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Top 5 Excelsior Commercial Buildings

Mar23rd

We have already admired, written about, and helped with landmark designation for the terrific Royal Baking Company building at 4769-4773 Mission Street, but there are a number of other great commercial buildings in the Excelsior. While there are gems farther out Mission (we love the old Art Deco realty office at 5401 Mission Street), we’re not going south of Geneva Avenue for this post. As with our top 5 residential buildings and top 5 institutional buildings, this list is very subjective. Let us know if you have a favorite one not mentioned!

Central Drug Store
(4494 Mission Street, built 1910)
Central Drug Store at 4494 Mission Street.

The form is simple (a rectangle), but the drugstore on the corner at 4494 Mission Street at the corner of Santa Rosa Avenue has a couple of big reasons for making this list. Central Drug Store is the oldest still-operating business in the Excelsior District, having opened in this spot in 1910. A circa 1950 alteration to the building gave us the sleek Vitrolite sign with “Central Drug Store” in neon. Jerry Garcia bought comic books here when he was a boy, and he is still playing the guitar on the south side of the building along Santa Rosa Avenue in the 2009 work by Precita Eyes Muralists, The San Francisco You Should Know.

Detail of The San Francisco You Should Know on side of Central Drug Store building.

Hibernia Bank Building
(4600 Mission Street at Norton, built 1928)
The former Hibernia Bank branch building at the corner of Mission and Norton Streets.

Designed in Beaux-Arts style by architect Arthur Brown Jr. (principal architect of San Francisco City Hall), this is the oldest standing bank building in the Excelsior. The stately detailing, six grand windows, and high ceiling can still be appreciated in its current use as the Mexican produce and grocery store, El Chico. Other former Hibernia branch buildings were modeled in the same style and can be seen at 18th & Castro Streets, Valencia and 22nd Streets, and Geary Boulevard and 10th Avenue. Bonus building: The US Bank building to the south, built in 1963, is an excellent example of Midcentury Modern-New Formalist Style.

Granada Theatre Building
(4631 Mission Street. Built 1922, remodeled 1931 & 1942)
View north on Mission Street to the old Granada Theatre in April 1947.(Waldemar Sievers photograph, wnp27.50127, courtesy of OpenSFHistory/Western Neighborhoods Project.

In 1931, the Excelsior Theatre was renamed the Granada and given a $150,000 remodel with a tall Spanish-style tower. Ten years later, to keep up with the times, the whole building was given a sleek remodel. The Streamline Moderne lines of the movie house tower now rise above a Goodwill store. There are exciting proposals to welcome visitors to the neighborhood with a new vertical neon blade sign reading “Excelsior.” Bonus building: The former Amazon Theatre building on Geneva Avenue between London and Paris Streets also retains its tower in its current use as a Walgreens drugstore.

The old Amazon/Apollo Theatre building at 981-985 Geneva Avenue has been sensitively adapted for new businesses.

Clean Wash Center
(4680–4690 Mission Street, built 1949)
The 24-hour Clean Wash Center at Mission Street and Persia Avenue.

Architect Mario Ciampi gave this stunner a mix of Midcentury Modern styles. According to our Research Assistant William Beutner, the building was originally commissioned by the Safeway Credit Union as partial office space for its employees (they worked on the top floor while the ground floor housed retail space). Currently a laundromat, the building points into Mission street like a 1930s ocean liner. The rounded corner, the open ground floor, the ribbon of upper-story windows, the great recent paint job… what’s not to like?

4447-4449 Mission Street
(Built 1890s)
Former saloon building on Mission Street between Avalon and Excelsior Avenues.

If modern architecture isn’t your thing, here’s a very intact Victorian-era storefront and one of the oldest buildings still standing in the Excelsior. Originally a saloon for the local farm laborers and people en route to the Ingleside Racetrack on Sundays, it has held a variety of businesses over the last 125 years but kept its second-story porch, paneled bulkheads, and somehow holds on while new buildings sprout on all sides.

Do you have a favorite commercial building in the Excelsior? Let us know at kyoung@sfheritage.org or by using #HeritageExcelsior on social media.


Thanks to Hannah Simonson for her work on the Excelsior & Portola Historic Context Statement (Planning Department, City and County of San Francisco: 2017), helping inform our favorites.

Public Art in the Excelsior

Mar20th

by Kerri Young

“Music is Freedom” mural by Delvin Kenobe Leake on Francis Street and Mission Street, funded by Excelsior Action Group and the Cucalon Family. Dedicated to the residents, families, and community of the Excelsior as a tribute and celebration of culture and diversity. (Heritage photo, December 2019).

Some of San Francisco’s most outstanding art is found on city streets, in exuberant neighborhoods like the Excelsior. As part of our Heritage in the Neighborhoods project, we’ve mapped some of the best known examples of public art in this southern district. Many pieces were created as part of the Excelsior Action Group’s (EAG) ongoing mural program, with participation from students, San Francisco-based artists, and Excelsior community members. Many standout mosaic pieces can also be found in the Excelsior, from the tiled steps in Kenny Alley to the Ever Upward Sculpture at Geneva and Mission. While some murals have since been painted over, you can visit EAG’s Mural Program page for examples of community murals painted in the past. Themes depicted in Excelsior’s public art include neighborhood pride, significant local places and buildings, multiculturalism, natural landscapes, and more. In addition to EAG, we’d like to thank SF Mural Arts for their past work in mapping the Excelsior’s murals (as well as others around the city), and Heritage’s very own Research Assistant William Beutner, who has also completed research on art in the Excelsior.

We’ve included highlights of murals and mosaics that we know currently still exist today. This map is by no means comprehensive as we could not go out and confirm as many as we would like, so we welcome your suggestions! Please email kyoung@sfheritage.org if you have knowledge of (and even have photos of) existing Excelsior art that we’ve missed.

Detail of the “Last Supper”-themed murals on the the facade of the Royal Baking Company Building at 4773 Mission St.


“Waiting for the 52 Excelsior” (2001) by Marta Ayala on Excelsior Avenue at Mission Street.

Detail from “The San Francisco You Should Know,” created by Precita Eyes Muralists in 2009 to acknowledge the history of the Excelsior District and the heritage of its residents. 

Filipino Life in the Excelsior

Mar19th

by Woody LaBounty

The 1970 United States Census showed a small but notable change in the Excelsior District’s ethnic make-up. The majority of the residents identified as White (57%), many of Italian ancestry. The second-ranked category, Latin (29%), reflected the many Central American and Mexican families that had moved in during the 1960s. The third largest population, far behind, but growing, were Filipinos at 6%. Over the course of the next decade, the Excelsior would become known as one of the significant Filipino neighborhoods of San Francisco.

The families of two men who served in the military together celebrating Christmas in the Excelsior in 1958. (Kodakan Photo Day, Shades of San Francisco, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, SFP78-007-136)

In 1977, Excelsior barber Caspare La Rosa noted the shift, marveling to a reporter that in his working-class neighborhood he saw upwardly mobile Filipino families “pay cash for the houses they are buying.”1

There were two big reasons for the arrival of Filipino families to the Excelsior, one local and the other national. Manilatown, the city’s Filipino enclave along Kearny Street between Bush and Jackson Streets, which by one count had 27 Filipino restaurants operating in the 1940s, was being greatly diminished by urban renewal and redevelopment.2 The symbolic, if not actual end, of Manilatown was the 1977 forcible eviction of residents, many senior Filipinos, from the International Hotel. South of Market became a more significant hub of Filipino culture and remains so today, while the Excelsior District, and Daly City just over the county line, became the locus of Filipino families looking to move out of the city core for a house and a yard.

Nationally, amendments to the U.S. Immigration Act in 1965 abolished quotas based on national origins, which had previous limited countries such as the Republic of the Philippines to just 100 immigrants per year. Eastern Hemisphere countries were instead allowed 20,000 per year and the Philippines sent the maximum number through the 1970s. Filipino immigration to the United States increased 950% from 1965 to 1974, with only Mexico sending more people in that time.

Filipino communities swelled in cities like San Francisco across all socioeconomic levels. Two-thirds of these new arrivals came from professional classes, and the affordable single-family houses of the Excelsior with a small core of Filipino-serving churches and business, became an attractive destination in the city.

The Granada Theatre in the early 1980s when it showed Filipino films. (Courtesy of San Francisco Theatres blog)

In the 1970s, the Amazon Theatre at 965 Geneva Avenue, then named the Apollo, began showing Filipino films. So did the Granada Theatre on Mission Street, run by the Lim family. In the early 1980s, several small markets specialized in products from the Philippines, including Bulakena Grocery at 4995 Mission, across the street from Manila Florist. Many of these businesses ran thriving sidelines in Filipino video rentals and CD sales.

Struggling Excelsior institutions were revitalized by the growing Filipino community. The Catholic Church of the Epiphany at 827 Vienna Street originally served Irish, German, and Italian Catholics, who were leaving the city or the church in great number over the 1980s. In the 1990s, when the archdiocese was closing parishes, Epiphany was bringing in an average of almost 4,000 people to mass each week, the most in the city. Father Bruce Dreier, an Epiphany priest at the time said, “We survived the demographic change because of the Filipino population.”3 Nearby Corpus Christi Church experienced a similar resurgence.

