The Tribune Tower: Behind one of Oakland’s main attractions

on February 26, 2015

In 1923, world-renowned escape artist Harry Houdini came to Oakland. He hung 112 feet above the ground from one Oakland’s most iconic buildings—then nearly brand-new—to entertain thousands of spectators as he escaped from handcuffs and a straightjacket. Ninety-two years later, the Tribune Tower continues to be one of the main attractions in the city’s downtown skyline; it overlooks the Port of Oakland, Lake Merritt and Oakland City Hall.

The tower was built between 1922 and 1923 by Joseph Russell Knowland, a politician and publisher who owned the Oakland Tribune newspaper. Architect Edward T. Foulkes designed the tower as an addition to an existing six-story building at 13th and Franklin that was built in 1906, formerly known as the Breuner Furniture Company, said Oakland Tribune librarian Veronica Martinez.

The eleven-foot tall neon letters that read “Tribune” across all fours sides of the 16th floor began to shine bright in 1918. The letters and fifteen-foot clock were first installed on the six-story building. The letters were re-installed on the 16th floor and clock on the 20th floor of the  Tribune Tower after it was built. Each number on the clock is 26 inches tall. The hour hand is six feet and three inches long and it weighs about 35 pounds; the minute hand is nine feet and two inches long and it weighs over fifty pounds according a 1918 article in the Journal of Electricity. In a short 1918 article, the Tribune describes the tower and electric sign as “the first of its kind in Oakland.”

While the tower has been a symbol of the newspaper for decades, it mostly housed private residents and the paper’s executive offices—not the newsroom. Between 1918 and 1992, the newsroom was in the six-story building.

Harry Harris is a crime reporter for the Tribune who has covered nearly 5,000 homicides in Oakland since the 1980’s. He and his family have a lengthy history with the Tribune and the building. Harris, who was born and raised in Oakland, has been working for the paper since 1965 where he first started as a copy boy at 17 years old. (In fact, before his mother died in 2004, she told Harris that he had been conceived on the 20th floor of the tower, back when it housed the KLX radio station.) His father, Albert Kayo Harris, was a photographer for the newspaper in the 1930’s. During the days he was a copy boy, he said, “Smoke hung heavy over the newsroom.” Back then, reporters were allowed to smoke in the newsroom, until it was banned in the building in the 1980’s, Harris said.

Harris says big coffee pots brewed around the clock in the newsroom. Typewriters also filled the newsroom before the Tribune started using computers in 1989. He also remembers the sound of the presses running multiple times a day in the adjacent building. “I feel extremely lucky and grateful to have been able to work at my hometown newspaper doing a job I really love,” Harris said. “It is a dream come true.”

But the tower hasn’t always been home to the Trib. The paper first moved out of the building due to damage after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. Despite it’s landmark status—the tower gained city landmark recognition in 1976—the building lay abandoned and neglected between 1989 and 1995 before it was resold multiple times.

The newspaper staff moved to Jack London Square before moving back to the building between 2000 and 2007. (During this period, in 2004, a woman snuck past the tower’s security to jump to her death after tossing copies of her suicide letter off the building.) Since 2007, the Tribune has had two different locations, one on Oakport Street by the Oakland Coliseum and today, one in downtown Oakland at 20th and Broadway. Martinez said the second move out of the tower was due to corporate consolidation.

Jennifer Bronson, who is responsible for business development at the tower, said that Tribune staff members have not been moved back in and there are currently no plans to do so. Yet the 22-story tower with a 360-degree view of Oakland continues to have remnants of the Golden Age of print journalism. On the fourth floor where the call center is located, there are intricate designs above the door frames that Bronson said once led to the offices of managing editors. One of the designs includes bronze angel holding a ribbon that reads “Oakland Tribune.” Bronson also said there is an old safety box in the office that has not been opened.

In 2011, Tom Henderson, a third generation Oaklander and local entrepreneur, purchased the building for $8 million after it went into foreclosure. Since then he has made several renovations and developments. Today, the tower is the home of the Tribune Tavern and Modern Café located on the ground level, a call center for the company CallSocket, as well as law offices and a nonprofit organization.

Henderson also has history with the newspaper. He was a delivery boy for the Tribune 50 years ago during his childhood—back when the Sunday newspaper weighed five pounds, he said. “I’m proud to own the Tribune building,” Henderson said. “We treat it as a 100-year-old building and we take care of it because of its history.”

1 Comment

  1. David on March 4, 2015 at 6:17 am

    How did the “Tribune” letters light up on the 16th floor in 1918 if the tower was built between 1922 and 1923?



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