Located on the wedge-shaped corner of Columbus Avenue, Jackson Street, and Kearny Street is San Francisco’s Columbus Tower, also known as the Sentinel Building. The building has a salacious history steeped in speakeasies, singers, artists, and entertainment moguls. The interesting architectural facade and flatiron shape have a magnetic pull that leave you wanting to learn more.
Here’s what to know, whether you’re actually planning a trip to San Fran or just daydreaming about a West Coast getaway.
1. The Sentinel Building Is Owned By Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola, one of the greatest American film directors, producers, and screenwriters of our time, owns the iconic Sentinel Building. Coppola purchased the building from the Kingston Trio in 1972 to house his studio headquarters, American Zoetrope. He added a screening room in the basement and opened the quintessential neighborhood hangout, Cafe Zoetrope.
2. What Is A Zoetrope?
A zoetrope is a 19th-century cylindrical toy that -- when you add a strip of images into the cylinder and turn it -- creates moving pictures.
You can understand why Coppola was intrigued by the toy. It was the beginning of everything for the film industry, and that’s why he named his production company American Zoetrope.
3. The Building’s Steeped In Crime
The Columbus Tower has housed some colorful tenants.
In the early 1900s, the penthouse was the headquarters of the infamous Abe Ruef, a legendary San Francisco lawyer and political boss. Ruef eventually served a five-year prison term for bribery.
During prohibition, the Columbus Tower basement was an underground speakeasy called Caesar’s Grill, and in the 1950s, it became the home to legendary nightclub the hungry i.
4. It’s Home To The Hungry I Nightclub
The hungry i is a standard for comedy acts with its basement setting, bare stage, and brick backdrop. Owned by Enrico Banducci, the nightclub was instrumental in forming the careers of Bob Newhart, Mort Sahl, Barbra Streisand, Shelley Berman, the Kingston Trio, Jonathan Winters, and many others.
According to Banducci’s New York Times obituary, he treated his artists with respect and expected the audience to follow suit. Banducci even went as far as installing cork doors to muffle the cash register noise and halted drink sales during performances.
What does the i in the hungry i stand for? There are many theories, but the most popular one is that it stands for the id -- a reference to the psychic energy of the club’s performers.
5. The Great Caesar Salad Debate Is At Home In The Sentinel
The debate about who invented the Caesar salad is being fought for by two restaurants clamoring for the accolades.
The first is Cafe Zoetrope. Its menu claims the Caesar salad was originally created at Caesar’s Grill, Cafe Zoetrope’s predecessor.
The second is Caesar’s Restaurant, located in Tijuana, Mexico. According to its menu, it is the “House of the Legendary Caesar Salad” -- invented by chef Caesar Cardini.
While the battle rages on regarding who created the salad, one thing we know for sure: It is a delicious staple of the American diet.
6. You Can Join The American Zoetrope Family
You can become a member of the American Zoetrope!
When you join, for free, you can read, review, and submit screenplays, poems, novels, short stories, and photographs.
This artistic community, headquartered in Columbus Tower, also hosts judged contests for screenplays, short stories, and films. Several are even judged by Coppola himself!
7. The Building’s Flatiron Architecture Fills An Unusual Lot
The Columbus Tower is a classic flatiron building. Framed in 1906, it survived the earthquake and fire of 1907. The iron-like shape fills the trapezoid lot created when planned, gridded cities add a crosswise boulevard.
The Sentinel Building was designed by architects Salfield and Kohlberg. This unusual design is covered in interesting green and white tile with copper accents.
8. It’s San Francisco Landmark #33
In 1970, the San Francisco Planning Department declared the Columbus Tower San Francisco Landmark #33, renaming it the Sentinel Building and preserving its unique heritage.
9. The Studio Is Set To Reopen As A Hotel
In October, the San Francisco news site SFist reported that plans are underway to turn five floors of the Sentinel Building into a 15-room boutique hotel. The plan is to leave Cafe Zoetrope, the penthouse suite, and the basement screening room as they are today.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to stay in this magnificent building, steeped in history, in the heart of San Francisco?
Nestled amongst modern high-rise buildings, Columbus Tower is an iconic jewel anchoring the Financial District. Next time you visit San Francisco, make sure to stop and enjoy lunch at the cafe and reminisce about the good old days.
Taking a walking tour? Don’t miss these eight totally free things to do in San Francisco.