Bringing the Past into the Future


A Conversation with Andrew Wolfram, AIA Architect Andrew Wolfram moved from New York City to San Francisco in 1998 because there seemed to be more 
[dropcap]A[/dropcap]rchitect Andrew Wolfram moved from New York City to San Francisco in 1998 because there seemed to be more opportunity here for a young architect to have a substantial role in projects that would have an immediate and positive impact on the city. He brought with him a passion for the regeneration and adaptive use of existing buildings. He joined SMWM, directing the firm’s preservation and adaptive reuse practice and serving as project architect for the renovation of a number of the city’s historic treasures, including the Ferry Building. In 2008, SMWM merged with the global firm Perkins+Will, where as a principal, Wolfram continued to lead the preservation and reuse practice, adapting an army warehouse at 390 Main Street into the Bay Area Regional Agency headquarters and renovating the art deco Pacific Telephone & Telegraph building at 140 New Montgomery into offices for high-tech companies, among other projects.

In his 15 years in the Bay Area, Wolfram has been deeply involved in the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission, the California Preservation Foundation, the Northern California chapter of DOCOMOMO US, and San Francisco Architectural Heritage. Now he’s taking on a new role as principal of San Francisco architecture firm TEF.

Presidio Landmark

Q: Why did you make the jump to TEF?

AW: Perkins+Will is focused on being a global firm, and I’m really interested in working in the Bay Area and being more personally involved with projects that have a positive local impact. TEF is very compatible with that—it’s a midsize firm doing all local work. And I already knew the principals well. Alyosha Verzhbinsky and I both were involved with the Ferry Building at SMWM, I’ve known Doug Tom for a long time, and Bobbie Fisch and I have been working together for three years on 390 Main Street, where Perkins+Will is designing the shell and core, and TEF is doing the interiors. So we’ve had a long working relationship.

Q: What kinds of projects will you be gravitating toward? 

AW: Adaptive reuse and preservation, of course. Also new buildings in the context of historic buildings or a historic district. But I have worked on new buildings, too, like Pixar’s Headquarters. The other thing that I bring to the firm is experience on complex large-scale projects, so we could go after bigger projects on the scale of 140 New Montgomery, for example.

Q: What are your favorite kinds of projects?

AW: The ones that are transformational. I love it when buildings that people have taken for granted, that they don’t see as being particularly interesting, get creatively transformed into something special. Like Market Square, where an old furniture showroom and warehouse became headquarters for Twitter—that’s really transforming the Mid-Market Area. I think 140 New Montgomery has that potential, too.

Q: Where else do you see that potential in the city?

AW: Mission Street has all these fantastic old empty movie theaters. I’ve always thought there was a great opportunity to make them into movie theaters again and bring back the activity that street used to have. Thankfully, one of them, the historic New Mission Theater, is now being turned into a movie theater. This is, in part, the result of a grass roots effort to save the theater and find a new use for the building.

140 New Montgomery

Q: A few years ago, there was a lot of talk about whether preservation had gone too far in San Francisco, and supervisor Scott Wiener said that historic preservation may come at the expense of other things we really need, like affordable housing and libraries. Where do you stand on that?

AW: On one hand, there are parts of the city that have lots of historic character that I think should be protected and aren’t. Often, landmarking efforts get bogged down in the political process. But many of the preservation battles here are really about something else, which is about a fear of change. I think San Francisco could be much denser. Many parts of town could support taller buildings. Think of Sydney. It’s a beautiful city, with great historic neighborhoods, but there are also tall buildings all over.

Q: What developments here do you think successfully balance density while adding something to the city?

AW: All of the infill development along Market Street and Octavia Boulevard is finally making a neighborhood of an area that’s been pretty dead for a long time. Those projects got through the hurdles—maybe because of the timing. In San Francisco, there’s an inverse relationship between NIMBYism and recessions. When times are tough, the community is much more willing to allow things to happen. When the economy is doing well, and there are jobs, people are against development all over again.

Q: What are you seeing ahead for 2014?

AW: The experienced developers seem to be concerned about the high costs of acquiring sites for new office and residential projects in San Francisco. They’re beginning to look more seriously at the East Bay and the Peninsula. There are so many cool, underutilized buildings with historic character in the Oakland area and so much low-density development in the South Bay that could be transformed into something better. I see a lot of potential for imaginative reuse in those areas. I think we will be working in those communities pretty soon.

Presidio Landmark
Architectural Firm Credit: Perkins + Will
Photo courtesy Andrew Wolfram

140 New Montgomery
Architectural Firm Credit: Perkins + Will
Photo courtesy Andrew Wolfram

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