Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Hills Bros. Coffee, 2 Harrison Street, San Francisco, Interpretive Exhibits

The Legacy of Hills Brothers Coffee

We believe legacy is a valuable asset, one earned not purchased.
If you've got it, by all means, tell your story well.

Leveraging history is often overlooked as a brand asset and tool for community engagement.
We have all seen the iconic Wells Fargo stage coach and recognize its value to their bank.  What is your company's Stage Coach is my question?  If you have a legacy of excellence in your community, with satisfied customers over generations, this will make a powerful statement about your brand.

In the lobby of No. 2 Harrison Street, San Francisco, now home to Mozilla, Google, Gensler Architects, and a host of leading innovative firms, you can tour the history of San Francisco's original coffee company.  Hills Brothers, established in the late 1800s, created an aroma that augmented the City's waterfront experience for generations.  No. 2 Harrison was original built by Hills Brothers for their factory, distribution center and headquarters, opening in 1925.  The lobby exhibits trace this legacy from Hills Bros. humble beginnings, through the generations of this family owned company, as they expanded to become a global leader in the coffee industry.

Hills lobby front desk

Reception Desk at 2 Harrison, 1935 S.F. Bay Bridge Panorama

To create this program, we had the pleasure of working with the building's original developer Betawest, Hills Brothers, project architect David Colleen of Whistler Patri, and most memorably, Carol T. Wilson, the company's historian, who began his career in this building in 1924.

Panoramic Mural
This 12-foot wide panoramic photograph, hand-tinted by Hall, shows Hills Plaza and the Bay Bridge under construction. It is a one-of-kind site-specific piece made from the original negative.

hills panorama lobby

Main Exhibit - historic lobby of 2 Harrison Street

hills_lobby-entr-2harrison-2Hills Bros. Coffee Mills Storefront from 1884 to 1894

Hills Bros. Arabian Coffee & Spice Mills, was located at the corner of Sansome & Sacramento Streets, serving as both a factory and home office for the growing company from 1884 to 1894.  This site later became the site of the Federal Reserve Bank.

—original hand-tinted black and white photograph.


Unloading coffee at Hills Bros. at 175 Fremont Street c1915
Following two years in temporary quarters after being nearly wiped out by the Earthquake and Fire of 1906, a new building was completed for Hills Bros. at 175 Fremont Street.  Hills Bros. grew rapidly from 1908 through 1925, when they moved to 2 Harrison Street.

—original hand-tinted black and white photograph.

hills lobby founders sign

 Dedication Plaque honoring Hills Bros Founders

Hills Bros. was founded February 14, 1878, in San Francisco when two brothers, Austin H. Hills (1851-1933), and Reuben W. Hills (1856-1934), formed a partnership to sell retail dairy products in a stall in Bay City Market located at 1146 Market Street.  Three years later they became owners of Arabian Coffee & Spice Mills. This marked the beginning of their growth to become one of the nation's largest and most notable coffee companies.  Burned out by the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, these courageous brothers went on to achieve their destined mark in coffee history.  This building was the home office and plant for Hills Bros. from January 1926 until April 1990, when remodeling began to make this structure a vital part of the new block-square Hills Plaza.

The partnership Hills Bros. was incorporated in 1914, but the name was not changed to Hills Bros. Coffee, Inc. until the early 1930's.  These are the three generations of Hills men who directed the daily operations of this 98-year-old family-owned business until it was sold in 1976, later to become a strategic part of the new Nestle Beverage Company. The company was later sold to Sarah Lee in 1999 and was sold to Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA in 2005

—original hand-tinted black and white photographs; 
silkscreen acrylic signage, set on hand-painted steel backing system

 hills founders sign

Three Generations of Hills Brothers

Austin H. and Reuben W. Hills break ground for their new building at
2 Harrison Street, August 12, 1924

The sons of the founders. . .
Herbert G. Hills next to his father A. H.; Leslie W. Hills, Edward E. and
Reuben Hills, Jr., the three sons of R. W.  

The Grandsons. . .
Herbert G. Hills Jr., Austin H. Hills, Leslie W. Hills (second generation),
and Reuben W. Hills, III

Hills lobby #2 harrison main display

Main Lobby Exhibit, #2 Harrison

This group showcases historical milestones of the Hills Brothers Coffee Company, featuring the famous tasting table a 2 Harrison as its centerpiece, set onto a 4" x 2" solid mahogany backing, flanked by two reproductions of the Holden Murals depicting the history of coffee.  Image on the far right shows 1851 shot of South Beach area showing the future location of the building before the landfill was done.

hills construction progress

Construction progress of 2 Harrison

This series shows the construction progress of the 2 Harrison Street plant and offices of Hills Bros. from ground-breaking August 12, 1924, until completion at the end of 1925.   The architect was George W. Kelham; builder was P. J. Walker Company. Each piece is an original hand-tinted black and white photograph.

Construction progress of 2 Harrison, November 8, 1924

hills 2 Harrison cross section

Cross-section Elevation of No. 2 Harrison Street Facilities

This cross-section illustration of the Hills Bros. plant at 2 Harrison Street shows the path coffee beans traveled after arrival in the warehouse until they were blended, roasted and vacuum-packed for shipment.  The orange bins in the center of the Green Coffee Mixing Tower were used in combining various lots of coffee to prepare the final Hills Bros. blend.  The cup testing rooms are at the top right side of the building.


Storefront Display, Merchant Corp, led by Carol T. Wilson, 

later Archivist of Hills Bros. Company

Hills Brothers Coffee, Merchant corp program who set up store displays for local area stores - crew of 26 at the peak of the program. A three-quarter ton panel truck was designed to accommodate all the display materials used by the Advertising Service Representatives.

Similar displays were installed throughout Hills Bros. marketing area by a crew of Advertising Service Representatives.  Beginning with two men in 1924, this team grew to twenty-four in 1936, when changing styles in grocery store architecture outmoded this type of advertising.

Hills courtyard arab sculpture 

Sculpture in Hills Plaza Courtyard by Spyro Anargyros
of the turbaned icon of the Hills Brothers brand


hills plaque arab sculpture

Dedication plaque in Courtyard

hills hanging the H and model

Electric Roof Sign, Hanging the "H" on No. 2 Harrison Street


LEFT: In 1935, the original electric roof sign facing the Bay was converted from incandescent globes to red neon tubing.  

Background: This photographic model appeared frequently in promotional materials for Hills Bros. Coffee in the late 1920's.

Hills Brothers - Cup Tasting 
At the Tasting Table, Ground level of #2 Harrison Street

This photograph shows the company team at the table conducting cup-testing (c.1930), #2 Harrison, led by Reuben Hills, Reuben Hills, Jr., Elliot Cofer, Dick Bennetts, Gene Hoelter and younger members of the Commodities Department.  This testing procedure continues in use today, with highly qualified personnel using the most advanced equipment to augment their expertise in judging coffee quality by taste and smell, although no longer at this location.

Additional Reference on Hills Brothers Coffee Company:

Behind the Cup - vintage film on Hills Bros from 1930

Our Portfolio of Projects involving History

Our Exhibit Program Methodology

History of Hills Brothers - Blog post on San Francisco Images

Hills Bros Flickr Gallery

Leasing and building office at Hills Plaza

Hills Bros from Wikipedia