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A History of Sutro Tower: The Alex Mak Architecture Series

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Good evening, and welcome to Alex Mak’s San Francisco Architecture Exposé Part 1 of 4.  In this series I learn about interesting buildings in San Francisco and then graciously tell you about them.  Its like Ricky Gervais’ show An Idiot Abroad, only I won’t be travelling anywhere and I steal most of my material from the internet.  The information I don’t find on the internet I tend to procure from my friends as well as other dubious sources.  Tonight we will be discussing the locally famous and somewhat controversial…Sutro Tower

Some call it the “Space claw” some call it “The Sutro Monster”, a friend of mine once told me it looked like a three-pronged rotisserie fork she used to cook a chicken with…whatever you think it looks, like Sutro Tower can be seen from nearly anywhere in the city and has become an accepted and even cherished piece of our local skyline.  It is by far our tallest structure, it towers hundreds of feet above all skyscrapers in the the Financial District, and although tourists may not be clambering to get a picture of it, Sutro Tower has an interesting history to tell.

The top of Sutro Tower is 1,814 ft above Sea Level, that’s nearly 1,000 ft above the iconic Transamerica Pyramid 

When television companies had the tower built in 1972, it was considered a monstrosity by most accounts.  US Senator Dianne Feinstein, was a city supervisor at the time, and she said the tower was “undoubtedly one of the worst structures, visually, I have had an opportunity to view.”  Local Chronical writer and legend Herb Caen famously wrote,  “I keep waiting for it to stalk down the hill and attack the Golden Gate Bridge.”  

San Francisco based Online Clothing Company Beta Brand depicts Sutro Tower on a t-shirt

Much like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, (built to transmit radio waves for the World’s Fair) local artists and pundits of the time absolutely hated the crude iron structure towering over their beloved skyline.  Parisian Novelist Guy de Maupassant used to eat at the restaurant under the Eiffel Tower everyday, when asked why he chose to eat under the tower he hated, he explained that it was the only place in the city where he could not see the tower.

Paris circa 1889. The Eiffel Tower was considered an eyesore by most. At 1063 ft it’s just 55 ft taller than Sutro Tower 

Whether you think the tower is a beautiful monument to progress or a crude twentieth century relic, it has become a San Francisco mainstay, like an old friend from kindergarten, no matter how ridiculous they may or may not be, you cannot help but love and defend them.  Sutro towers above the fog line in stark contrast to everything around her, and she may in fact be a giant, iron, television antenna, but she is OUR giant, iron, television antenna.  Just look at the Eiffel Tower now, after more than a 100 years, she is perhaps the most internationally recognized monument in the world, forever associated with one of the worlds most beautiful and most visited cities.  What will happen when technology outpaces the need for our gigantic television antenna?   Will Sutro become a tourist attraction in the sky?  Will there be a vote to preserve her with public money or private donations?  Will she someday be dismantled piece by piece?

My Buddy Jesse Wilfley actually works on San Francisco’s Eiffel Tower during the fall, to make sure she stays painted and polished.  He assures me the tower is not an evil robot or a space monster, here are some photos from his office:

Don’t worry, he has good insurance

Sutro Tower has become a symbol of the city for San Francisco locals.  Coit Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge are for tourists, Sutro is for us.  And here are some awesome tattoos showing her popularity:

Interested in a Tattoo like this? Talk to  Idle Hand Sf

 Or maybe black and grey is more your style? Rian Renteria Tattoos

Can’t get enough Sutro?  Local designer Justine Godar made a Sutro coat-rack for die hard fans, find it here

Interested in Seeing Sutro up close?  There are some nice hikes in the cloud forest near by, I did one last Sunday.  Hiking Guide here

More awesome Sutro Tower tattoos:,,, seventhsontattoo.tumblr, & some babe

Sutro Photos 1&2 courtesy of Steven Pinker & A Sutanto respectively.  Picture of the Eiffel Tower compliments of Library of Congress

Have a building you’d like to see here? Drop me a comment and I’ll see what I can do.

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Alex Mak - Managing Editor

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

I'm the managing editor here at Broke-Ass Stuart. I enjoy covering Bay Area News as well as writing about Arts, Culture & Nightlife.

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