is still calling people to wake up, look up, and pay attention to higher things.
As a well known Buddhist dictum has it: “He who is low-born may develop and improve himself like the Lotus growing out of the mire.”
This article could not be possible without the hard work of countless others who came before me, leaving crumbs and signposts for me to follow on my own path to enlightenment. I have an inestimable gratitude for architect John Pflueger, nephew of Timothy Pflueger, and senior partner of the Pflueger architecture firm, for his uniquely personal insights and professional opinions, and architectural historian Laura Ackley, for her unflagging enthusiasm and unwavering support. An extra special thanks to the countless contributors at FoundSF, SF Cityguides and Art and Architecture SF for providing such well written, extensive and invaluable resources, as always.