717 Battery St. (Under Construction) – San Francisco – 94103 – 14/14
717 Battery St.
Whither the city’s insatiable appetite for all things exclusive? To a private club complete with 20-person hot tub and chandelier of taxidermy seagulls, apparently.
Opening this summer, The Battery is a 50,000 square foot, 4-story private club at 717 Battery Street. The space will include four bars as well as a fine dining restaurant, 3,000 bottle wine cellar, library, game room, 14 luxury hotel suites, and a fitness club complete with aforementioned ultra-tub.
The Battery is the creation of Michael and Xochi Birch, who sold the social networking site Bebo to AOL for $850 million in 2008 in a deal that has since been called one of the worst acquisitions in history (AOL reputedly resold Bebo to Criterion Capital Partners for less than $10 million a mere two years later).
But we digress. In 2009, the Birches bought the historic Musto Building for $13.5 million and spent tens of millions more to transform the Battery Street property into a playland for people who’ll be able to afford this sort of thing, although scholarships will be available for persons interesting enough to qualify. “We don’t want to filter people based on how wealthy they are," Birch told the S.F Business Times. “We want people based on how interesting they are." Birch has said that membership will be reasonable for people who make $100,000 a year.
The Battery’s founders simply cannot stress enough that diversity and an egalitarian exchange of ideas are at the core of The Battery’s mission. From the club’s teaser site:
Inspired by the city of San Francisco and its diverse culture, The Battery is designed to engage and stimulate forward-thinking minds in the arts, technology and other thriving industries. Our vision is to create a culture where inspiration is embraced, diverse communities come together and egos are checked at the door.
At 717 Battery St., San Francisco-based architecture firm FME (formerly Fee Munson Ebert) has pulled off perhaps the most complicated 50,000-square-foot building San Francisco has ever seen. The former candy warehouse is being converted into the Battery, a private club with four bars, a fine dining restaurant, a 3,000-square-foot wine cellar, a poker room, a gym, a 20-person hot tub and a 14-suite deluxe inn.
The creation of Michael and Xochi Birch, who sold the social networking site Bebo to AOL for $850 million in 2008, the Battery is “designed to engage and stimulate forward-thinking minds in the arts, technology and other thriving industries.”
From an architectural standpoint, the Battery required it all: historic preservation, seismic retrofit, archeological reports, all new mechanical/electrical/plumbing. It juxtaposes brick and timber against modern feautures like a floating stairway and all-glass elevator. It opens in October.
We sat down with FME partner and project architect Greg Sheppard to chat about the project and what he’s up to.
Q: Obviously 717 Battery is a historic building, but you managed to do some pretty cutting-edge modern design.
A. That was the intent of the whole project — this collision of this modern insertion and old San Francisco. We like the modern stuff, and I think that is the best way to preserve the building, to make a distinction between old and new. Rather than blur the lines of Ye Old San Francisco. Keeping the building vital you have to do something new to it, keep it relevant.
Q: The elevator was made in Finland, right?
A: It’s a totally custom elevator with the glass floor. We think it’s the only one in the U.S. Michael wanted a Willie Wonka elevator and we tried to get as close to that as we could given the constraints of an old building and elevator codes.
Q: Are elevator codes tough to deal with?
A: You are building a one-off vehicle — it’s like building a car. To custom design that and get it to work and get the state to accept it was a challenge. The state is used to seeing the same elevator over and over again. To throw them something unconventional, with a glass floor and glass counter weight, they just seize up.
Q: You managed to win the support of the Telegraph Hill Dwellers. What is the secret to that?
A: We already knew what the neighborhood expected and tried to stay within that. They said they would accept a one-story addition. As the program started to grow, the challenge of finding new space meant we had to excavate 16 feet down, rather than go up. It would have been cheaper to go up, but it would not have been approved.
Q: You like to work on old motorcycles. Is there anything you learn from working on bikes that helps with a project like this?
A: Absolutely. What I do with motorcycles is kind of what I do with buildings. Take something that is beyond its useful life, like a 1982 Susuki GS 650, a utility bike that has no glamour, and make it modern and fun by stripping it down to a utility cafe racer. The last three projects I have worked on — 180 Montgomery, the Battery and Catherdral School for Boys — were all given a new, colorful edge.
