The San Francisco Standard

Exclusive: The Transamerica Pyramid’s renovation is underway. We got a peek from the top

Astrid Kane, May 06, 2024

The first 48 floors of the pyramid are being reimagined as an “office as resort,” with amenities like a sky bar and a spa. But to get to the very top, climbers use this ladder. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

The sweatiest my palms have ever been was about a quarter of the way up the spire of the Transamerica Pyramid, looking through a set of open metal stairs to the floor 50 feet below.

From sidewalk level, San Francisco’s most famous building seems like any other high-rise—a different shape, sure, but a vertical cubicle farm all the way up. That’s not the case staring down from the summit. The elevators only run to the 48th floor, just below the top of the pyramid’s “shoulders,” those broad, blocky fins approximately 600 feet above the street.

The east shoulder contains an elevator bank. The west shoulder functions as a ventilation shaft. It’s an enormous void, a little like a chasm on the Death Star. When a team of three from The Standard got a guided tour that went all the way to the pyramid’s beacon, the railing next to that abyss was essentially base camp.

Michaela Neville climbs to the top of the Transamerica Pyramid’s spire, via a set of 10 stairways and two ladders that contain 236 steps in all. | Source:Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

To get to the top, we climbed 10 terrifying sets of stairs—and then a ladder that’s followed by another ladder. The spire’s “walls,” we learned, are translucent plastic cladding that’s more or less open to the elements. That means on foggy days, the steps and railings become slick with moisture.

“Wear comfy shoes,” our guide, a rep for pyramid owner Michael Shvo, had instructed us. “And don’t be afraid of heights.”

I don’t think of myself as having a fear of heights, but that was before my stomach itself started sweating. Aside from the time I went hang-gliding in Brazil with a guide who didn’t speak English, I can’t remember a time when I was so acutely afraid of losing my grip on a metal bar and plummeting to my death.

Eventually, we made it to the space that houses the beacon. Like everything else about William Pereira’s modernist 1972 masterpiece, that dazzlingly intense, bluish light is set to undergo a major overhaul as part of a $400 million renovation. Luxury developer Michael Shvo is reimagining the building from top to bottom, installing amenities like a spa and a sky bar, as well as an all-new lighting scheme that will announce the Transamerica Pyramid’s presence by night the way its distinctive shape already does by day.

Office as resort

Even though the Transamerica Corporation vacated the building in 1999, Shvo has no plans to rename it. Pretty much everything else about it is going to change, though. The guiding principle, of “office as resort,” will bring a vibe associated with luxe tech campuses into downtown San Francisco.

An aerial drone night view of TransAmerica Pyramid and buildings in San Francisco on March 15, 2024. | Source:Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu/Getty Images

The ground level has already been redesigned to feel more welcoming. Having bought the pyramid for $650 million in 2020, Shvo enlisted Norman Foster, the British architect best known in the Bay Area for Apple’s spaceship-like headquarters in Cupertino. Foster + Partners raised the Transamerica lobby ceiling by about 4 feet, revealing K-braces and other geometric details that opened it up to the sunlight. Quartz, sourced from the same Mexican quarry as the building’s facade, was mixed with mortar to give the space some extra sparkle that concrete can’t provide. Overall, in the words of one Shvo representative, it was like ripping up tired shag carpet to reveal a parquet wood floor beneath.

Renovation work on the pyramid is very much active, as this hole through a floor hundreds of feet above downtown San Francisco reveals. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard


The renovation extends outside the building, too. The redwood plaza behind the pyramid—one of the city’s many privately owned public open spaces, or POPOS—is set to reopen to the public later this year. With less concrete hardscape and a more organic feel, it’s intended to make the building, still San Francisco’s second-tallest after Salesforce Tower, feel like less of a monolith.

A vestibule at the rear will become a space called the Court Club, and in September, it will house an exhibition of Foster’s work plus a history of the Montgomery Block, the hub for writers and bohemians like Jack London and Mark Twain that once occupied the site. An alley that runs for half a block immediately behind the pyramid, Mark Twain Street, has also been planted with western redbuds, transforming it from its prior incarnation as a loading dock for Recology trucks.

