Working on a Building

Joseph R. Knowland built the 21-story Tribune Tower in 1923, on top of a six-floor furniture store that had opened in 1907. For much of the 20th century, it was Oakland’s real seat of political influence—the original Tower of Power.

Tribune Tower building

Photo courtesy The Oakland Tribune Collection, the Oakland Museum of California.  

Knowland was the publisher, editor, and president of the Oakland Tribune, and a kingmaker in the Republican party. Earl Warren was one of his many protégés; Knowland’s second son, William F. Knowland, became one of the most powerful Republicans in the US Senate, and—after a failed bid to become California’s governor—went on to run the Tribune.

Joseph Knowland

Joe Knowland died at home, in Piedmont, in 1966. Bill Knowland died by his own hand on February 23, 1974, just two days after the Tribune celebrated its 100th anniversary.

The Oakland Tribune was sold and resold, multiple times. The Tribune Tower was damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake, and abandoned for much of the decade that followed. The massive neon signs that had turned the building into a physical beacon, as well as a landmark and symbol of the city it served and presided over, went dark.

Developer John Protopappas bought the tower for $300,000, in 1995, and sold it for millions more, in 2006. The Oakland Tribune, which had moved back into its offices in 1999, moved out for good in 2007. 

The building eventually went into foreclosure. Today, it’s home to a few small businesses, lawyer’s offices, and non-profits.

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The Tribune Tower isn’t quite a zombie building, as it was for much of the 1990s. But most of it is empty.

The Tower changed hands again last December. Earlier this month, we contacted the building’s new owners, who plan to open a call center on the lower floors, and asked if we could tour the tower. Neither of us had ever been inside of the building. But on June 6th we woke up at the crack of dawn, took an elevator to the 20th floor, and climbed up to the tower’s highest parapet.

porthole collage

There, we watched a steeplejack named Jim climb to the top of an 86-foot flagpole.

At one point, the tower had served as a docking station for dirigibles. Now, as Jim climbed, a blimp flew past us.

blimp collage

We admired the view.

Later, we had coffee with the Jim, who told us that he retired a few years ago. These days, he takes just a few jobs a month.

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For most of that morning, we were accompanied by John Law, a Bay Area artist who maintains the tower’s neon signs and keeps a small, unbelievably cool office high up in the building’s rafters. (Among other things, John is known as a founder of the Burning Man festival; he’s the man who first lit the Burning Man statue in neon, turning it into a physical beacon in the Nevada desert.) John Law is not a steeplejack. But we weren’t surprised to hear that he, too, has climbed to the top of the Tribune Tower’s flagpole.

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That afternoon, we visited some of the building’s other floors, checked out the immense machines that used to run the building’s elevators, and walked around the 16th floor parapet, behind the giant neon letters that spell out TRIBUNE.

The Tribune Tower is almost ninety years old (it’s a lot older, if you count the original stories) but, like Oakland itself, it’s still a work-in-progress.

Special thanks to Tom Henderson, Jennifer Bronson, Merrick Pearson, and Kevin Binkert.