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Who Knows About 650 Geary?

by Susan Saperstein

While traipsing around the Tenderloin, researching another project, your editor sighted a very interesting Moorish style building at 650 Geary Steet. GuideLines put out a call to see if anyone knew the history of this building. Thank you to all who responded including Bob Bowen, Don Andreini, Peter Field, Gary Holloway, Ulla Kaprielian, and Ernie Ng.

The building, San Francisco Landmark #195, is today the location of the Alcazar Theater. It was built in 1917 at a cost of $150,000 as the Islam Temple, Ancient Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine. The Shriners, a men’s social and charitable organization of the Freemasons, used the building until 1970. The building was designed by Scottish-born architect Thomas Patterson Ross. The Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board referred to its style as Moorish Byzantine Eclectic, a style inspired by Oriental and Persian architecture. Shriners have long been recognized as the men wearing the fez, a hat they chose along with the architecture style as part of their Arabic theme. Some sources indicated that Ross, also a Shriner, was inspired by the Moorish palace of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

Although the tale may be apocryphal, one source said that several years after the building’s completion, it was found that Ross had left his signature. The Shriners had denied his request to put his name on the cornerstone, but someone discovered that the Arabic letters over the entryway read “Great is Allah and Great is Ross the Architect.”

Ross created plans for over 250 buildings in San Francisco. One was the Baldwin Hotel, described last month in the GuideLines article “Isadora Duncan’s San Francisco.”

Ross was also responsible for the “Chinese” or “Pagoda” style of architecture of the rebuilt Chinatown after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. He designed two buildings at the corner of Grant and California—the Sing Fat and Sing Chong buildings.

In 1922, Ross was partially paralyzed in a construction accident when bricks fell on his head. He was unable to speak or work again. He died in 1957 at the age of 84.

The Shriners’ fraternal order continued to use the Geary Street building for meetings and other lodge functions until 1970, when it became the 500-seat Alcazar Theater. The name recalls a beloved historic theater on O'Farrell Street that burned in 1906. A new Alcazar had been built on that site, but was demolished in 1963 to create a parking lot.

The Alcazar Theater closed in 1984 but reopened in 1992 after undergoing rehabilitation. The garage we see today was not a later addition but part of the original design. The Shriners often included commercial space in their buildings to help pay for the building and their other charitable projects.

Other Sources: Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board, Final Case Report, 1989 Architecture - San Francisco - The Guide, Sally and John Woodbridge San Francisco Landmarks, Patrick McGrew

Photos of 650 Geary courtesy of Eric Bennion. Historic photo of Sing Fat building reprinted with permission, SF History Center, SF Public Library.

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Details on the entryway of 650 Geary

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The Sing Fat building in Chinatown

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