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By Jonathan H
If you’re one who frequently photographs in your free time, then you’re probably well aware of the dreaded “burnout.” It’s that feeling of stasis that digs in after a long stint of snapping your shutter. It’s a bit like that callous that begins to develop after an hour or so of playing guitar.
I feel there are two solutions to that feeling. One is to stop altogether – take a breather, and recompose. And the other involves stepping it up; finding something new; and rekindling the excitement you once had for taking photos. In the past year, I’ve slowly stepped up the challenges I’ve assumed in my photography, whether it required greater risk, greater physical demands, or ever-deeper preliminary research – each new location has brought with it new challenges, higher potential to “screw up,” and much, much more promising rewards.
Scott Haefner and I have been exploring places for over a year now. The two of us, along with a few others (whom I have grown to trust and rely on for moral and logistical support) have been through thick and thin. Scott was there for Neverland. We were both there when a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle tagged along for a trip deep inside of a defunct sugar refinery. We’ve been nearly a hundred feet underground in scores of missile silos. And we’ve evaded security guards more than once, often to the chagrin and knowledge of said security guards.
So it came to be a few months ago that the two of us decided to explore a Neo-Gothic, 26-story masterpiece in downtown San Francisco. Full credit for discovering the building belongs to Stephen Freskos, who originally scoped the building. I took a few scouting trips in the weeks that followed. Scott and I finally decided to make the leap – underground.
Exploring the Pac Bell
On a Scale of 1 – 10 in exploration difficulty, the Pacific Telephone Building probably hovers between a 7 and 8. The fact is: This building was most recently bought for $118 milllion by a well-known San Francisco investor. Though it has been abandoned since 2005, it remains fully manned in the lobby by a watchful security guard who, unlike most night security guards, actually manages to remain fully alert and awake during his shift.
Scott and I walked up to a pre-determined entry point. We had, just minutes earlier, temporarily borrowed some orange cones from the Museum of Modern Art. Looking as official as two hoodlums could look at night with dark camera bags on our backs, we hopped deep into the basement of the 26-story building, just as drunken revelers a block away squinted in confusion at the two men disappearing beneath the sidewalk. We were in the basement of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph building. It was there, 89 years ago, that the first pylons were driven into San Francisco mud. At that time, the building was constructed at a cost of 4.8 million, a fraction of its last $118 million sale. One couldn’t help but notice the symbolism inherent in building the West Coast’s tallest skyscraper only decades after the city’s most disastrous moment in history.
As Scott and I peered into the fully illuminated basement (this abandonment was fully powered and seemingly alarmed with motion sensors — an unpleasant surprise to seasoned explorers such as ourselves), we took note of the massive boiler, which provided heat to the entire structure. It stood two stories high and about 40 feet across on each end, the end of its back, receding into the unilluminated portion of the basement. As we climbed the catwalk into the second level of the basement, we heard the faint sound of the guard’s radio. It almost sounded as if he was listening to a baseball game. Really: One could only wonder what he was listening to at 11 at night.
The Pacific Telephone building is probably one of the best preserved buildings we’ve photographed. Designed by James Rupert Miller and Timothy L. Pflueger, it still stands proud in the San Francisco skyline, alongside newer – but less auspicious – spires. After we had ducked in a dark corner in the building’s former underground garage, we spent a few heart-wrenching moments trying to decide whether or not to head up. The guard was, after all, within a few feet of our only way up. Sitting literally six feet beyond a set of semi-transparent double doors, you could hear him turning the knobs on his radio and tapping his feet out of boredom. We had taken considerable risk to get where we already were, so the decision was expeditious and absolute: We would make our way up.
Two Eras, Two Buildings
Exploring the Pac Bell Building is a different universe than Oakland’s own abandoned jewel, the Key System Building. To say nothing of their opposing architectural styles. One exhibits the forward-looking sleekness of an Art Deco, Neo-Gothic hybrid, and the other a Beaux Arts bone of the past with its own elegant curves and pilasters. The true difference between the two is in the experience alone.
I’ve written that exploring Key System is a spiritual pilgrimage. Its meaning – to me – is not in its size, nor the way the light plays on stale puddles of mud that edge their way around the dark reinforced pillars, in a way begging any avid photographer to take a shot, even when all one really wants to do is look. The Key System building is simply a dark place of refuge and an escape into the past. The Pac Bell Building, on the other hand, is gigantic (the tallest abandoned building both Scott and I have explored). Its alabaster walls and perfectly preserved fixtures seem to represent everything that we explorers tend to walk away from — yet the building still drew us both inside, and higher.
We tiptoed up the stairs, one by one, until we reached 26. Bursting silently into the top floor lobby, we poked around the old equipment rooms and emerged outside, high above the rest of San Francisco. Only a single, embellished belvedere stood above us, two stories higher than the top floor auditorium. One could only wonder what it felt like in 1926, when the airplane was a relatively new and untested contraption that only a few moguls and quixotic adventurers had been given an opportunity to try. For a moment, I framed my mind in the world of Proust, imagining myself to be the unknown pilot that Marcel describes when he first sights a plane:
“I felt that there lay open before him all the routes in space, in life itself; he flew on, let himself glide for a few moments over the sea, then quickly making up his mind, seeming to yield to some attraction that was the reverse of gravity, as through returning to his native element, with a slight adjustment of his golden wings he headed straight up into the sky.”
In the distance, 747s skeeted over the bay bridge at half the speed of sound. To the northwest, rooftop bars and revelrous company parties ocassionally startled the eyes with the distant flashes of disposable cameras. We looked ahead to the looming sentries – the eight plastered eagles watching over us. Alarmingly enough, we realized, despite clearly evading the eyes of the guard down in the lobby we were still being watched by these thirteen-foot behemoths. And their own wings were a constant reminder of the heights we had just reached.
Scott and I did the usual long exposures from the top and staggered our way down, feeling all the more zombie-like with each floor. We had managed to make it down to Floor 16 – finding the original board room in the process. When we finally wedged ourselves up from underground and emerged back into the dark streets of 4 AM San Francisco, a lone man from Australia – seemingly unsurprised at our whack-a-mole-like appearance from the ground – started chatting with us and asked for directions to his hotel. He staggered off in search of a bed, any place where he could lay down and let the alchohol evaporate from his system.
Walking back, we arrived at Scott’s truck to find its windows broken. On our final trip a few nights later, his bike was stolen. I’d like to think we were vexed by the watchful eagles from the top, but if that’s the case, I’m afraid of what and when my own recompense will become? Despite these setbacks, we had managed to explore every floor of the building, from top to bottom, splitting up floors between Scott, Stephen and me on our farewell visit. Soon after we visited, PacBell Building had started its own phase of development in full-force. The permits were granted and the building will find a new life as 135 “extra-large” condominium units.
Whatever happens to the building, and its eagles, I’m hopeful that years from now, we’ll look back at our nights on the Pac Bell Building and laugh at all the circumstances: the unwitting guard; the drunken australian; the temporarily borrowed cones from MOMA (yes, they were returned). Oddly enough, we may be in our best times, as explorers in an economic recession. Sure, the good stuff is always going to be risky, but only a recession would make a $118 million building accessible to a few camera-wielding outlaws in search of the next click-fix.