CREW SF – THE BATTERY: Rebirth of a San Francisco Treasure

By:  Morgan Ward, Director, RETS Associates

At 717 Battery Street sits a building on a site rich with history. Named The Battery, it is now home to a members-only club that boasts a spa, a fitness center, 15 guest suites, an upscale restaurant, and a 6,000-square-foot rooftop penthouse.

But the building was not always a lavish club. Formerly on San Francisco’s shoreline, the first building on the site was a factory built in the 1830s by Alpheus Basil Thompson. During the 1906 earthquake, this original building (then the Musto Factory) caught fire and burned down, after which it was completely rebuilt. The new building hosted a number of businesses over the next five decades, including a candy manufacturer, a crafting business, and eventually office space in the 1960s.

Michael and Xochi Birch purchased 717 Battery after selling their social networking site (Bebo) to AOL in 2008. They approached FME Architecture + Design, a local architecture firm, with their vision of turning the building into a tech incubator space. But early in the process, the couple had a change of heart and presented FME with a different idea. Shortly after, “The Battery” was born.The Birches’ new dream was to bring a London-style private club to beautiful San Francisco, a club that could cater to a diverse array of people. Along with the team at FME and Ken Fulk’s interior design, they set a goal of respecting the history of the building by maintaining its timelessness and but also marrying it with the contemporary San Francisco lifestyle. The team at FME, led by senior project architect Greg Sheppard, set out to keep as much of the brick-and-timber building as possible intact while making it structurally sound.  With the help of the Holmes Culley structural engineering team, an approach called “performance-based building design” was used to model the building to see how it performed during seismic activity. The team wanted to maintain as much of the beautiful, authentic exposed brick as possible while making sure that the building was up to code. Fortunately, the team did not have to cover up the brick. Instead, moment-resisting frames that fit in aesthetically with the building but still highlighted the brickwork were added around the majority of the structure.

FME also determined that the owners’ ultimate vision of the club wouldn’t fit into the space of the building. So they added a fourth-floor penthouse with incredible views of the San Francisco skyline. The penthouse is enclosed with a custom glass curtain wall system and features a walk-in closet, fireplace, outdoor patio, fire pit, and infinity hot tub.  Even though additional stories would have fit within allowable height limits, the team decided to forgo adding an additional floor in order to keep peace with the surrounding community.

Sheppard and the FME team realized they had to invent and create more space in other ways, so with the help of BCCI Construction they lowered the floor in the basement several feet. They added new foundations under each original column and extended the exterior walls a few feet. The columns were lengthened and the basement was waterproofed. This created more usable space for the spa and fitness facilities.

During this process, crews found an original light well that had been covered up in the 1960s when the building was converted to office space. Wanting to incorporate this historic piece into the building, the owners looked for unique solutions. It was decided that the light well would be kept and revamped to bring natural light into the basement.Once the building was stabilized, the team was able to add in fun touches, such as a suspended, glass-enclosed steel staircase reminiscent of M.C. Escher and a Willy Wonka–style elevator surrounded by glass (both LCD and regular) and with a privacy glass floor. The elevator was custom built by KONE Elevators and Escalators and features one of the only glass counterweights made for an elevator. Both the staircase and the elevator shy away from bulky and distracting beams in order to keep movement in the building fluid. A glass bridge from the main space to the courtyard was then also introduced. Next, interior designer Ken Fulk added both timeless and modern décor, which echoed the original intentions to marry the old with the new.

Since opening two years ago, The Battery has attracted eclectic memberships that value the club as a place that creates community. For example, there are no cell phones or photos allowed in The Battery, and everyone adheres to the rule that computers must be off and put away in the evening. This brings a community together free from the ties of technology. While the structure of the building and its design balance history with the modern world, the atmosphere of the club balances work with life.

717 Battery, reinvented over the decades, has stood the test of time. The Battery’s respect for the past and intentions for the future make it a noteworthy establishment that will combine history, community, and San Francisco life for many years to come.