The Summit is a 32-story apartment building on the peak of San Francisco’s fashionable Russian Hill. It was developed by prestigious Bay Area tract-house builder Eichler Homes (and is still commonly known by its original name, the Eichler Summit) as part of a first post–World War II wave of what came to be called luxury apartment construction in U.S. city centers.
The building was remarkable for several reasons. First and foremost was its extreme height in a generally low-rise city. At completion it was not only the tallest apartment house in San Francisco but the city’s highest building (owing to it hilltop site), with its mechanical penthouse topping out at approximately 600 feet above sea level. Although today San Francisco is well known for its height restrictions—and Russian Hill’s well-connected residents successfully fought for strict limits in the neighborhood in the early 1970s—in the 1960s such rules applied mainly to outer residential areas. To secure support of neighbors and city building officials, Eichler’s only concession was to include an open plaza that connected to an existing network of mews and culs-de-sac.
Another outstanding feature was its handling of the car. Apartment houses in the Bay Area, as in Los Angeles, had begun accommodating parking in the 1910s and 1920s, typically, in the case of taller buildings, in ground-floor garages that wrapped around the lobby. The number of spaces was limited, however, often with less than one per unit. As the car became ubiquitous after World War II, accommodating more spaces became imperative. Rarely, however, did rents or sales prices allow the extreme expense of multistory below-grade garages. The solution was to expand above-ground facilities into multistory decks. To serve the Summit’s 112 units, the designers created an all but unprecedented 7-story parking base, wrapped in concrete, atop which sat an open-plan lobby and the 24 residential floors, all set back at the rear elevation behind the plaza. Although perhaps not the first apartment house tower to employ a tall base capped with common space, the Summit helped made that arrangement ubiquitous coast to coast.
A third noteworthy aspect of the Summit was social. Amid the nuclear-family domesticity and low-density suburbanization of the 1950s, there emerged a quiet countertrend among certain middle-class and well-to-do families, mainly without children at home, toward city-center living. By the early 1960s several cities were seeing new market-rate apartments in highly serviced buildings. The Summit was not the first such building in the Bay Area, but it was the most striking, sought-after, and expensive—both as a result of its design and its location. Russian Hill had long been one of the city’s most elegant districts, home to some of the first First Bay Area Tradition–style houses, as well as the Bay Area’s first and most exclusive owned apartment houses, tourist attractions like Lombard Street, and bohemian enclaves like Macondray Lane, half a block north of the Summit, which had long attracted creative types, including, for a time, architect Edward Larrabee Barnes and landscape architect Garrett Eckbo.
The Summit also stood out for its unique silhouette, facade, and engineering. Eichler Homes worked almost exclusively on its detached houses (beginning with the launch of the company in the late 1940s) and on its multifamily projects (initiated in the late 1950s) with three architects: Robert Anshen of Anshen and Allen; Claude Oakland initially with Anshen and Allen and then, with the encouragement of Joseph Eichler, on his own beginning in 1960; and A. Quincy Jones of Jones and Emmons. Eichler, however, optioned the site of the Summit, which was one of the most prominent in San Francisco (and contained a Julia Morgan–designed house, now demolished), from architect Neill Smith. Smith agreed to complete the sale only on condition that his firm design the tower. (He allowed Oakland to handle the interiors.) Most of the work was done by Smith’s associate Tibor Fesces, who had emigrated from Hungary in 1956.
The building flared at the bottom and more dramatically at the top. According to Smith in Fortune magazine in 1966, “I wanted the building to start at an earthy base and then effloresce as it rises.” Nine massive vertical piers—five on the street elevation and four on the rear, facing the plaza—projecting beyond the balcony railings taper up from the lobby, located above the parking, following the lines of a catenary curve, interrupted only by thin horizontal scores at each floor. But at the 22nd floor (the 15th residential) the balconies cantilevered out beyond the piers, by progressive increments of 18 inches at each story, subsuming the vertical thrust with increasingly capacious horizontal lines.
Fesces trained and taught in Bucharest and had significant experience working with concrete. With the exception of the piers; balcony railings, which ran continuously around all four elevations, interrupted only by the vertical structural elements; and delicately thin (9-inch) prestressed concrete floor slabs post-tensioned with steel reinforcement, which allowed clear spans of 35 feet, the Summit’s facade was entirely composed of windows, with sliding panels allowing access to the balconies, which wrapped around all four corners at every story. Dramatic vertical elements ran up the center of the side elevations, bracing the tower against wind and seismic activity.
From the start, the Summit was home to many prominent tenants, including Eichler Homes’s principal Joseph Eichler and his wife, who took one of the two double-height “penthouses” that occupied the building’s top two stories. Apartments on the other floors, which were one- to three-bedroom, were more modestly scaled but nearly as spectacular, with spacious open plans, mahogany paneling, and floor-to-ceiling plate glass window walls in every room.
Although the building operated as a rental, which was somewhat atypical, it was converted to individual ownership on the condominium plan in 1974 by prominent local businessman (and penthouse tenant) Al Wilsey, and Gerson Bakar, a leading Bay Area developer who had acquired the building from Eichler’s lender after Eichler Homes ran into financial trouble.
In the years since, the building has changed only somewhat. Many adjacent apartments were combined into larger units; bathrooms, galley kitchens, and closets were enlarged; and the minimalist lobby suffered a neotraditional makeover in the 1990s. More problematically, some owners enclosed their balconies, disrupting the facade. In perhaps the most important respect, however, things remained unchanged. In the early twenty-first century, just as in the 1960s, the Summit enjoyed a reputation as one of the Bay Area’s most glamorous, and desirable, buildings.
Adamson, Paul. Eichler: Modernism Rebuilds the American Dream. Salt Lake City, UT: Gibbs Smith, 2002.
Lasner, Matthew Gordon. “Eichler Homes and the Reinvention of Affordable Housing in the Bay Area.” College of Environmental Design, University of California, Berkeley, Oct. 10, 2017. Video recording. https://archives.ced.berkeley.edu/news/video-matthew-gordon-lasners-gall....
“Room with a View in San Francisco.” Fortune 73, no. 1 (January 1966): 173.
Weinstein, Dave. “The Summit (a.k.a. the Eichler Summit.” Eichler Network. http://www.eichlernetwork.com.
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