In Prohibition-era San Francisco, bootleggers routed their liquor to speakeasies via tunnels underneath Barbary Coast, the city’s once-thriving red-light district. One of those passages led to the basement of 560 Pacific Avenue, a 1910 timber-frame structure that began its life as a supper club, saloon, and dance hall (and later served as a showroom and warehouse for the Amtico flooring company). Today that tunnel, long since sealed off, lies beneath the more rule-abiding neighborhood of Jackson Square, where spiffy law firms, antiques dealers, and ad agencies make their money in the daylight hours.

The latest renovation of 560 Pacific, by the San Francisco–based practice Huntsman Architectural Group, is an understated bookend to the block’s boisterous history. In January 2012 the creative branding agency Tolleson left a diminutive office a few blocks away and moved into the building’s top floor, tripling their original space. Principal and creative director Steve Tolleson selected the address, whose airy interior is dominated by an exposed-timber roof structure, in part for its unvarnished atmosphere—a favorite quality of his former office, also in a wood-and-masonry building, which the Huntsman group had adapted in 1998. “Once you go into a brick-and-timber building, it becomes part of your culture,” says Tolleson. “There’s a warmth to it.”

Notably for the Bay Area, where “creative” is frequently conflated with “playful,” the Huntsman team makes the case for subtlety and restraint. When the architects began the project in the summer of 2011, they envisioned a quiet renovation that would call attention to the existing structure and would serve as an elegant backdrop to a few elements of color in the furnishings and artwork.

First, though, they had to rekindle the warmth of all that timber and brick. A prior renovation had hidden the natural finishes beneath layers of white paint. The owner-developer, Birmingham Development, set about restoring the shell while the Huntsman team began construction on an 11,000-square-foot office with a new loft level. Birmingham bead-blasted the wood and brick, added steel crossbracing for seismic support, and removed a central portion of the timber structure to make way for the new top floor. The architects extended the loft several feet beyond what Birmingham’s original plan mandated to accommodate a private office upstairs for Steve Tolleson and a conference room underneath. A new skylit stair with a simple railing of steel and metal mesh connects the two levels.

The designers further carved up the ground floor by inserting walls to close off a video-editing suite, photography studio, and private meeting room, but they kept the timber visible throughout. Instead of adding dropped ceilings to conceal ductwork and messy remnants of the roof structure, they worked with Birmingham to route HVAC conduits away from visual focal points, and painted cluttered portions of the ceiling white. The goal, says Huntsman principal Bill Puetz, wasn’t to hide the building’s guts but to incorporate them in a graceful way, while leaving the ceilings as high as possible.

In keeping with the raw look of the exposed timber, the architects opted for reclaimed barn wood for much of the flooring, as well as for a pair of double-height accent walls bracketing the conference room. “The concept was, ‘What would have been here if it had never been torn out?’ ” says Puetz.

To boost the longevity of the design, the Huntsman team kept the finishes relatively quiet and concentrated the color and pizzazz in the furnishings, which can be changed at any point to freshen the interior. In the kitchen, green and blue molded-plastic Eames chairs pop against the white stone countertops and walnut cabinets. And at the office’s entrance, a lounge with low-slung blue sofas and a library stocked with a color-coded rainbow of books plays off the conference room’s white-lacquered millwork doors. With a light touch, the architects have given the old dance hall-turned-warehouse a modern polish, even as they turned back the clock.

Lamar Anderson is a San Francisco–based writer and a contributing editor at RECORD.

Size: 11,000 square feet

Cost: withheld

Completion date: January 2012

Huntsman Architectural Group
50 California Street, Seventh Floor
San Francisco, CA 94111
Tel 415.394.1212
Fax 415.394.1222