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The Beach Chalet: City Landmark #179

May5th

The Beach Chalet at the west end of Golden Gate Park. (Courtesy of The Beach Chalet restaurant, https://www.beachchalet.com)

by Woody LaBounty

Golden Gate Park turns 150 years old this year, and while organized anniversary events and celebrations have been quashed in the COVID-19 crisis, hundreds of San Franciscans are rediscovering their park on social-distanced walks and bicycle rides. The park is a National Register-listed Historic District and holds two-dozen designated City Landmarks and points of interest, from windmills to statues to sundials.

The Beach Chalet, City Landmark #179, faces the Pacific Ocean from the western edge of the park and stands as the last project of renowned San Francisco architect Willis Polk. Constructed in 1925 by the Park Commission as a place of refreshment for beach-goers, the chalet replaced a predecessor structure that stood on the ocean side of the Great Highway.

Polk gave the concrete Spanish-Revival building a grand colonnaded veranda on its ground floor with a “Moorish reception room,” restrooms, changing rooms, and a lunch counter inside. Upstairs, a 200-seat restaurant offered a full bank of ocean-facing windows. The $75,000 building, 150-feet-wide and 80-feet-deep, opened on May 30, 1925.1

The Beach Chalet on May 31, 1925, the day after its opening. (OpenSFHistory/wnp27.5886)

Initially managed by the Park Commission with a “steward” and assistant in charge, the Chalet had cards and games available to use in the reception room until 7:00 p.m. nightly and was a venue for bridge teas, receptions, and school fundraisers.2

But the Chalet was a money-loser for the Park Commission with frequent calls to close it.3 From 1929 to 1935, operations were contracted out to sisters Hattie and Minnie Mooser in hopes of turning the financial situation around.4 The Moosers were prominent after-theater hostesses at the Aladdin Studio downtown—hailed as the city’s first tearoom and night club—and were reported friends to “countless personages the world over, as well as hundreds of newspaper and theatrical people,” and “known to thousands of college students and graduates throughout the Bay Area.”5

A section of The Beach Chalet’s mural San Francisco Scenes, by Lucian Labaudt showing park superintendent John McLaren on bench. (Chris Carlsson photograph, FoundSF.org)

From 1936–1937, New Deal artists commissioned as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project transformed the Beach Chalet’s ground floor. Painter Lucien Labaudt filled the Chalet’s front room with San Francisco Scenes, a 1,500-square-foot fresco depicting contemporary life across the city. Woodworker Michael von Meyer made the staircase bannister to the second floor a braid of octopus legs and mermaids. Mosaicist Primo Caredio covered a section of the southern wall with a Labaudt-designed tribute to winemaking.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used the building as its coastal defense headquarters during World War II, but in the 1950s, the chalet was home to rumored lewd shows, gambling, and men’s “smokers.” Its reputation did not improve much from the 1960s into the early 1980s as a bar leased to a local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. For years the building was shuttered as various proposals, plans, and unfulfilled contracts came and went.

The Beach Chalet’s Lucian Labeaut murals visible behind VFW bar in early 1980s. (Seth Curlin Associates, National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 1981.)

The building may have been lost if not for the action of preservationists. In 1985, the city’s Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board (LPAD) recommended landmark designation for the Beach Chalet specifically because of fears that in neglect it would deteriorate beyond repair, fall victim to arson, or be demolished as a safety hazard.5 The Board of Supervisors made the Beach Chalet City Landmark #179 and the building with its artwork was also added to the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1993, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department received a $700,000 federal grant to rehabilitate the Chalet and restore the Labaudt murals, and finally one of the many proposals to reopen the historic building to the public came together. Lara and Greg Truppelli opened their Beach Chalet brewpub on the second floor in late 1996, and a visitor kiosk and historical exhibit around the murals downstairs activated the ground floor. The Truppellis later opened an annex restaurant, Park Chalet, at the rear of the building, where most weekends the back fronting the park is the scene of locals having brunch while children play on the small lawn.

