History and Renovation

Kahn’s Department Store, a.k.a. Liberty House Department Store, now known as the Rotunda Building, is a designated National Register Historic Landmark that is currently located at 300 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza in Oakland, CA.  Today, after a number of additions to the original structure, it is a seven-story plus basement commercial building organized around a six-story skylit rotunda.  The structural frame is part steel and part reinforced concrete. The plan is an irregular shape with frontages on three major streets. Its dome and classical ornamentation are derived from Beaux Arts sources.



The original 1912 plan was “Y” shaped with the dome crowning the intersection of the three legs. The building was steel frame, with four stories plus basement and mezzanine.  A 1923 six-story reinforced concrete addition filled in the northeast corner of the site, transforming the “Y” floor plan into an irregular “L” shape. The original structure occupied 167,000 square feet. The 1923 addition brought its square footage to 385,000. The original building was a two-part vertical block with differentiated end bays.

Monumental terra cotta entry arches at the ground level of the end bays were framed by large rusticated piers. The ground level also had large display windows with prismatic glass transoms.  A terra cotta belt entablature with foliated cresting above the doorways separated the base from the upper floors that were arranged in six window bays. The exterior was clad in light brown brick with a marble and terra cotta ornamental frieze.  There was a large projecting galvanized sheet metal cornice with mutules.  Upper-floor Chicago Windows were wooden sash. Recessed decorative pressed metal spandrel panels separated the upper floors on the center four bays.  The frieze of the main entablature and the spandrels of the upper floors on the end bays had inlaid marble panels.

Crowning the building was a thirty-six-foot-high elliptical dome and eighteen-foot-high lantern.  The glass dome sat directly on the flat roof and was divided into twelve main sections by sheet metal ribs.  The converging ribs terminated in over-scaled volutes buttressing the base of the lantern that was capped by a hemispherical sheet metal dome.  The 1923 addition was a two-part vertical composition with an attic. The skeletal frame was articulated on the facade. Vertical piers framed six window bays and culminated in a restrained terra cotta cornice at the sixth story.  This was surmounted by an attic crowned with antifixae.  The facade treatment was similar to but simpler than that of the original building. Materials were the same, but the upper floor spandrel panels were brick, and the end bays were not articulated. Upper floor windows were divided into two divisions rather than three. The decorative marble and terra cotta frieze was a continuation of that of the 1912 building.  A large terra cotta cartouche supported a corner-mounted flagpole at Broadway/Telegraph and Sixteenth Street.


Beneath the skylit dome stood a ninety-five-foot by seventy five-foot elliptical rotunda.  At the ground level twelve square columns with indented corners supported a classical entablature with a dentiled cornice topped by a classical balustrade. A ring of incandescent light bulbs illuminated the rotunda at this level.  Between the third and fifth floors twelve two-story fluted Corinthian columns supported a second entablature with modillioned cornice and an alternating inverted shell and cartouche cresting.  A decorative wrought iron rail encircled the fourth floor.  Above the fifth floor twelve sheet metal ribs decorated with rosettes sprang from plaster cartouches and converged in concentric rings of ornamental sheet metal surrounding an open-work metal plate.  The rest of the building was simple loft space organized around the light-filled rotunda and main stairway, located at the northwest end of the rotunda.  The stairway had marble treads and decorative iron risers. The intricate wrought iron railing terminated in a large fluted cylindrical cast iron newel post. Four cartouches containing a “K” (for Kahn’s) ringed the top of the post.  The ground floor had coffered ceilings and column capitals decorated with lions heads, festoons, and egg and dart molding.


Several alterations were made to the exterior in the 1930’s and 1940’s.  In 1937 the base of the building at Broadway and Sixteenth Street was remodeled. The prismatic glass transoms were removed, and flat tile covered the large display windows.  The San Pablo Avenue façade retained its original appearance, except that the prismatic glass was painted.  In 1947 the original arched entries at the end bays were filled in with glass, and a new entrance was cut into the original display windows on San Pablo Avenue.  In 1949 two partial levels were added.  The interior was remodeled extensively.  Two floors at the rotunda shaft were filled-in in 1949.  Ornamental plaster coffered ceilings were removed. The ornamental plaster was left intact only at some column capitals, the two upper levels and dome, and a small area around the main staircase.


With few exceptions, the 1930’s and 1940’s storefront alterations were reversed in the recent (1984-1988) rehabilitation.  Existing historic fabric was cleaned.  The sheet metal dome, cornice and panels; and the brick, terra cotta, marble and prismatic glass were repaired.  The cast iron storefront and terra cotta arch on San Pablo Avenue are presently being repaired.  The 1937 storefront alterations on Broadway and Sixteenth Street were removed.  The 1912 storefront was restored to its original appearance.  A contemporary glass storefront was installed on the 1923 addition.  The Kahn Alley elevation was somewhat modified to accommodate shear walls and mechanical equipment ventilation.

Concrete was repaired and window openings enlarged on the 1949 rooftop addition. On the interior the original ornamental sheet metal and plaster which remained on the dome was restored.  The two floors which were in-filled in 1949 were removed from the rotunda shaft.  This portion of the rotunda including ornamental plaster, metal railings and wood balustrades was reconstructed based on photographs and original drawings.  Modifications to the original included the extension of the mezzanine to the rotunda edge, creating a new second story.  A section of the ground floor was removed, extending the rotunda for the first time into the basement, where a simple arcade was constructed. (See drawing, page 8).  The major part of the interior was of no historic significance and has been rehabilitated. The few remaining areas of historic significance are being restored.  These include an ornamental metal, marble and tile stair; tile remaining at the San Pablo Avenue entrances; and ornamental column capitals throughout the building.


Oakland developer Phil Tagami organized and executed a $50 million historic restoration and renovation of the Rotunda Building.  As an anchor building in the heart of Downtown Oakland, it proudly shares the plaza with Oakland City Hall—another significant historic landmark building.  After a 3 year renovation, the Rotunda opened in 2001 as a seven story Class-A office building with ground floor retail.

National Register of Historic Places, Kahn’s Department Store, Oakland, Alameda County, California, National Register #89000194


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: