How Yelp Brought A Sprawling Campus Feel To Downtown SF

Studio O+A converted a historic San Francisco high-rise into a vertical campus for Yelp’s expanding business.

Yelp’s new headquarters in downtown San Francisco has the qualities of a sprawling tech campus squeezed into a relatively narrow Art Deco tower. The offices, by San Francisco-based interior designers Studio O+A, spread across 13 remodeled floors in the historic Pacific Telephone Building, a 26-story tower built in 1925 and originally home to Pacific Telephone & Telegraph (later Pacific Bell).


The sizable new space speaks to Yelp’s grand ambitions and rapid growth (despite controversy). Since the company signed the lease in 2012, it has gone from 500 San Francisco employees to around 1,200.

The space also underscores San Francisco tech companies’ appreciation for renewing old buildings. Airbnb recently renovated a 96-year-old warehouse. Twitter made its home in a former furniture mart (where the company is installing vintage log cabins). It’s not only that companies are searching for historic character in their spaces; it’s a reality of doing business in San Francisco, where legislative caps restrict the amount of new office space. If companies want to stay in San Francisco–a proposition tax breaks make ever more attractive–they have to buy up office space in older buildings, giving designers an opportunity to mix old architecture with new technology.

But older structures have their challenges, and the Pacific Telephone Building was no exception. The building has a relatively small footprint–L-shaped floorplates make the place feel even smaller–which made it an unusual choice for a tech company, says Primo Orpilla, a principal at Studio O+A. Orpilla would know. His firm remodeled Yelp’s previous offices in 2010, as well as the offices of Facebook, Square and others.

Yelp wanted historic character and a convenient downtown location rather than the sprawling floor plan that characterizes most tech offices–Square’s office building, for instance, takes up the length of a full city block. But fostering a sense of community can be hard when employees are isolated on different floors, so O+A aimed to cultivate the culture of a vertical campus, where employees still have a chance to circulate across floors and bump into each other.

To accomplish this, different functions are spread throughout the building, and they are all connected by a historic staircase that runs throughout the center of the building. Yelp leases floors two through 14, but the reception area is on the ninth floor, where the lobby is designed to look like an old-timey general store, a nod to the company’s merchant clientele. The eighth floor features a coffee shop, and the fifth has a break room with abundant window seating. Private pods to play chess or have a quick chat are on the 11th floor.


O+A took pains to honor the history of the original Art Deco tower. “It’s a beautiful vintage building,” explains Studio O+A principal Denise Cherry. “For us the design isn’t about a huge heavy-handed color approach.” The designers left the building’s brick and concrete exposed and reused historic doors from the building’s Pacific Telephone days. Reclaimed wood complements the vintage look.

The more subdued palate of the interiors is also intended to allow Yelp’s employees to put their own spin on the space. At Yelp, “they like that kind of cacophony of opinion,” Cherry says. “I think that extends to their office–as you walk through the floors it starts to take on a patina of the people who work there.”

Check out the new digs in the slide show above.


About the author

Shaunacy Ferro is a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences. She's on a lifelong quest for the perfect donut.