View west from second floor of the Beach Chalet.(Courtesy of The Beach Chalet restaurant, https://www.beachchalet.com)

I am making a list of all the places closed to me now that I am resolved to visit and appreciate the moment shelter-in-place restrictions are limited. Today, I encourage you to take in Willis Polk’s temple-like design for the Beach Chalet, but make plans to return post-pandemic for the murals, the fantastical staircase, and a beer with a view.

More information

The Living New Deal: Beach Chalet Murals


Notes:

1. “New Beach Chalet Opens This Morning,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 30, 1925, pg. 17.

2. “New Beach Chalet is Drawing Card,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 6, 1925, pg. 7.

3. “Parks Operate at Net Profit,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 18, 1933, pg. 10. The Beach Chalet lost $3,519.99 in first nine months. “Uhl Demands Economies in County Budget,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 17, 1932, pg. 5.

4. “Mrs. Mooser, Mother of Hostess, Dies,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 14, 1933, pg. 7.

5. “Mooser Sisters to Become Hostesses at Night Club,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 10, 1936, pg. 6.

6. Former LPAD president Patrick McGrew admitted in 1996 that fears of loss were part of the push for landmark designation. Gerald D. Adams, “Beach Chalet Ready for New Year’s,” San Francisco Examiner, December 15, 1996, pg. C4.

Celebrating Bimbo’s 365 Club (Video)

May1st

Gino, Graziano, and Michael Cerciai at Bimbo’s 365 Club, February 2020. Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.

“Quality is first at Bimbo’s”
Thank you for being a part of the San Francisco Heritage community.

I am Elisa Skaggs, Chair of Soirée 2020. For months we had been working to produce a fabulous event for more than 350 people at the historic Bimbo’s 365 Club, until being forced to cancel due to COVID-19. Tonight, May 1, 2020, is when we would have gathered to celebrate “San Francisco’s favorite nightspot since 1931.”

Heritage proudly nominated Bimbo’s 365 Club to the SF Legacy Business Registry through the SFH Landmark Fund earlier this year, and Soirée was to honor the Cerchiai family’s enduring commitment to excellence, authenticity, and community. So says the sign in the kitchen, “Quality is first at Bimbo’s.”

Although we will not see you tonight in person, we share the video below and invite you to join us in toasting Bimbo’s and its exceptional stewards.

We are profoundly grateful to our Soirée underwriters who have already stepped up to convert their sponsorships into donations. Please consider donating to the Landmark Fund to help Heritage continue our work with legacy businesses like Bimbo’s.

Learn more about Bimbo’s history here. To find out how you can support Bimbo’s and its staff at this uncertain time, visit www.bimbos365club.com. And we all hope to be back at Bimbo’s for a show or an event as soon as it is safe to do so!

Elisa Hernández Skaggs, AIA
Chair, Soirée 2020

The Legacy of Bimbo’s 365 Club

Apr30th

Bimbo's InteriorInterior of Bimbo’s 365 Club. (Courtesy of Bimbo’s 365 Club)

When Arthur “Monk” Young hired Agostino Giuntoli as a cook for his nightclub, he had difficulty pronouncing the young man’s name. Young resorted to the nickname “Bimbo,” a diminutive version of the Italian word for boy, bambino. The name stuck to Giuntoli, who was called Bimbo—and even Mr. Bimbo—long after his boyhood and into his years as the best-known nightclub host in San Francisco.

Recognized by San Francisco Heritage in 2014 as one of our 100 Legacy Bars and Restaurants, Bimbo’s 365 Club at 1025 Columbus Avenue this year has been nominated with Heritage’s assistance and support to the San Francisco Legacy Business Registry. Still run by family members 27 years after Agostino “Bimbo” Giuntoli’s passing, the club’s allure of sophisticated decor invokes nights of dinner theater, dance palaces, and black-tie dress codes.

