Q&A: An architect rooted in the past

Name: Jonathan Pearlman
Age: 58
City: Healdsburg, San Francisco
Position: Architect, S.F. Historic Preservation commissioner

J: You’re both a historian and an architect with your own firm, Elevation Architects. How do those come together?

Jonathan Pearlman: A reasonable amount of my work [in architecture] is buildings that are considered historic in some manner, shape or form. In San Francisco we’re working on the renovation of the Alexandria Theater out on Geary Boulevard. And there have been other buildings and projects along the way. The building in the Castro right at Harvey Milk Plaza, 400 Castro — I think it’s a SoulCycle now — that building I renovated back in the ’90s.

Jonathan Pearlman

The Hibernia Bank [at Jones and McAllister streets] is a pretty important and significant recent project for us. It’s one of those landmarks of San Francisco. It’s a classical 1892 building, so it’s a real privilege to work on it. It’s a big question mark who is going to lease it; we think it could be a magnificent restaurant, bar or nightclub. It could be a tech company, could be many things.
You’re on the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission. What does that entail?

The purview of the commission is to be the steward of the landmarks and the historic districts, and then any new construction that happens in existing historic districts or work being done to a landmark building. My seat is the architectural historian’s seat.

There are some people in San Francisco who believe if you don’t keep a building in its original condition, you’re violating some principle, and they try to stop changes. But I believe we’re stewards, moving it from today to the future. The builders didn’t expect it to be frozen in aspic forever.
You worked on a restoration of Congregation Emanu-El’s classic building. What was the extent of your work?

I moved here in ’89, and I had a friend at the firm that had this project — they’re still around, RMW — and they said, “The next guy who walks in that’s Jewish, we gotta hire him.” They were just some of the WASPiest guys you could meet, not one iota of what a temple was. I happened to be the guy. I had the real privilege of sitting down the first day of work as the project designer for such an amazing building, a true landmark. My job was to reinforce the image of the original architect. We had original ink-on-linen drawings for the building. There was a lot of ornamental work that never actually got built because they ran out of money. So we were able to design carpets and stenciling that were all based on the original drawings. It was a feeling of being woven into the fabric of San Francisco architectural history.

Who are your biggest influences?

I was born midcentury; my mother was an interior designer who had a lot of interest in what at the time was just modern but is now “midcentury modern,” so I’ve inherited a lot of the furniture [my parents] bought then. We have the Eames chairs and those sorts of things that are originals. That’s where some of what I love to do comes from.
San Francisco is such a great architectural town. Is that what attracted you to the area?

I’d never been out here. I just got a bug that I wanted to be in San Francisco. A big reason was that I’m gay and it’s a big gay mecca. I got involved with AIDS activism in the ’80s. Over the years I’ve done a lot of volunteer work for different organizations, using my architectural skills. I wasn’t on the lines specifically, but I was supporting them with my work for a good decade, from about ’89 through 2000.
What kind of building do you live in?

The house that my partner and I built in Healdsburg is very modern. For an architect, it’s almost impossible to design a house for yourself. Our property looks over these vineyards, so it looks like Italy and we love Italy. We wanted an Italian name, but not “villa” — so went with “Schema Cinquante,” Plan 50, because that’s about how many plans we went through. Our main office is in Healdsburg, but I work in San Francisco a few days a week. So we also have an apartment on Green Street in Russian Hill.

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David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the online editor of J. and "Jew in the Pew" columnist. He can be reached at david@jweekly.com.