Limestone breathes new life into a California icon

August 22, 2001
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In an effort to help revitalize historic Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco, CA, Ronald Fong, owner of the Wax Museum and the building in which it is housed, decided to replace century-old structure. Determined to enter the new millennium in a larger state-of-the-art facility, Fong had the original building, which his father purchased as the site of the family business in 1962, torn down and replaced with a more secure and stable facility adorned with limestone accents.

To do this, Fong began by hiring two architectural firms. "MBH Architects initially joined the project as the Architect of Record to produce construction documents in association with another design firm," said John Proctor, project director and associate at MBH Architects. "Ronald Fong later decided to retain MBH exclusively to design the new building, produce construction documents and manage construction administration."

As MBH's mission expanded from a technical and management role to a design capacity, the architects had to "flesh out" the plans produced by the original design firm, according to Proctor. "Ronald Fong was fascinated with a train station in Santiago, Chile, which was designed by Gustav Eiffel and pre-fabricated in France," Proctor said. "He wanted his new building to emulate that structure - only in a more Victorian English manner."

In addition to the influences of the Santiago train station, Fong had other unique design elements in mind. "The overall design goal was to 'knit' together the various, often disparate, precedents and historic architectural styles our client was seeking to capture, while keeping in line with this firm's original contractual responsibilities for this project," Proctor said. The architect added that that Fong didn't want any visible French influences in the design, which was difficult since Eiffel's building was very French in style.

"Aside from our client's stylistic prohibitions, the only significant limits we faced were the usual planning restrictions mandating heights, setbacks, etc., which made it challenging to modulate the towers, piers, domes, base and cornice elements in a historical manner," Proctor said. "Since we couldn't project out farther or elevate the domes, the design development process involved carving the forms out of the structure without significantly affecting the leasable area."

With these structural limitations, it was difficult to make the ornamental elements stand out. According to Proctor, the architects resorted to creating pediments at the base of the domes, which might otherwise have been virtually unnoticed. "Also, the cast bronze and aluminum blade signs desired by our client, projected past the set-backs mandated by the San Francisco Port Commission," Proctor said. "We worked closely with Mr. Fong, and finally MBH was able to get them approved. The character of these blade signs - in addition to the cast-bronze guard rails at the second floor terraces and the fins on the zinc clad domes - became instrumental in a design strategy to integrate our client's desire to bring nautical references into the architecture on Fisherman's Wharf."

Selecting the stone

Once the structural limitations were overcome, and the building's theme was mapped out, the building materials had to be considered. "Early on, we considered integrating limestone into our material palette, where the presence of fossilized shells would play directly into Ron Fong's interest, but because of cost considerations, stone [for the entire structure] was ruled out," Proctor said. "Limestone was eventually selected for the ornate base - water table - and numerous window sills and coping at the terraces because of its durability, workability and dignity. [The limestone] seemed to be the only material commensurate with the level of design the building had attained.

Fong selected Jerusalem limestone, because he had seen it used before and favored it both for appearance as well as its association with many historic and legendary buildings, including many located in San Francisco, according to Proctor. "The limestone was quarried in Jerusalem and fabricated by Cogemar in Massa, Italy. Nor Cal Masonry Construction coordinated the detailing and fabrication of the 1,800 square feet of limestone and was responsible for installation," Proctor said.

While the entire facility is not comprised of limestone, the material played an integral role in the selection of material for other building features. "A special proprietary system was used over expanded polystyrene forms for some elements, which is much thicker and more durable than a typical Dryvit type system," Proctor said. "This synthetic cement plaster coating actually contains limestone, which was carefully matched with the genuine limestone on the building."

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