Bimbo's exterior

Bimbo’s 365 Club at 1025 Columbus Avenue, a long-standing icon of San Francisco nightlife. (Courtesy of Bimbo’s 365 Club)

The 365 Club began life in 1931, run by Giuntoli and Young on the third floor of a building at 365 Market Street near the southeast corner of Fremont Street. The address may have inspired the decision to be open year-round, as later advertisements promoted “open 365 days,” and in later years “The World’s Best Dinner” was offered at a starting price of $3.65. A typical evening would see the club open at 5:00 p.m. for cocktails, dinner beginning at 6:00 p.m., dancing starting at 7:00 p.m., and performances by show girls, singers, comedians, and other vaudeville acts at 8:00 p.m., 10:00 p.m., and 1:00 a.m. If that wasn’t enough, there were backroom gaming tables for those in the know. Researcher Barrett Reiter describes the club in its Prohibition years as a speakeasy that “navigated the fine line between legal entertainment and illegal alcohol and gambling, surviving periodic raids.”

Giuntoli bought out his partner in 1936, and became the prominent face of the business now called “Bimbo’s 365 Club.” In 1939, the racy nightlife travel guide Where to Sin in San Francisco, identified Bimbo’s as “The Complete Hot-Spot,” and previewed the satisfactions to be found within: “You’ll like the food, which is superb, because it was cooked by Bimbo. You’ll like your drinks because they’re good. You’ll like the Girl-in-the-Fish-Bowl because she’s very naked. You’ll like the show, because it had been imported from Hollywood, with a full quota of wild, beautiful women with long legs…”

The “girl-in-a-fishbowl” is a reference to Bimbo’s unique attraction. Behind the club’s bar a tiny living “mermaid” floats in a small aquarium grotto, an illusion relying on mirrors, a basement set, and models employed to take on the character of “Dolphina.” The gimmick moved to Columbus Avenue with the club and has remained an enduring attraction. Mermaids are etched into mirrors and windows, appeared in ads and on cocktail napkins, and in the club lobby a statue by Italian sculptor Cesare Viviani celebrates the Dolphina character in white marble.

Floor show for a full house at Bimbo’s 365 Club on Columbus Avenue in the 1950s. (Courtesy of Bimbo’s 365 Club)

In 1951, Bimbo’s 365 Club left Market Street to take over an Art Deco building designed by master architect Timothy Pflueger for the former Bal Tabarin nightclub (1931-1950) at 1025 Columbus Avenue on the corner of Chestnut Street. The new neon marquee, emblazoned with “Bimbo’s 365,” became an icon of city nightlife and an informal landmark of the North Beach neighborhood.

Supper clubs, with their bands and live shows, declined in popularity in the 1960s, and Bimbo’s’ last night with nightly dinners and shows open to the public was New Year’s Eve 1969. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen wrote a eulogy to the business model:

“[T]he 365 is/was a true nightclub in a style we will never see here again. Chorus girls! The first local live nudie–“The Girl in the Fishbowl.” Jugglers, dance teams, standup comics, crooners, chantoosies, Stage Door Johns, a proper band in proper uniforms and a leader with a baton long enough for the Symphony. Multi-course dinners, Red Cap Sparkling Burgundy in the silver bucket, and a nice-bucketed lady in a silver fox stole topped by a gardenia bought from the “pro” in the men’s room. All over, done for.”

Bimbo's exterior

Women’s lounge in Bimbo’s. (Courtesy of Bimbo’s 365 Club)

But Bimbo’s wasn’t quite finished. Under the stewardship of Bimbo’s son-in-law Graziano Cerchiai, the club transitioned to become a rental venue for concerts and private functions. In the 1980s and 1990s, Bimbo’s provided a home for stand-up comedy recordings, the nascent San Francisco Jazz Festival, the Tattoo Ball, Acid Jazz and Swing-Dance movements, and musicians who would go on to worldwide fame and acclaim such as Adele, Beck, the White Stripes, Erykah Badu, Fiona Apple, and Gloria Estefan. Today, Agostino Giuntoli’s grandson Michael Cerchiai oversees the nightclub his grandfather opened 88 years ago.

