Facts About the Transamerica Pyramid

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San Francsico's Transamerica Pyramid is a distinctive part of the city's skyline.
San Francsico's Transamerica Pyramid is a distinctive part of the city's skyline. (Image: George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

The Transamerica Pyramid, constructed in 1972 in San Francisco's Financial District, remains a distinctive feature of the city's skyline. The unusual pyramid-shaped skyscraper was built by Transamerica Insurance Group, which has since become a subsidiary of Netherlands-based Aegon N.V. As of 2011, Transamerica continued to own and operate the building.

History

In 1968, Transamerica president John R. Beckett wanted the company's new headquarters to allow natural light to enter the building in the same manner as sunlight filtered through the leaves of trees. To achieve this goal, architects devised an unusual pyramid shape for the new building. At the time, many San Francisco citizens opposed the building, believing the futuristic look of the pyramid wouldn't fit in a city known for its distinctive Victorian architecture. Construction was completed in 1972.

Pyramid Shape

According the building's architect, William L. Pereira, the pyramid is an ideal shape for a skyscraper, and he intended the building to have the appearance of an architectural sculpture. However, the unconventional shape of the Transamerica Pyramid also resulted from careful planning as to how the building would affect the surrounding area. Unlike a conventional skyscraper, the pyramid's tapered design casts a smaller shadow, allowing more sunlight to filter down to the streets than a conventional high-rise. The building's shape was also the result of of the city's unique shadow-restriction laws, which dictate a certain ratio must exist between a building's surface and height.

The Building

The Transamerica Pyramid measures 853 feet high, with 48 floors. A 210-foot aluminum-covered spire tops the building. Atop the spire is a 1,000-watt high-voltage neon beacon described by architect Pereira as the building’s “crown jewel.” However, lighting the beacon is both expensive and labor intensive, so the practice only takes place on special occasions such as holidays. The sparkling white exterior, which appears to glitter in sunlight, is the result of a thick layer of crushed quartz that covers the building. At the time of its construction, the Transamerica Pyramid was America’s tallest building west of the Mississippi until the construction of the Aon Center in Los Angeles a few years later.

Special Features

One important byproduct of the Transamerica Pyramid’s shape is its ability to withstand earthquakes, as the building has more mass on its bottom than its top, providing more stability than a traditionally shaped skyscraper. The Transamerica Pyramid has 500,000 square feet of floor space, with square footage varying from floor to floor due to its shape. The 48th floor, used as a conference room as of 2011, is the smallest, with just 2,025 square feet, but features 360-degree views from every point in the room. The building has 3,678 windows, which take up to two months to clean in total.

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