Glory restored

Renovated Elks Building, once city's tallest tower, offers new tenants a different kind of office space

By Mary Lynne Vellinga - Bee Staff Writer

Published 12:00 am PST Sunday, January 7, 2007

From left, Steve Telliano, executive vice president of Edelman public relations, owner Steve Ayers and architect Peter Dannenfelser stand inside a former dining room on the Elks Building second floor, where Edelman will move. The space features natural light from the arched windows, which had been painted black. Sacramento Bee/Anne  

Steve Telliano didn't want to work in another "McOffice."

The local head of Edelman public relations toured plenty of new office towers when his firm's lease in the Esquire Plaza expired in 2005.

"Everything sort of felt the same, especially after you've seen half a dozen or more office buildings. They all have different views, but it's all just more or less office space," Telliano said.

So he and his bosses decided to take a chance on the Elks Building, a faded brick and terra cotta beauty at 11th and J streets that once was Sacramento's tallest and proudest edifice.

The 14-story building was still torn up and trashed when Telliano and his colleagues toured it, hardly the sort of place that would create the aura of success befitting a global public relations firm. But building owner Steve Ayers, a local steel company executive, promised that his planned renovation would deliver "spectacular" office space.

He offered Edelman free space elsewhere in the building while the old dining room that once served Elks club members was revamped.

Today, Telliano is preparing to move into the restored dining room, and he agrees with Ayers that his new work space is nothing short of spectacular.

Bit by painstaking bit, Ayers and his architect, Peter Dannenfelser, are bringing the Elks lodge back from a bland 1970s remodel into state offices that included hanging 8-foot-tall acoustic ceilings and fluorescent lighting from the lofty, painted ceilings under which Elks members once met and community members participated in countless graduations and dances.

"We've been taking our time to do it right," said Ayers, who bought the building in 2003. When you've got a masterpiece, you don't rush.

"Life's too short to just do vanilla," Ayers said. "This is not vanilla."

He has installed new bathrooms and a new heating and electrical system in the building. Carpet has been pulled up, and old wooden floors in the ballroom, dining room and main meeting room are being refurbished. Decorative plaster ceilings and wall ornaments have been uncovered and repainted.

Bubble awnings that once covered the transom windows on the first floor have been stripped away, and the space is being remodeled to house McCormick & Schmick's, an upscale seafood chain based in Portland, Ore. The city of Sacramento contributed about $1.8 million to the restaurant remodeling.

The former dining room on the second floor, where Edelman will move, features natural light flooding in from the arched windows, which were formerly painted black. Decorative triangular arches lining the room at the base of the ceiling have been repainted their original pistachio color, and the ceiling's oval-shaped, golden border is visible once more.

Inside this large space, Ayers built free-standing executive offices for Edelman from steel, mahogany and glass in such a way that they don't obscure any of the room's decorative features. Other employees will work in cubicles set up on the dining room's hardwood floor.

Telliano said he and his co-workers are eager to move in. "To have something unique to come to every day makes it fun and different," he said. "You can feel connected to J Street, which is being revitalized. And it's not a McOffice."

The Elks Building was Sacramento's tallest tower when it opened in the mid-1920s. It was designed by Leonard Starks, one of Sacramento's most prolific Beaux Arts architects, whose legacy included the U.S. post office building downtown, C.K. McClatchy High School and the famed Alhambra Theatre, which was demolished in the early 1970s.

A block away from the Elks Building, at 926 J St., another Beaux Arts landmark from the same era also is getting a fresh look. Developer Rubicon Partners is revamping the 82-year-old office tower -- with its distinctive mansard roof -- into a boutique hotel for San Francisco's Joie de Vivre chain, operator of iconic hotels in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Kipp Blewett, one of the partners in Rubicon, called the Elks Building and 926 J St. the "jewels of J Street."

Blewett said he and his partner, Peter Thompson, spent decades developing office buildings in suburban markets such as Roseville, Elk Grove and Natomas. Now they're concentrating their attention on downtown.

Eventually, Blewett predicted, J Street is "going to be the quality restaurant and hotel corridor for the Central City."

He and others involved in the downtown market said the historic buildings in and around J Street are starting to attract a group of young entrepreneurs seeking to tap into the city's budding urban atmosphere.

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Acoustic ceilings were hung from the building's lofty, painted dome during a 1970s remodel. Sacramento Bee/Anne Chadwick Williams