The Bimbo’s building at 1025 Columbus Avenue is listed as a historic resource by the San Francisco Planning Department, but is not a city-designated landmark, nor is it on the National Register of Historic Places or the California Register of Historic Resources. Based on findings in a 1984 survey of North Beach conducted by the Planning Department, it appears to be eligible for local, state, and national designation.

With research commissioned from architectural historian Barrett Reiter, Heritage has assisted in nominating Bimbo’s 365 Club to the San Francisco Legacy Business Registry and will strongly support its listing.

LGBTQ Legacy Business Spotlight: Crusin’ the Castro Walking Tours, SF Eagle Bar, El Rio

Apr29th

Rainbow flag above Harvey Milk Plaza in the Castro, courtesy of Kathy Amendola of Crusin’ the Castro Walking Tours.

Since the start of San Francisco’s Legacy Business program, several LGBTQ-owned businesses and nonprofits focused on the LGBTQ community have won legacy business status. The program, overseen by the city’s Office of Small Business, is meant to benefit businesses and nonprofits that have operated for at least 30 years in the city and have significantly contributed to the history or identity of a particular San Francisco neighborhood or community. Businesses and nonprofits at least 20 years old that are facing a significant risk of displacement can also apply. Today, we’d like to highlight the history of three LGBTQ businesses on the Registry, all of whom are working to stay afloat during current the COVID-19 crisis.

Kathy Amendola leading a tour group in front of Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy in the Castro. Photo courtesy of Kathy Amendola.
400 Castro Street
415-550-8110

In June 2019, the San Francisco Small Business Commission unanimously approved Cruisin’ the Castro Walking Tours as the city’s first and only Legacy Business tour company. Founded in 1989 by historian Trevor Hailey (1941–2007) and now owned and operated by travel industry veteran Kathy Amendola, the company was recognized “for providing 30 consecutive years as a longstanding, community-servicing business and a valuable cultural asset to the city and county of San Francisco.”

Kathy continues Hailey’s work by offering cultural tours around the Castro, visiting historical sites that entail the past, present and future of LGBTQ civil rights in America. In addition to this, Kathy is actively involved with her community through various organizations and is an Emeritus Board Member of the Rainbow Honor Walk. Crusin’ The Castro Walking Tours is a rare and exceptional San Francisco business created and run by two passionate women across 30 years, and continues to share the many stories, cultural knowledge, and political activism across LGBTQ history in the city and beyond.

For more about the tour’s history, please see this wonderful piece in the San Francisco Bay Times. Like most businesses in the city, Kathy has struggled since the start of the COVID-19 crisis and citywide shutdown. In corresponding with her, she said that she has “had to refund and/or credit $10,000 of existing business already booked and paid. This in addition to large charters or private groups that had cancelled for the remainder of 2020 as well as independent travelers.”

To help support Kathy and Crusin’ the Castro Tours at this time, you can purchase gift certificates from their website for tours at a future date.

SF Eagle Bar, at the corner of 12th Street and Harrison St. The bar flies Leather Pride Flags out in front, a symbol of the leather subculture associated with the bar and the South of Market district where the bar is located.

398 12th Street
Date placed on Registry: April 24, 2017

San Francisco Eagle Bar, “The Eagle,” is a local bar and community gathering space in the South of Market (SOMA) neighborhood with significant ties to San Francisco’s LGBTQ community and history and the AIDS epidemic. Founded in 1981 shortly before the AIDS crisis began in San Francisco, The Eagle quickly became a cornerstone of the SOMA leather community. Original founders Bob Damron and Jay Levine created a large, open-space, leather-themed bar for those in the surrounding community to gather and socialize that would soon become embedded in San Francisco’s gay culture. It serves a wide spectrum of people, including leather enthusiasts, bikers, drag queens, and the transgender community.