Bullish on the return to physical offices, Shvo is among those who see artificial intelligence as the city’s path out of its prolonged, post-Covid slump—and he’s keen on leveraging the pyramid’s status to lure AI’s funders to become his tenants.

Caution tape covers an open gap that’s currently under construction in the Transamerica Pyramid, with Nob Hill visible at left and Russian Hill at right. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

“Now that there’s a general consensus that San Francisco is not going to get wiped off the planet,” Shvo said of the economic climate. “We’re the benefactor of that, because we’re doing deals at the VC level or at the private-equity level that cater to these AI companies.”

The bet appears to be paying off, and not just for AI. Law firm Baker Hostetler recently renewed its lease, and overall, the pyramid commands impressive sums.

“We’ve signed multiple leases over $200 a square foot. That makes the pyramid the third-most expensive building in the United States,” Shvo said, adding that the other two are both in Midtown Manhattan. “It’s also the only building [of the three] that’s 50 years old.”

A beacon to rival the Eiffel Tower’s

The renovation will leave no element of the Transamerica Pyramid untouched, and that includes the beacon, set to become a 5,600-watt dynamic theatrical LED lighting system. Sharp-eyed observers may have noticed that it has been illuminated somewhat randomly over the last few months—that’s because design firm L’Observatoire International is running occasional tests.

The company’s lighting designer Hervé Descottes, who has worked on New York’s High Line and the Fondation Louis Vuitton Paris, compared the new beacon to his forthcoming knee replacement, calling it “new blood in an old body.” It’s a delicate operation, installing technology that didn’t exist in 1972 without changing the relationship of the pyramid to the city. He refers to the top of the building as a shrine, and the light as a jewel.

The beacon at the pyramid’s very top is housed in a tiny room and encased behind gem-toned plastic panels. | Source:Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

It’s “almost like the beam of light on the Eiffel Tower,” he said of his project. “A dancing jewel that can change color.”

The beacon isn’t the only lighting element, either. The sides of the spire will soon be outfitted with LED technology of their own, similar to the crown of the Salesforce Tower or the upper floors of the Empire State Building.

“We are full-speed ahead,” Descottes said. “It could be before the end of the year.”

The building’s western fin, or “shoulder,” is a ventilation shaft. Above the 48th floor, there is no more space for offices. | Source:Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

The climb to the top is terrifying

To get to Descottes’ jewel from the 48th floor, we had to climb exactly 236 vertical steps, starting from what will eventually be the sky bar. It’s essentially a construction site, filled with ladders and plastic sheeting, but the panoramic views will make for a uniquely glamorous spot for a client lunch or after-work martini.

Even on a sunny afternoon, climbing up isn’t for the faint of heart. Climbers have almost no choice but to disobey the first principle of heights: “Don’t look down.” For this reporter, the third and fourth set of stairs were the angstiest, as it was clear we had climbed about 50 feet with quite a ways to go. It was then that our guide saw fit to mention that seismically, a pyramid-shaped structure is the safest place to be during an earthquake, a remark that had the opposite of its intended effect.

The view from the bottom of the spire, one story above the future sky bar on the 48th floor, shows a single cavernous room with nothing but stairs and walkways. | Source:Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Even though the metal steps grew considerably narrower, the climb got easier as we neared the top, because it became harder to see down. Putting aside the terror, the ascent was also a legitimate workout, but once our pounding hearts got to the beacon—a cramped crow’s nest too small for an adult to stand—we had a uniquely magical perspective on the city far below, filthy windows be damned. The light itself has a crystal, like what might power a warp drive, surrounded by 32 gem-toned panes of glass.

The expedition was a rare treat, no doubt about it, but also something most people might want to do just once. Even Shvo only makes the trip every so often. “Probably, I think five times?” he said. “I’m not a big lover of heights. And it gets quite steep when you get up there, right? And then the going down is a whole other experience.”

The current steps are new, he added. “When I bought the building, it was much scarier.”