Designed by Andrew H. Knoll and built in 1922, the two-story, Renaissance Revival-styled building at 678 Mission Street, on the northwest corner of Mission and Annie, was initially leased to the Phoenix Desk and Chair Company.

The San Francisco Builders Exchange took over the building in 1926 and stayed until 1956, after which the Hundley Hardware Company, which is still run by E.M. Hundley’s great grandsons, occupied the building until 1985.

And in 1993, the California Historical Society bought the 18,470-square-foot building for $2 million; turned the building’s 7,730-square-foot basement level into a series of climate-controlled storage vaults for its collection of historic materials; and converted the now seismically upgraded structure into its headquarters, complete with a publicly accessible library, museum and bookstore.

Hobbled by the pandemic and in need of funds, the Historical Society has decided to sell the building and move to a mobile/virtual/distributed model. And yes, the corner site is zoned for development up to 300 feet in height.

But there’s a big but with respect to the potential for redeveloping the corner site. And it’s not simply because the building is historic.

In fact, the California Historical Society sold the Transferable Development Rights (TDRs) for the property back in 2001. And as such, there are effectively no opportunities for a wholesale redevelopment of the site, beyond a redevelopment and re-purposing of the existing two-story building as it stands.

22 thoughts on “The Past, Present and Future for This Historical HQ”
  1. If they sold off the development rights is that not a done deal? Short of purchasing development rights from another site (are TDRs still available/haven’t they pretty much been tapped) it seems any proposal other than repurposing the existing structure is DOA.

    1. “there are effectively no opportunities for a wholesale redevelopment of the site, beyond a redevelopment and re-purposing of the existing two-story building as it stands.”

      It’s almost like theres an echo in here.

      Back to the building: this would seem to be an example of not tweeking the restrictions sensibly: this was a research library, open probably to only a few people at a time…hard to believe it couldn’t have been reopened. True that wouldn’t have helped the museum/bookstore part, but isn’t SOME use better than NO use ??

      1. The issue is, even if repurposed, repurposed to what? 54% of SF storefronts are empty/boarded up. What business would lease the space? Restaurants – no. Bank – no. Banks are permanently closing many local SF branches (including mine). Another drugstore? Too many in this area already. Medical or legal offices are a possibility. But buying this seems like a huge risk with minimal upside. If it sells it will likely be for significantly less than CHS hopes to get.

  2. It seems like air/development rights should be treated by cities like the treasury does monetary currency. We can just wave a wand and create some more when we need it.

    1. It’s a shame, isn’t it? I’ve been to quite a few talks and shows at the current HQ, and its bookstore was a regular stop. Without their own dedicated facility it will be tough for them to compete with other groups for exhibition space, and the plan iirc involves separating their offices and their library/collection into different spaces, which will have hidden, non-monetary costs.

      1. Agree – they should join forces with the SF Historical Society and reopen in the Old Mint. Though that’s still millions of dollars from happening…

  3. The group has historically been a non-political social organization for old-money San Franciscans to celebrate the past. However, CHS’ mission appears to be changing toward promoting “interpretations” of history, which may be code for a politically-correct educational agenda. Should this be correct, and without a clubhouse to rally traditional donors, I would expect the money flow to dry up. This may already be occurring and could explain why CHS is now trying to monetize the assets raised by previous members after the new leadership hijacked the BOD and charted this new course.

    1. This is a weird, conspiratorial, most likely unprovable opinion and has nothing to do with the building.

  4. The California Historical Society has a long and honorable history in San Francisco. It has never been a social organization, although “Never Sell” is correct that the same old families that support the museums and major music companies have been always been involved. In addition, many people interested in history and high culture have been on the board, from the professions, business, the art world, and philanthropy.

    By selling the three large houses it occupied in Pacific Heights, the CHS was able to move to this location. The problem is money, and it seemed that a long term solution had been found when the Old Mint was proposed for a new CHS headquarters.

    But unlike the New-York Historical Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the CHS — the official state historical society — has never received support from the city or the state.

    The re-development of the Old Mint will require much more money than the CHS could ever raise on its own, and the city and state will have to contribute. Selling this building, without its air-rights, is only a temporary measure. The Old Mint is the worthwhile and appropriate answer.

    The CHS library is a major resource, and its holdings in art of other artifacts very important in the history of this state. This is a most worthy institution. This building was only one in a journey.

    1. Perhaps it can just move to another location – Oakland, Berkeley, Brisbane ??…it is after all the California Historical Society not SF Historical Society.

      I realize part of the purpose of this location was to have a high visibility location for the retail aspect, but as Dave noted (above) there is plenty of vacant retail space in SF, and I would think the two segments – retail and research – could be separated if necessary and the latter moved to a more economical area.

      1. Actually if you read the linked story, it mentions just that – splitting up the functions – tho they seem intent on the money wasting strategy of keeping admin in SF (tho perhaps that’s necessary for prying doubloons from the gentry of Pacific Heights).

        But one thing the article also mentioned hinted at a bigger problem: apparently they r’d $1M to study that move…that’s right : just to STUDY it. NFP’s may well be entering a Dark Age, financially speaking, as money becomes scarcer, and the whole sector may need to retrench…which I guess this ‘digitalization’ is acknowledging.

    2. The problem is that, aside from a few dedicated nerds like me and a handful of others, no one cares about California history.

      1. I think that’s what NSRETOFAPA was hinting at – albeit in a “weird, conspiratorial” way: the need to have exhibits that are PC , or at least relevant , but don’t alienate the donors. Sometimes you can find things that satisfy both camps – you might, say, have a “History of Agriculture in CA” that’s ostensibly an excuse to pose a bunch of daguerreotypes, but brings in issues like immigration and land use w/o becoming a propaganda fest. But it’s always a challenge: 5 minute attention spans and a Balkanized cultural landscape don’t help.

    3. So if CHS became a State Agency – or part of one like these other states – the Transferable Development Rights issue wouldn’t be a thing anymore for this property And the site could be redeveloped with another 20+ floors with some sort of revenue stream paying for the CHS mission?

      1. The problem remains the economic situation. Building another expensive condo tower or office space is not viable for the medium term. Perhaps longer – Pinterest paid $89 million to abandon its lease of the set to break ground 88 Bluxome (Bay Tennis Club) project. The lease had been for $440 million and now puts in doubt the Bay Tennis Club development. And the whole Central SOMA plan of which this would have been the first major development.

  5. re: Plugger. Sale of development rights is the thing that saved this building to begin with, and saved so many other historic buildings in SF and elsewhere. Had they not sold the air rights above the building to a developer who wanted to build a taller building elsewhere nearby, they would have had to sell the building to a developer to demolish it to build the taller building at this site. A very smart system. What they did with the money from the sale of those air rights I don’t know, one way or the other.

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