Between 1981 and 1998, during the height of the AIDS crisis, The Eagle lost at least 22 employees and countless family and friends to the disease. This significant loss led bar manager Terry Thompson to raise funds to help the rapidly growing number of AIDS patients. Over an 11 year period, Thompson raised over $5 million for various AIDS charities and named it the AIDS Emergency Fund (AEF). In 1998, the bar was sold to John Gardiner and Joe Banks, owners of the Hole in the Wall Saloon on 8th Street at Folsom. The sale included the condition that the bar continue to have the name “Eagle” in it, and so it was renamed “The Eagle Tavern.” The Eagle was briefly closed between June 2011 and March 2013 because owners John Gardiner and Joe Banks directed their attention to the Hole in the Wall Saloon.

In August 2012, the business was taken over by Alex Montiel and Mike Leon, who were able to rebuild the main bar and upgrade the property entirely to be brought up to code. The Eagle reopened for business in March 2013 and the new owners have kept the spirit of the bar alive and have carried on the community work that has been the legacy of the bar for over 35 years. Some of the events that The Eagle hosts include the Sunday Beer Bust benefitting nonprofits, Thursday Night Live, featuring live local, national and international bands, and various benefits for the SF AIDS Foundation among others that have become classic fundraisers in the SOMA bar scene.

The Eagle has become a fixture in the SOMA community and remains a community-oriented bar. It contributes to the community’s history and identity through its deeply rooted history in the LGBTQ and SOMA communities, as well as through its welcoming and comforting physical space. The 1906 property in which the Eagle is located is within the identified-eligible Western SOMA Light Industrial and Residential Historic District.

The Eagle has started a GoFundMe, the SF Eagle Family Fund, to help staff who are struggling to make ends meet during the COVID crisis. Please help donate to ensure that this LGBTQ institution can reopen after the shelter-in-place.

Wizard of Oz event on El Rio’s back patio space. Courtesy of Lynne Angle at El Rio. 

3158 Mission Street
415-282-3325
Date placed on Registry: November 13, 2017
Founded in 1978 as a Brazilian leather gay bar, El Rio is an anchor for the LGBTQ community in the Mission District. Opened by Malcom Thornley and Robert Nett, El Rio was inspired by their leather motorcycle riding lifestyle and their love for Brazil, and they wanted to create a space that combined these interests in the form of a neighborhood bar mixed with a community center. Their intent was to develop a space of inclusivity, and they opened their doors to all in the community to gather, socialize, plan events, and unite.
El Rio partners with local nonprofits and community-based organizations, and offers its space for these organizations to host benefits, fundraisers, and community events. This is in addition to its own events, which include Salsa Sundays, a biweekly event that features dancing and live salsa music from musicians throughout the Bay Area, and Mango, a monthly dance tea party for queer women of color. El Rio hosts many of these events on its outdoor patio and garden space, complete with its large lemon tree and community altar. The business’ mixed space has become an anchor for  LGBTQ communities of color and underserved communities.

Only last year, El Rio’s owner was quietly preparing to sell the building, which could have doomed the dive bar. Thankfully, the city of San Francisco stepped in with an $8.6 million purchase of the site, and then transferred ownership to affordable-housing nonprofit Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA). The $8.6 million is a loan from the SF Housing Accelerator Fund, and the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development will provide MEDA with permanent financing for the building after about $800,000 of upgrades and repairs are complete.
While El Rio has weathered the threat of closing before, they now need help in order to stay in business during the COVID crisis. The bar has started an employee GoFundMe, and is also selling gift cards. Additionally, El Rio launched a monthly subscription service with differing levels of perks, a creative way to enjoy the bar once things re-open.

For a list of legacy businesses that you can support right now, visit this link.