Room with a View

The 1930s Empire Hotel
now a dorm owned by UC Hastings.
This 28-story, 1930 art deco tower on the corner of Leavenworth and McAllister is now a dorm for the U.C. Hastings College of Law.  But it was built to be an unusual hybrid of Methodist Church combined with commercial skyscraper. 

In 1925, four Methodist Congregations got together to raise the $2 million budgeted for this project.  They hired architect Timothy Pflueger, who had just completed two art deco masterpieces:  the Telephone Building on New Montgomery and the Castro Theater.   But just before construction was to start, the Methodists fired him and brought in Lewis Hobart to complete the project.  Pflueger sued claiming they used his design without paying him.  The court agreed, awarding Pflueger $38,000 in damages, about half of what he asked for.

Despite these difficulties, the skyscraper was built in record time, opening in January 1930, just 18 months after groundbreaking.  It was initially called the William Taylor Hotel, named for an early Methodist pioneer.  The bottom half of the building contained a 500-room hotel which surrounded a  1500 seat church on the ground floor.  Look for the gothic arches of the church which is now blocked off on the McAllister St side.  The 14-floor tower contained 156 luxury apartments with custom-designed furniture, some with terraces.   
Gothic arches mark what was once the entrance to a 1500 seat church.

By 1936, the Methodists were bankrupt and sold off the hotel which was renamed the Empire Hotel.  The new owners wanted to add a bar but City regulations prohibited serving alcohol within 200 feet of a church.  They ingeniously solved this problem by opening the Sky Room at the top of the 320-ft. tower in 1937.  It was the first penthouse bar on the West Coast. Two years later, the Mark Hopkins hotel on Nob Hill converted its 19th floor penthouse into the Top of the Mark lounge.

The Empire Hotel ran into union trouble in 1941.  Then in 1942, the U.S. Treasury bought the hotel for $1.86 million and the Internal Revenue Service moved in. The U.S. Army took over the tower, including the Sky Room which became an office for the Army chiefs.  The Army also bought all of the hotel’s furniture for use in the internment camps used to house Japanese-Americans during WWII. 

By the 1950s the Feds had declared the building surplus property.  In 1977, when the new Federal Building opened down McAllister Street, they transferred ownership of the Empire to Hasting along with a $7 million HUD grant for remodeling.  It opened as the College’s first dormitory in 1980.

The building was the third church-skyscraper combo built by the Methodists.  In 1924, the Methodists opened the 21-story Chicago Temple in downtown Chicago which is a combination cathedral, office building and hotel. And construction of their Broadway Temple at 173rd St in New York City, planned as 40 story hotel with a 2,000 seat cathedral tucked inside, began about the same time as the San Francisco project, but was stalled by the depression.  A dramatically scaled back three-story cathedral was finally completed in 1952.  Both the Chicago and New York Temples are still in use by the Methodists today.  

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