Classic French design for an historic downtown lunch spot
Abraham Lincoln was in office and we were still fighting our civil war while people were dining on lamb chops and onion soup in the posh French neoclassic Jack's Restaurant. Jack's opened in 1864 by expatriate Frenchman George Voges and was named supposedly after the Jack rabbits still in the neighborhood.
Rarely do we in the design field get entrusted with a restoration steeped in so much history. I devoted 2 ½ years to bringing this remarkable landmark building into the 21st century. Jack's has been the quintessential dining experience in San Francisco for over 140 years. Heads of state, the very rich, famous actors and writers and local politicians dine here regularly. In its earliest days Mark Twain and Brett Harte were known to stop by for a meal; later the regulars included Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Ingrid Bergman, and Ernest Hemmingway. Alfred Hitchcock used the restaurant in his 1957 movie "Vertigo."
This humble 3 story brick building not much larger than an ordinary house now stands in the shadow of the Transamerica building in the heart of San Francisco's financial district. Traditionally a place where one could come to be "seen" in the main dining room, the private stairway to the second floor offered the option of private dining in 6 small rooms. Here, cigar smoke deals were cut in the corporate and political worlds. The private 3rd floor offered the extended option of 4 smaller rooms each with a private bath for continuing the dining into further pleasures.
Jack's was a project that gripped me on a visceral level from the first moment when I got the call from my client to meet him there after closing and not to tell anyone. The intrigue of changing ownership could never hit the press. The current owner and his family had been running Jack's for 102 years and there was no one within that family to turn it over to. My client came as a 19-year-old from Greece to work as a bus boy at Jack's. Now, 50 years later, he and his son were buying and restoring Jack's and risking their fortune in this endeavor.
The agenda for the restoration was a challenge:
1. Double the size of the kitchen and service functions.
2. Quadruple the bathroom facilities and make them wheel chair accessible.
3. Install an elevator to all floors.
4. Provide a new grand stairway.
5. Completely fire sprinkle the building.
6. Seismically stabilize the structure with massive steel columns and braces
and . . . .
7. Do all this without losing any seating capacity.
For me to do all this and meet the strict San Francisco seismic building code, the structure had to be completely "gutted" and pieced back together.
I interviewed the working staff, waiters and chefs, some being there over 40 years. For months I observed how the building was being used by patrons and staff, from basement to roof top. I spoke to diners and long-term clients. I spent 3 nights alone in the building looking at details and feeling its history. The question was always: "what is fundamental to the spirit of the building that must be preserved?" Given what I was asked to do, it was important to get this right.
To make it all happen I had to:
1. Develop the basement, previously a dark, damp storage area, into a bright dry modern kitchen prep area.
2. Create a small mezzanine within the main floor dinning room for extra seating.
3. Bring the 3rd floor brothel on line for dining.
4. Install a 30' by 40' skylight to flood the new stairway with light and bring more light throughout the building.
Renovating restaurants is a challenge, doing so with an historic landmark was the project of a lifetime. I hope these photos can bring you some perspective of the juice and energy that went into the restoration and a hint of the results that captured the spirit of Jack's.
A Collection of Single Family Residences.
I moved to San Francisco in 1980 to design a compound of 3 traditional Japanese residences. The clients had been transferred to the Bay Area for work and found the house prices way beyond their budget. My task was to see if by pooling resources and building houses on affordable land that they could get into the home ownership market. When I found a beautiful wooded parcel in the Oakland hills just east of San Francisco and they decided to move forward with the project.
One morning midway through construction on the first house, a gentleman trudged up the steep slope to the building site. He was a visiting professor from Japan at The University of California at Berkeley and had been watching the construction with interest. He felt that people in Japan would be interested in what I was doing and asked if I would be interested in having the project published. The following year I was fortunate enough to have it published in "Authentic Home," the largest architectural journal in Japan. I was pleased with one of the comments in the text: "Mr. Brockob captures the spirit of our aesthetic and reminds us of how far we have traveled away from it."