Q: What’s your next big project?
A: I am involved with a project for Recology. Right now it’s fairly small — an expansion of the black can for landfill. But eventually they are looking at an 800,000-square-foot facility over the next 20 years to expand services as San Francisco grows.
Q: What is your Favorite place in San Francisco?
A: Now that I have a (4-year-old) daughter, one of my favorite places is Precita Park. Sunday coffee in the morning, picnic in the park and ice cream before we go home.
J.K. Dineen covers real estate for the San Francisco Business Times.
Michael and Xochi Birch are seen in the Musto Bar of The Battery, their new hotel and private social club, in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2013.
The courtyard entrance of The Battery is seen from Pacific Ave. on Monday, Sep. 30, 2013 in San Francisco, Calif. The marble tiles that make up the floor of the courtyard provide an homage to the history of the building which was once a marble factory. Ken Fulk was hired as creative director and brought six of his architects to the project, while FME Architecture + Design worked on the building’s core and shell and BCCI Construction Co. undertook a seismic retrofit that required an excavaton of the building’s footprint and foundation while retaining the original period structure. Photo: Russell Yip, The Chronicle
The Battery, a private luxury members only club located in San Francisco’s historic Jackson Square neighborhood is one of the most exclusive locations in the world. Founded by the philanthropists and social media successes Michael & Xochi Birch, The Battery is unlike anything the world has ever seen: a club infused with the romance of a throwback era but pulsing with the rhythms of contemporary life. Housed in the iconic Musto Plaza building, a site renovated into a vibrant blend of historic and modern architecture, The Battery is home to two restaurants, four bars, a lounge, a world class spa & fitness center, a 3,000 bottle wine cellar, and grand library. The property features a 2,000 square foot penthouse with breathtaking views of The San Francisco Bay Bridge & Financial District skyline. Its interior, designed by renowned interior designer Ken Fulk, features a 19 bleached mahogany and sandstone bar for entertaining, a custom stainless steel and marble residential style kitchen and a solid walnut-lined master bedroom with Bulgari chandelier. Bias cut travertine marble swaths the walls and one feature wall of the suite. The unit also features a 1,200 square foot outdoor terrace, featuring a reflection pool, Jacuzzi, Viking Grill and fire pit. The perfect place to pop the question, seal the deal, ring in the New Year, or just enjoy the best that San Francisco has to offer. The club offers four unique & distinct private event spaces for public booking.
To get to the root of San Francisco’s newest and biggest social experiment – the Battery, a private social club opening in the Financial District this month – you have to go back to London’s Southside Bar in the summer of 1990, to the bottom of a pint of ale.
There, beer in hand, was Michael Birch, a British physics major at Imperial College. A few chairs over was Bay Area business major Xochi Torres, studying through the University of London and sipping a snakebite-and-black – half lager, half cider, topped with black currant juice.
The pub offered students half-price drinks, one reason Michael said he lived there “seven days a week, 10 hours a day." He also liked meeting people – and that he did when Xochi (ZOE-chee), trying to escape another man’s unwanted advances, sidled up and asked him to dance.
The chance meeting led to love, and to the discovery of a mutual love of programming and, after they wed in 1994, to the creation of a handful of startups, including Bebo, a social network that was bigger than Facebook in the United Kingdom, Ireland and New Zealand, and which they sold to AOL for $850 million in 2008.
That financial success has allowed them to combine elements of both passions – for bars and bringing people together – in the Battery, a private social club in a turn-of-the-century marble factory in the Financial District.
“We’re fans of the village pub, where everyone knows everyone," Michael said during a hard-hat tour in August. “A private club can be the city’s replacement for the village pub, where you do, over time, get to know everyone and have a sense of emotional belonging."
The five-level, 58,000-square-foot club at 717 Battery St. contains a high-end restaurant, four bars, a wine cellar, a library, meeting rooms, a gym and spa, an outdoor garden and 14 hotel rooms, including a penthouse suite with views of the Transamerica Pyramid and the Bay Bridge. A dramatic glass elevator and glass railing on an imposing steel and glass staircase to the lower level are among the design highlights.
