In 2013, in an effort to raise awareness for a proposed LGBTQ Historic District, south of Market in the former Folsom District, we began leading historic walking tours through this once proud gay-leather neighborhood. The tour’s guides were a Sister of Perpetual Indulgence and her fiancée, av seminary student. I kid you not. Their tours were very informative, their repartee’ was very funny, but it was a big district to cover on foot, and it seemed that many people had never heard of the Folsom District, let alone the Gay and Lesbian Historic District, that is still to this day under proposal.
Another thing that many people oddly knew little about was a partner of sorts on some of our Folsom Tours. Our guests could elect, for a small up charge, to tour the Armory right after their Folsom Tour. The Armory is that big brick castle like building on Mission and 14th, it’s massive form is easily visible from the Central Freeway, the 101 or the 80. I have heard many a person say that they have long wondered about the big castle that they’ve noticed during their freeway commute.
It is hard to tell just what the building’s purpose is at first glance, but really, it has been the home of Kink.com for some time now. In late 2006, The Armory was purchased for $14.5 million by Kink.com. The building had been vacant since 1976, when the National Guard moved to Fort Funston. Even prior to that, the place never saw as much use as one might expect. It was built in 1912-1914, after the previous Armory had been destroyed in the great event of 1906. It was built in a Moorish-Revival style, and served as an arsenal and armory for the National Guard, but only saw any real action in 1934, when the National Guard was called in to violently put down the strikes, and the strikers, who were primarily Longshoremen. The strike shut down all the major ports on the West Coast, many people were killed, and as a result unions were strengthened and San Francisco became a big union town.
Aside from the violence of the 30s, the Armory was famous as the Madison Square Garden of the West, and hosted prize fights for 30 years. A couple times it was used for filmmaking, once for Star Wars, but then it sat vacant for decades. Even though it was for sale, it had landmark status and not much could be done to its appearance, so there wasn’t exactly a bidding war for its deed and title. Enter Kink.com, an Internet porn company that specializes in fetish videos. Kink needed a bigger space and the Armory needed a buyer. It was a match made in heaven.
Without giving too much away, I will tell you that Kink.com conducts daily 90-minute tours of the Armory. The building feels like a sanctuary, the thick walls are somehow comforting, and noticeable attention to detail is pervasive. Kink.com have been good caretakers. The place is spotless, and they are refreshingly obsessed with keeping a germ free work place. The staff is friendly and extremely professional, the tour guides are well informed, well spoken, and entertaining. You won’t see any porn being made, but you will see the sets, the stages, the costumes and all the props. The guides are also very well informed about the building’s history, and the tours I have taken have been a well-balanced mix of porn and history. And as an added bonus, you’ll see Mission Creek running through the basement. So go check it out, I recommend it. The space, the company and the tour are all completely unique and very San Francisco. The history is as fascinating as what you will see on the tour, and the experience is as fun as you might imagine. They do sell out, especially on weekends.
Explore San Francisco is a co-op of tour guides, offering neighborhood, historical, food and drink, and running tours of San Francisco. http://exploresf.biz (415) 504-3636
••••• September 2014 Issue •••••
The construction of Golden Gate Park in the late 1800s sparked the growth of tennis courts.
San Francisco is home to an extensive park system which contains a surprising number of public tennis courts in varied settings. Many are surrounded by stunning panoramic vistas that only San Francisco could serve up. Many of these courts seem barely to be used while others are wildly popular. All the courts have a story to tell as many of them are over 100 years old, dating back to the era when tennis first became a worldwide phenomenon. Although tennis as we know it is an old sport, the roots of tennis are older still.
While evidence is thin on the ground, the game of tennis is believed to hark back thousands of years, with several indicators suggesting the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans played precursors to tennis. For example, the Arabic word for the palm of the hand is rahat, similar to the word racket, while the Egyptian town Tinnis again bears a resemblance to tennis. More substantial evidence emerges from around 1000 A.D., when French monks began playing a crude courtyard ball game. This sport, played against their monastery walls or over a rope hung across a courtyard, took on the name je de paume – “game of the hand.” According to this theory, the word ‘tennis’ was coined by these monks, who would shout the word ‘tenez’ the French for “take that” while they served the ball.
