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See inside the ‘crazy’ ferryboat-turned-office of this Bay Area business group

The Bay Area Council turned a historic steamboat, the Klamath—which is docked at Pier 9, as seen on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023—into its new floating headquarters. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Perhaps the only office facility in history that rammed a submarine is currently sitting on the San Francisco waterfront, swaying in the sea. 

The Klamath, which for most of its tenure as a Bay Area ferry carried cars and passengers between San Rafael and Richmond, now has a new life as the headquarters of the Bay Area Council, a regional business group. 

People walk up stairs during a tour of the Klamath. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Among the idiosyncratic elements of that transition are a smokestack that has been transformed into a skylight, a newly built roof deck that will be open to the public and interior design from RMW Architecture & Interiors that includes the trappings of the modern office while alluding to the Klamath’s maritime history. 

Another distinctive characteristic? A constant rocking that employees say takes a little getting used to. 

Allen Nudel (left), the principal, structural engineer of Forell | Elsesser Engineers, and Ron Heckmann (right), a design consultant, give a tour of the Klamath on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

While the Bay Area Council’s purchase led to a full-scale renovation of the vessel, the organization is the third to have the Klamath serve as its corporate headquarters.

Landor Associates grew to become one of the largest branding agencies in the world while using the Klamath as its main digs. Inside the Bay Area Council’s break room is an operational fireplace—a legacy of the structure’s time as the headquarters for Duraflame.

The interior spaces of the Klamath offer spectacular views of the bay and the San Francisco skyline. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

In a strange bit of irony, the Bay Area Council was in part responsible for the decommissioning of Klamath as a maritime vessel. 

The organization was a major advocate for the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, which dried up demand for the ferry. The ferry had its last voyage the same day the bridge opened in 1953.

John Grubb, the chief operating officer of the Bay Area Council, who helped spearhead the project, said it was born out of financial necessity. The organization, which is sponsored by local businesses and advocates for economic development across the region, had been based in Downtown San Francisco for most of its history. 

The interior of the Klamath, a boat docked at Pier 9, where the Bay Area Council turned the historic steamboat into its new floating HQ on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Prior to Covid, a tight office market and skyrocketing rents meant the organization’s presence in San Francisco was at risk. So in early 2020, the organization embarked on an effort to purchase and restore the Klamath as its new headquarters as a creative way to stay in the city.

“We went and visited and, as we walked through it, had the creeping feeling that this is crazy, but it also just might work,” Grubb said.

They enlisted structural engineer Forell | Elsesser to help figure out the logistics of constructing the new roof deck and to solve safety and issues that were revealed during the demolition process. One of the innovative solutions was to use landscaping to direct visitors to areas near the middle of the boat and help with balance of the vessel. 

Ron Heckmann, a design consultant, tours the Klamath. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

The commercial real estate market has completely flipped in the intervening three years. That’s not lost on the Bay Area Council, which has focused much of its recovery efforts on that stark reality. 

But Grubb said its unique characteristics, including direct views of Coit Tower, the Bay Bridge and the waterfront gives workers a reason to go into the office.

“Everyday can be a little bit of a different adventure. It keeps the office space fresh and new. The views are some of the best in San Francisco. and all of those were pretty effective at getting people back to work,” Grubb said.

Jenna Szczech of RMW Architecture & Interiors, the lead interior designer, gives a tour of the Klamath. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

As the organization’s corporate members have been downsizing their office spaces, Grubb said the Klamath has become a floating office space in more than one way.

“We’re creating a place where these folks can come in, set down their laptop, have a reception, hold meetings and throw parties,” Grubb said, adding that the boat currently hosts four to five events a week. 

A vintage engine order telegraph is shown onboard Klamath during a tour on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. A telegraph is a communication device used to correspond from the bridge to the engine control room. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

“We’re a 77-year-old organization and plan to be around for a really long time. We think what’s happening is earth-shaking and dramatic, but our members still need a space to work through and figure out what’s next.”