While “private social club" connotes money, insularity and elitism to some, these social media millionaires want their establishment to reflect Silicon Valley-style meritocracy. They see it as an egalitarian watering hole where they want diversity, not homogeneity, to rule.
Still, the public cannot apply. Prospective members must be nominated by an existing member, and a membership committee, whose composition and criteria are confidential, decides who will be accepted. Dues are $2,400 a year, about the annual cost of a high-end fitness club, with scholarships for those who need them.
Computer use and shop talk will be discouraged in favor of chats about the arts, ideas, current affairs, wine and food. Only 1 in 3 of what the Birches hope will be a membership of 1,000 will come from high tech, while others might be painters, philanthropists, doctors, lawyers, singers, actors or even drag queens, to keep the mix fun.
“The reality is, many things in life are exclusive," Michael said. “A job requires qualifications, for instance. So does a credit card, or a bank account. It’s not about being snooty."
“We want diversity in every sense of the word," said Xochi, citing gender and ethnicity as being among the factors they will take into consideration when approving members for the club. “I view it as us trying to curate a community."
San Francisco interior designer Ken Fulk, who created interiors for the couple’s homes in San Francisco and London and for the offices of their Monkey Inferno business incubator on Tehama Street, was hired as creative director and brought six of his architects to the project, while FME Architecture + Design worked on the building’s core and shell.
When purchased, the 1907 Musto building was, Fulk said, “an ugly duckling," covered in white paint, its interiors filled with cubicles and its courtyard overgrown and filled with trash. The couple wanted to revive the building, respect its history and expose its bones, Fulk said. “Without being faux re-creationist, we wanted to create spaces that felt they may have evolved over time inside the building."
On the hospitality end, the couple enlisted Tex Doughty, who worked as director of operations for Alain Ducasse’s Michelin-starred Mix restaurant at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, as general operations manager (or “evil overlord," as stated on his LinkedIn page), along with French master sommelier Christophe Tassan and Michelin-starred chef Jason Arbusto.
Fulk characterized the couple as being “without airs," a sentiment echoed by other friends.
It was 2008 when Scott Harrison, the chief executive officer of Charity Water, a nonprofit that brings drinking water to developing nations, e-mailed Michael, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and MySpace founder Tom Anderson, suggesting they forgo birthday gifts and ask their social network friends to make donations to Charity Water in the amount of the entrepreneurs’ ages instead.
Michael was the only one who responded, Harrison recalled, noting it was a great idea but a poor time for him to get involved. (The Birches were selling Bebo, their third child was due, and Michael had a medical condition that required open-heart surgery.)
The couple met with Harrison a few months later at his office in New York, just as Charity Water – successful at securing public donations for its projects – was about to run out of payroll funds. Harrison thought that the meeting went badly and that Michael didn’t like him.
“I was shocked a couple days later when he wired $1 million into the charity’s bank account," Harrison said. Birches have since taken trips to Cambodia and the jungles of Africa to support Charity Water projects, and donated millions more. “They’ve done this quietly and never asked for recognition in any way – it’s genuine," Harrison said.
Julia and Kevin Hartz of Eventbrite, a ticketing website, were introduced to the Birches by a mutual friend and met over lunch at the 21st Amendment Brewery the same year. The Birches were the first outside investors in the firm, and the first to reveal their formula for making marriage and a business partnership work: “Divide and conquer, never work on the same area of the business at the same time," Julia Hartz recalled. “We live by that 100 percent." (Read more about Julia Hartz on Page 10).
In the years since, the couples have traveled with their children on family vacations, including driving to Lake Tahoe in an RV. “They are quite literally the most down-to-earth people we know in Silicon Valley, and it’s funny to say that, because they don’t do down-to-earth things," Julia Hartz said. “I look at Michael as Willy Wonka or Walt Disney. The Birches are fantastical in their ideas, but at their core, down-to-earth people."
Like Wonka, who blasted through the roof of his chocolate factory in a glass elevator to take in the big picture of the city below, the Birches are trying to blast through the compartmentalization of San Francisco’s social scene by bringing people of disparate genders, races, occupations and ages together. The youngest member of their social club is 21; the oldest is more than 80.
“We like the extremes because it makes meeting people fun," Michael said. “I’m definitely one of life’s dreamers. It will be a great place for dreaming."
Carolyne Zinko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.