Appraisers Building, San Francisco, CA

The sixteen-story United States Immigration Station and Appraisers Stores of 1939-44 occupies the western portion of the block bounded by Sansome, Battery, Washington and Jackson Streets in San Francisco. The primary or west elevation fronts on Sansome Street, the secondary elevations front on Washington and Jackson Streets and the rear elevation fronts on Custom House Place, a government owned alley separating the Appraisers Building from the 1906 U.S. Custom House. The Appraisers Building was designed in 1939. A construction contract was awarded in 1940, however wartime delays lengthened the construction period through 1944. The first through fourth floors of the building occupy the entire 275' x 125' building site. The massing at the uppers floors is treated as a series of three setbacks: the fifth through twelfth floors are an elongated C-shaped mass with a light court facing east; the twelfth through fourteenth floors are also C-shaped in massing, however the wings are shorter than those of the floors below and re-entrant angles occur at the intersection of the legs of the corridors; and the fifteenth and sixteenth floors are rectangular in plan, set back on the east, north and south. A series of flat roofs cover the various setback masses. All of the exterior elevations are restrained and austere. The design included a one-story high base, creating a strong horizontally oriented division at the ground floor, with vertically-oriented bands of alternating windows with spandrels above that emphasize the height of the building. At Custom House Place, loading and receiving docks occupy almost the entire length of the First Floor base, and are surmounted by a long metal canopy and a four-story high, glass and metal screen wall that enclosed all of the building's original warehouse space. This screen wall is composed of steel awning windows alternating with metal panels, similar to the other windows and transoms of the building. The original ceramic exterior cladding was substantially altered in 1985-88 with the installation of new cladding overall and new windows at the First Floor. The new cladding, a combination of matte-finished and polished bands of granite at the base and pre-cast concrete panels above, is a loose adaptation of the original elevation treatment. The vertical window bays culminate in pre-cast blocks with fretwork designs, cast and installed in 1985-88 to resemble the original ceramic grilles, some of which pierced the parapet walls and penthouses. Some of the original entrance details include the wide, planar, gray granite surround with polished black granite jambs, surmounted by an eagle carved by Lombard & Ludwig, architectural sculptors. The transoms and the original exterior doors, and the interior doors of the original vestibule were removed and replaced with a new plane of doors in the same plane as the original. Original vestibule material remains as exterior material: salmon-colored terrazzo with brass division strips; travertine wall cladding and marble baseboards; and two wall mounted building directories. The building is organized around a central elevator core, containing six passenger elevators that open into public elevator lobbies at all but the service floors. On the ground floor, the elevator lobby is located on axis with the entrance, and this entrance axis is oriented perpendicular to the main leg of the C-shaped, first-floor corridor. Stair wells are located at the intersections of the legs of the C-shaped corridors. This spatial organization, with slight variations due to the building's setbacks, is continued throughout the upper floors of the building. On the lower four floors, offices were located around the perimeter on the north, south and west; warehouse spaces were located on the east in the "glass shed" above the loading dock; and service rooms were located in the basement and loft floors and in interstitial spaces between the original warehouse space and the public corridors. On the upper floors, offices, laboratories and assorted work rooms are located around the entire perimeter of the floor plates. Significant historic interior features of the building include the first floor lobby, ornamented with patterned, salmon-colored terrazzo flooring; Montana travertine wall cladding; bronze elevator doors with fretwork details; and additional decorative bronze elements. The finishes of the elevator lobbies on the upper floors are more modest and include terrazzo flooring and cream-colored ceramic tile. The corridors also have terrazzo flooring, though with painted plaster walls and ceilings. The Customs Court on the Fourth Floor, with its book-matched walnut paneling and built-in furnishings, remains essentially intact except for changes in lighting. The original Immigration Hearing Room on the Ninth Floor is no longer extant. The eleventh and twelfth floors were used from 1945 to 1960 as immigrant detention facilities and were organized into dormitories, kitchens, dining and day rooms, and recreation areas. These rooms were remodeled subsequently for new uses. The building houses a changing population of Federal agencies, although certain Customs and Immigration offices have occupied the building since its completion.

The United States Immigration Station and Appraisers Stores, San Francisco (now commonly called the Appraisers Building), has been associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of American history. The building housed immigration and customs agencies of the Federal government since its completion in 1944 and still retains associations with these functions of the government. Although substantially altered in 1985-88, the building embodies distinctive architectural characteristics spanning two significant periods in American architecture, the Depression and World War II, and is the work of an important American architect, Gilbert Stanley Underwood. The building was deemed ineligible for the National Register when reviewed by the SHPO in 1984, as it was not yet 40 years of age. As the building nears 50 years of age, a formal
Determination of Eligibility has just been drafted and is now pending.

In 1874, the first Appraisers and Immigration Building, a four-story brick warehouse structure designed by Alfred B. Mullet, Supervising Architect of the United States Treasury, was built on this site for the inspection of goods. Customs Houses have occupied the eastern end of this block since 1855, when the first of two customs houses was built. The largest of the two, begun in 1906, still occupies the eastern portion of the block. During the late 1800s, the Port of San Francisco was still the largest port on the West Coast and the primary transfer point for international and domestic shipping.

In 1939, when construction of the Appraisers Building was begun, freight and most goods were still shipped by sea, although truck transportation had become an increasingly important means of domestic transport. In general, most of the requirements for appraisal, storage and testing remained the same for the new structure as for the 1874 building. A loading dock was, however, included to accommodate trucked freight.

Rapid changes in transportation after World War II had a significant affect on the use of the Appraisers Building. On the local level, the development of the Naval Supply Depot in Oakland, California, during World War II, accelerated the commercial development of the Port of Oakland and, consequently, drew commerce away from the Port of San Francisco. On the national level, air freight became increasingly important. By the 1950s, the popularity of air freight had increased, at the expense of the Port of San Francisco. Since the completion of the Appraisers Building in 1944, the need for freight inspection and investigation at local airports and other ports of entry increased and the need for U. S. Customs warehouse, appraisal, and laboratory functions at the Port of San Francisco has significantly reduced. Today, these Customs functions occupy about one quarter of their original square footage in the Appraisers Building.

The Appraisers Building was designed as a replacement for the Angel Island quarantine station operated by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Upper floors of the Appraisers Building were originally a "detention hotel" with private rooms, dormitories, day rooms, outdoor terraces, and multiple kitchens to provide for various ethnic cuisine. These spaces were utilized until about 1960, after which the I.N.S. ceased detaining any persons overnight in the Appraisers Building.

Again, rapidly changing modes of travel were in part the cause of obsolescence of the I.N.S. functions at the facility. Although commercial air travel had been inaugurated just prior to World War II, all Asian immigrants were still expected to arrive by ship when the building was designed. The building program provided for facilities for immigrants required to wait for days or weeks until their documents could be cleared, or until a hearing could be held, or until they could be deported. The total immigration from China and Japan in the decade 1941-1950 was only 3,100 persons, representing the majority of Asian immigrants at the time. Only a small percentage of these immigrants were detained and housed in the Appraisers Building. By contrast, in the year 1990 alone, 50-60,000 persons entered the San Francisco Bay area from Asia, largely on immigrant visas and largely by airplane.

Inconvenient to the airports and too small to be used as a detention center, these functions have been relocated to other I.N.S. facilities, and the Appraisers Building has become a regional administrative center for the I.N.S. Approximately 1,000 persons a day visit the facility, primarily to attend to paperwork, obtain Green Cards or for immigration and naturalization hearings.

Description Architect
1939 1944 Original Construction Gilbert Stanley Underwood
1985 1988 Exterior Renovation Kaplan/McLaughlin/Diaz
1985 1988 Fire Sprinkler System Installation
Last Reviewed: 2021-08-24