In 1850: Charles Goodyear invented a process for rubber called vulcanization, which made the material used to make tennis balls significantly bouncier. As a result, tennis could now be more easily played by the masses, outdoors on dirt, clay, pavement or grass. At that time, the game was more often than not called “Lawn Tennis.” By this time, the foundations for modern tennis had been paved, and this sport surged in popularity
A few years later, in London in 1874, Major Walter C. Wingfield patented the first rules and equipment for tennis, which he called Sphairistike, the Greek for ‘playing at ball.’ The ubiquity of croquet at the time meant there was a ready supply of smooth outdoor courts, which proved easily adaptable for tennis. Tennis soon spread to Russia and Asia.
It wasn’t long before tennis arrived in the United States in the mid-1870s separately and independently in at least six different places. The first formal lawn tennis club in the Americas seems to have been formed in 1876 in New Orleans, after English merchants in the city on business brought the game over with them. But whether the first lawn tennis court in the Americas was set up in San Francisco (as many claim), in Nahant, Mass. (north of Boston), or Staten Island (New York), in Canada, or even at Camp Apache in the Arizona Territory, or elsewhere – all possibilities – the game quickly became popular with the leisure class, on Army posts, and wherever British merchants and diplomats traveled, which in the 19th century was everywhere.
Coinciding with the spread of tennis was the era of public park creation. In fact, there were two distinct periods in the history of American park building, each defined by a distinctive attitude towards “improving” nature: the romantic approach, which prevailed from the 1860s to the 1880s, emphasized the beauty of nature, while the rationalistic approach, dominant from the 1880s to the 1920s, saw nature as the best setting for uplifting activities such as and education and athletics, including tennis. Public parks were being installed in cities worldwide about the same time as San Francisco was evolving into a full-fledged city.
In 1865, when San Francisco’s Daily Evening Bulletin asked its readers if it were not time for the city to finally establish a public park, residents had only private gardens and small urban squares where they could retreat from urban crowding, noise, and filth. Five short years later, city supervisors approved the creation of Golden Gate Park, the second largest urban park in America. Over the next 60 years, and particularly after 1900, a network of smaller parks and parkways was built, turning San Francisco into one of the nation’s greenest cities.
As a result of the popularity of tennis and the concurrent building of parks throughout the city, San Francisco became home just shy of 150 public tennis courts. These beloved courts, free to the public, and rich in history, are yours to use whenever you like (Please note that the Board of Supervisors under Supervisor Scott Wiener closed the parks at night). Being on public land, they are free from the threat of development and should enrich our communities for generations to come. The same cannot be said for the Bay Club which looks like it may be soon torn down to make way for condos.
If you would like to explore our city’s tennis courts here are two good places to start:
SF Tennis League http://tennissf.com/
Tennis Maps http://www.tennismaps.com/index.asp?regionid=64
Here are the some of the city’s most popular tennis courts:
Golden Gate Park Tennis Complex
The largest tennis complex in the city was built in 1901, 5 years before the great earthquake and fire. The park’s 21 hard-surface tennis courts are nestled between the Conservatory of Flowers and the Children’s Playground. The trees deter the wind from ruining your serve, and courts are typically first come, first served. Players of all levels go for pickup games and private and group lessons ($50 and $20). It’s also the site of the annual City Open.
Alice Marble Tennis Courts
It can get windy on top of Russian Hill in George Sterling Memorial Park, but the views of downtown, Alcatraz, the Marina, and Golden Gate Bridge make it worth the occasional wild serve. The four courts have modern Laykold flooring that provides more cushion and bounce absorption than your average court.
James Moffet Tennis Court
Venture to the Outer Sunset’s Parkside Square, where you’ll find four courts in top condition. They’re largely occupied by longtime neighbors who have been playing here for most of their lives, and as such, the regulars are a little protective of their turf. Hard flooring provides high-bouncing balls, and the surrounding pine trees give off a nice scent.