Cip Ayalin’s photography studio at 1155 Geneva Avenue, in business from 1970 to 2000. (Kodakan Photo Day, Shades of San Francisco, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library, SFP78-007-227)

By the turn of the twenty-first century, Filipino business, social activity, and family life were solidly established in the Excelsior. The Filipino Community Center opened in the Excelsior District at 4681 Mission Street in 2004. Filipino students made up more than a quarter of Balboa High School’s population in 2000, and community leaders campaigned to have the school renamed to recognize Violeta Marasigan, a prominent social worker and activist in both the Philippines and San Francisco.4

Window of the Filipino Community Center at 4681 Mission Street, 2019.

In 2018, director H. P. Mendoza gave the Excelsior a supporting role in his dark comedic tale, Bitter Melon, about a Filipino family conspiring to murder an abusive brother. (It’s available to watch on Tubi.)

By the time a community and place are linked in motion pictures, one can almost guarantee that connection has already begun to change. Filipinos are still a vigorous part of the Excelsior, but the first part of the twenty-first century saw many move to Daly City, San Leandro, and San Jose. The always-diverse neighborhood is shifting once more. New immigrants from other Asian countries have steadily arrived and more than half of the Excelsior’s residents today are foreign-born.

Scene from Bitter Melon by director H. P. Mendoza.


Notes:
1. Dexter Waugh, “District 8: New faces come to old neighborhoods,” San Francisco Examiner, July 12, 1977, 8.

2. Walter Blum, San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, March 21, 1982, California Living Section, 8.

3. Julie Chao, Annie Nakao, and Carol Ness, “The New City: Remaking San Francisco,” San Francisco Examiner, April 26, 1998, A-14.

4. Rodel E. Rodis, “S.F. needs to honor Filipino heroes,” San Francisco Examiner, October 9, 2000, 17.

Legacy Business Spotlight: Navarro’s Kenpo Karate Studio

Mar18th

Exterior of Navarro’s Kenpo Karate Studio on 960 Geneva Avenue.

On this Legacy Business Wednesday, we’re spotlighting Navarro’s Kenpo Karate Studio in the Excelsior (960 Geneva Avenue), who on December 12, 2016, was accepted to San Francisco’s Legacy Business Registry. To qualify for the registry, businesses must be 30 years or older, be nominated by the Mayor or a member of the Board of Supervisors, or prove they have “made a significant impact on the history or culture of their neighborhood.” When Navarro’s joined the Registry, it was located at 3470 Mission Street in District 9 (the Mission District) and nominated by then Supervisor David Campos. Luckily for the Excelsior, in 2019 Navarro’s moved to District 11 on Geneva Avenue, where it remains today.

Google Streetview of Navarro’s previous location at 3470 Mission Street (near Mission and Cortland), where the karate studio made its home for 47 years before moving to its present location in the Excelsior.

Navarro’s Kenpo Karate Studio has contributed to both the Mission and Excelsior community’s history and identity by providing affordable self-defense, martial arts, and fitness classes to generations of local youth and adults. The studio has existed in multiple locations since opening in 1966, when Carlos Navarro, a Supreme Great Grand Master and a high level black belt in Kenpo Karate, first started his business out of his garage at 197 Precita Avenue. After a stint at 3170E Mission Street for a few years, Navarro’s settled in to a new home at 3470 Mission Street in for 47 years (1972-2019).

After an unsuccessful year-long negotiation with their landlord, the business relocated to its current space in 2019 in the Excelsior. Navarro’s new commercial signage highlights the businesses’ emphasis on “self defense and fitness,” which hints at the fact that students may take many types of classes beyond Kenpo Karate. From Muay Thai, Eskrima, and Jiu-Jitsu, Navarro’s has also expanded over the years to include weight lifting, aerobics, yoga, and dance classes. Navarro’s grew its reputation within the Mission District for its important role in engaging especially children and teens in positive activities, and instilling in these young students a sense of respect and discipline. Students, many from low to moderate income households, often have the opportunity to participate in competitions and perform at community events. A number of Navarro’s former students have even led successful careers as stunt men and actors, including those who performed in the Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers franchises.

“Navarro’s Representing their Championship awards- All Winners!”Warriors Faultline Classic- November 16, 2019.” From Navarro’s Facebook page. Carlos Navarro and his daughter Rubie are pictured at the top in red uniforms. 

Navarro’s is now a multi-generational business, with each member of the Navarro family playing a different role in the studio’s operations. For example, two of Carlos’ children, Rubie and Frank, are now assisting regularly as high-level martial artists and instructors. During their many years in the Mission, the Navarro family was known for speaking up on issues important to the Mission District and calling upon their relationships with community leaders and local politicians to benefit the community. Now in the Excelsior, Navarro’s continues this work as well as its community-focused business, hosting everything from Superbowl watch parties this past February to annual youth summer camps. We wish them many more years to come!

Displays of martial arts gear, photos, and trophies (above) inside of Navarro’s tells the history of the business.