A Traditional Japanese Tea Hut & Ceremony is Floated on the Chicago River.
The transparent tea house known as "True Emptiness" grew out of a desire to allow people to see through the walls of a traditional tea hut and view the intimacy of the Japanese tea ceremony taking place within. Creating this structure has taken me literally on the ride of a lifetime floating under the bridges and skyscraper canyons along the Chicago River. At sunrise on a crisp autumn morning, like a leaf fallen from a tree and landing on the river, True Emptiness floated with the current while host and guests shared a simple bowl of tea.
This simple and humble piece of architecture has brought more interest and notoriety than anything I have done. Made entirely of the most common of materials, PVC piping, it is completely transportable, travels on airplanes disassembled in "tea bags", and assembles in 30 minutes. It is a precise replica of the bones of the most famous tea house in Japan, the national treasure known as Yuin, located in Kyoto.
As may be expected of such a novel structure, it has been met with some controversy by purists used to seeing tea houses made of mud and clay and bamboo with thatched roofs. My position is that these traditional huts were built using the everyday materials available to tea masters during their unique and historic time and place. Their genius was to take these mundane and ordinary materials and transform them into extraordinary spaces. Concrete, glass, steel, tin, canvas, and yes, PVC piping, are the ordinary materials of our contemporary world. Using ordinary PVC piping in this way provides the uncanny twist with the mundane that breaths life into Tea and in my view keeps the tradition of tea architecture truly alive.
Tea societies teaching the traditional Japanese tea procedure have invited me to do talks and presentations on tea hut architecture in conjunction with demonstrating the beauty and intimacy of the ceremony within True Emptiness. True Emptiness and I have been invited to The Parliament of The World's Religions, The American Institute of Architects and International Association of Architects conventions. True Emptiness was installed in The California Museum of Art. Images of True Emptiness have been featured in books and publications in Japan, Europe and the U.S.
San Francisco Remodel, Outer Richmond District
Growing families in San Francisco quickly see a need for more living space. Families either opt to move or might decide to increase square footage by connecting a basement or garage to an upper floor. We receive many requests for this type of design.
Single Family Home
We occasionally get calls requesting working drawings based on a design package they found on the internet. This project in Half Moon Bay began in this way. This is an example of how a custom house tailored to a client's personal desires and needs can be created with a limited budget.
We worked to create a design that fits the landscape, climate, and ambiance of the community. Our fees for design, working drawings, design review, Coastal Commission review came to 2.5% of the overall construction budget.
Why pick out a cookie-cutter generic design when you can have a design of your dreams, and cultivate a personal partnership with a design professional? This project demonstrates how diverse culture (European, American & Chinese) can be embraced in creating a beautiful, functional, energy efficient and superbly detailed family home.
Every set of plans available off the internet must additionally need to be engineered for our seismically active region, energy/heat loss requirements that affect designs, local design review and municipal codes.
I purchased the old Hotel Venezia and Babbini's Restaurant to save them from the wrecking ball. For years this boarded up building was an eyesore on the fringe of a small urban historic district known as Railroad Square in Santa Rosa, a city of 100,000 people an hour north of San Francisco. The rehabilitation is a good example of a "win win" program in urban preservation. I worked with the local housing authority to secure low interest government money to convert the upper floor 7 room hotel into 3 low income apartments. The old Babbini kitchen I brought on-line as a catering service and the grand dining room I converted into an art gallery and my architectural office. Given the urban rejuvenation already taking place, housing was in demand and the apartments were rented quickly to young people working downtown. The catering kitchen was in high demand for local events and the art gallery was close enough to the action to attract an interesting crowd. Rather than being torn down to become another "wasteland" asphalt parking lot, the classic art deco Hotel Venezia still stands brightly as a slice of the early Italian history of Santa Rosa.