••••• July 2014 Issue •••••
The Columbarium is a Rare and Hidden Architectural Gem
Unfamiliar even to longtime residents, the Neptune Society San Francisco Columbarium is hidden away behind a retirement complex and perched behind Pier One on Geary Street. Once considered a macabre relic it has been reborn and is open and operational resting place for thousands of dearly departed souls in San Francisco, it is crowned in Neo-Classical grandeur. So if you find yourself with some spare time and would like to see something that you won’t find anywhere else, prepare to be pleasantly surprised and come explore an authentic San Francisco window to the past...
In the 1800’s much of the Richmond District was cemeteries. In the early 1850s, land was purchased in the Lone Mountain-Laurel Heights area where four large cemeteries were created, known as the “Big Four”, these cemeteries consisted of: Laurel Hill in 1854, Calvary, the Catholic cemetery in 1860, the Masonic Cemetery in 1864, and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows Cemetery in 1865.
Even before the first niches began to fill, real estate speculators began to covet the cemetery grounds for much needed land development. Bowing to their pressure, the City banned the sale of cemetery lots in 1902. Cremation within the City limits became illegal in 1910. Cemeteries began to exhume graves on their land and transported the bodies to the newer cemeteries in Colma. What remained of the old grave markers, were sold as scrap to the city to build the seawall at Aquatic Park.
Bernard Cahill’s beautiful columbarium dodged the scrape heap by a hair, when in 1934 the building was deemed a memorial under the Homestead Act. This protected the building and the surrounding land from future civic legislation. Although protected, it lacked a revenue stream due to the ban on new burials in the City. Falling into disrepair over the years from mismanagement, the building was raised from the dead by the Neptune Society, which purchased the beleaguered building in 1980.
These days, the Columbarium stands in a nice, quiet neighborhood, at the end of a cul-de-sac called Loraine Court. The building combines baroque and neoclassical features— painted mauve with purple and green accents — seems surprisingly large from the outside. The entry is done up in red marble, with ornate, artful metal doors. At the summit of the dome seventy-five feet above, a stained glass medallion glowed orange and red, the colors of fire. The interior of the dome is painted peach and blue.
The ground floor houses mostly historic interments from the early 1900s. The niches display rotund brass urns, large enough for the ashes of family members to be commingled. The antiques look solemn, reverent, and built to survive decades of neglect.
All of the urns are sealed behind heavy panes of glass, etched or gilded with the family’s name. Some of the historic nooks still wear their original upholstery, ivory satin swagged and pleated around the walls of the niche. Some of the niches cleverly bypassed the eventual decay of their drapery by replicating the fabric’s folds in wood. The eight rooms on the ground floor bear the names of the mythological winds. Six of the ground floor rooms feature beautiful stained glass windows. The window in the Aquilo room depicts three angels in flight; the first floor rooms are named after constellations. The second and third floors are simpler in design.
The ground floor contains approximately 2,400 niches, the first floor 2,500, and the second and third floors approximately 1,800 each, with an overall total of more than 8,500. The niches themselves are varied and run the gamut from stern to playful. The loved ones of those kept here, have on many occasions decorated the niches with remembrances, photographs, and mementos of those who have passed. Instead of a dark and uncomfortable tombstone that lists the dates of a person’s birth and death you find a celebration of the person’s life, illustrated with poems, stuffed animals, perhaps their favorite record, or photographs of them at home with their family and pets. The overall effect is quite touching, and I found myself smiling at these testimonials to people who lived a good life and were loved.
On the stairway upward, an alcove encloses a chunky teddy bear urn sporting a rainbow headscarf. During the worst of the AIDS plague, dozens of gay men turned to the Neptune Society for cremation and chose the Columbarium for a permanent sanctuary in their chosen home. Throughout the building, their niches are decorated boldly, fierce and proud in the face of death. In fact, a niche was purchased in memory of Harvey Milk, whose ashes were scattered in San Francisco Bay, so that a shrine to him would stand with all the others. Seeing Harvey Milk’s niche, made me feel proud and not sad, and the overall experience of the Columbarium is not dissimilar. It’s nice to celebrate those that have come before us in an environment that is celebratory and life affirming.
David Killian is a guide at Explore San Francisco. His tours include Little Saigon and the Tender Nob Food Tour, Mission District Food Tours and Custom and Corporate Tours. Explore San Francisco is a co-op of tour guides, http://exploresf.biz, 415-504-3636.
••••• February 2014 Issue •••••
24th Street Mission Tastes
While the recent onslaught of Ellis Act evictions diminishes the character of the City and destroys the ecosystem in favor of a more suburban beige experience, the south Mission neighborhood anchored by 24th street, el Corazón de la Missión, is the latest neighborhood under relentless attack. In solidarity, let’s take a look at the some of the traditional iconic eateries serving some of the best food in the Mission.
Although our food tour routes change each time, Explore SF’s Mission-South Food Tour highlights the neighborhood’s Latino gems, beginning with Roosevelt Tamale Parlor. Under new ownership, they successfully blend the traditional—the Famous Round Tamale—with contemporary such as their own Tamale Calabacitas Con Crema. Stuffed with savory squash and smothered in tomatillo sauce, this perfect vegetarian option didn’t leave me wanting for grandmother’s pork tamales! Next, La Palma Mexicatessan, a family owned institution famous for their fresh masa, fundamental to Latino Christmas gatherings. Try huaraches, similar to sopes. Sandal-shaped and filled with chicken, bean, or cactus, they’re superbly fried in a bit of olive oil and served with a glass of pinot. Don’t miss the chicharrón at La Espiga De Oro, made with a thick layer of pork under the skin. You’ll never accept snack “food” companies’ offerings again!
Pulled Pork Chile Colorado
5 dried anchos, arbols or japones (med to hot)
3-4 dried pasilla negros
Handful of dried smoked chipotles or Liquid Smoke 1-2 c stock
2 med onions, chopped
4 lbs pork butts, visible fat removed
Wash, stem, and seed chiles. Soak overnight or quick boil and steep for 30 min. Discard liquid (bitter). Puree in a blender with onions and some of the stock. Press through a sieve to remove skins and seeds. Cut pork into fist-sized chunks. Arrange in slow cooker and cover with sauce. Cook for 6-8 hours.
Shred the pork with a fork. Season to taste with liquid smoke, smoked paprika, salt and pepper.
Explore San Francisco is a locally owned co-op of guides who help us explore and discover the City’s “hidden gems”. For more information on touring SF, check out their website at ExploreSanFrancisco.biz or call them at 415.793.1104
••••• February 2014 Issue ••••
Uptown Tenderloin: City’s Architectural Boiling Pot
Usually when walking through the Tenderloin, most folks are either clutching their purses and wallets tightly while sidestepping the homeless, or making a beeline for the latest foodie discovery. Looking at your surroundings is a wise self-preservation technique in what has been referred to as “the worst neighborhood in the city.” Originally called St. Ann’s Valley, this area was completely destroyed during the 1906 earthquake. The neighborhood was rebuilt with more density, and more concrete. Prior to 1906 there were many single family homes with a smattering of hotels and apartment buildings, after 1906, building codes in this part of the city required safer and more fireproof structures. Wood was out and concrete was in.
Admiral Hotel, 608 O’Farrell St
Along with the higher density and bigger buildings which now had to compete for more tenants, came a smorgasbord of architectural styles, instead of a Victorian neighborhood, something new was born out of the ashes. The name at that time was the “Uptown Tenderloin.”
Next time you happen to be in the neighborhood, take note of some of the spectacular architecture in this historic neighborhood. Some of the city’s most beautiful buildings (and some of the city’s tastiest bites) can be found tucked in among the many nondescript apartment buildings and neighborhood liquor stores.
Alcazar Theater, 650 Geary Street
A leisurely 45 minute stroll down just two streets reveals some true architectural gems “hidden” in plain sight. Starting at Van Ness and Geary, head east a few blocks opposite the one-way traffic on the south side of Geary, and just past Larkin Street, look across Geary, and gaze at the spectacular Alhambra Apartments, 860 Geary StreetAlhambra Apartments (860 Geary Street). Built in 1913 in the Moorish style by native SF architect James Francis Dunn. Born and raised in a working-class, largely Irish, South of Market neighborhood by a widowed mother, Dunn was self-taught as an architect — but remarkably well taught. His buildings can be found all around the city. This apartment building is a beautiful example of some of his best work. The romantic penthouse and dome of the Alhambra are where the legendary Rudolph Valentino reputedly entertained his paramours.
Continue down Geary past Leavenworth and look across the street at the exotic Alcazar Theatre (650 Geary Street). This Moorish/Byzantine masterpiece was originally built as a Shriner’s temple in 1917 by architect T. Patterson Ross.
Castle Apartments, [Maybeck] 825 Geary Street
Explore San Francisco is a locally owned co-op of guides who help us explore and discover the City’s “hidden gems”. For more information on touring SF, check out their website or call them at 415.793.1104
••••• January Issue•••••
1906 Earthquake Shacks Revisited
As word traveled around the country about the horrific event and the hundreds of thousands of homeless and helpless people, trains loaded with supplies began heading toward San Francisco. In the first three days, the Presidio issued 3,000 tents, 13,000 ponchos, 58,000 pairs of shoes, 24,000 shirts. Its on-site bakery distributed large quantities of bread. In addition to distributing food and clothing, the Army ran 21 official refugee camps. These camps were organized and maintained in military fashion, and were among the safest and cleanest of the refugee shelters.
Today, no one knows for sure just how many of these shacks still exist. Because the shacks were so small (typically 14 by 18 feet), many people cobbled together three or four shacks to make a home. In 1984, one home was declared a city landmark when the renter discovered that her house was really three shacks cobbled together at 1224 24th Ave.
Another group of four earthquake shacks was discovered in the Sunset District a few years ago on Kirkham Street near 47th Avenue. The Western Neighborhoods Project is working to preserve these shacks and make them available for public viewing. Several shacks are to be found in Bernal Heights and the Excelsior.
Although fun to find, they are easily missed, and some blend in very well to their surroundings. There is an unverified shack on Pearl near Duboce and in the famous Clarion Alley filled with beautiful murals, there are two shacks in the middle of the block. On our Mission-North Food Tour or our Explore The Mission Tour, we point out these hidden gems and many others, join us sometime as we explore San Francisco.
Explore San Francisco is a locally owned co-op of guides who help us explore and discover the City’s “hidden gems.” For more information on touring SF, check out their website at ExploreSanFrancisco.biz or call them at (415) 793-1104.
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The Armory and the Folsom District
Next up, is pan dulce from La Victoria Panaderia, a 60-year-old institution offering baking classes for kids. When I get Gay Married this June, I’ll have the Mexican Wedding Cookies and other pastries catered here! After sweets, we always take our tour groups shopping. While Casa Lucas is popular, I tend toward El Chico Produce. Both are well-stocked and locally owned, so I avoid sending dollars away. Both offer freshly made tortillas, an assortment of queso fresco, canned and packaged goods from North, Central and South America, as well as an array of dried chiles, a staple in any kitchen. Out front, keep an eye out for peddlers selling ēlōtl—roast cob corn slathered with mayo, queso fresco, and chile limon. Bellmar La Gallinita Meat Market is our next stop for “street tacos,” a must for any Mission food tour. Though begging for a fresh coat of paint, it’s the only place to get tacos sesos con limon—beef brain tacos with a slice of lime. Less adventurous eaters opt for the skirt steak or pork. From here enjoy Precita Eyes Artists cooperative and the Balmy Alley Murals.
Castle Apartments, [Maybeck] 825 Geary StreetInto Little Saigon now but still on Geary Street, 825 to be exact, is the Castle Apartments, 36 units and designed by the famous Bernard Maybeck himself and finished in 1928 this building is currently for sale for a mere $10 million dollars. On our weekly Little Saigon and Tendernob Food Tours we traverse this neighborhood and eat some of the most exciting food in the city. Besides the fact that traveling in a group is safer and more fun than venturing into the Tenderloin without guidance. We know of eateries here that will change your opinion of this part of the city forever more. Some of the places here are amazingly superb, join us!
On Wednesday, April 18, 1906, at 5:12 a.m., the ground under San Francisco shook violently for 65 seconds. Earthquake damage was severe, but the ensuing fires were truly catastrophic. Burning for three days, they destroyed over 500 city blocks in the heart of the city. Overcome by shock, panic, and confusion, over half of the city’s 400,000 people ended up homeless.