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San Francisco Armory in the Mission

by Jack Leibman

City Guides offers three different tours in the Mission. None venture remotely near the hulking ugly pseudo-Moorish Armory building at 1800 Mission Street.

With clinker brick exteriors, four octagonal towers, and 200,000 square feet of space, this forbidding structure was built in 1912-14 as an arsenal for the US National Guard, replacing one in the Western Addition destroyed in 1906. Its ultimate cost, including land, was $500,000.

Besides its official function as a military training and storage facility, it was used frequently for sporting events and prizefights. Said to be the largest building of architectural importance in the Mission, it has the largest unsupported enclosed volume in the city. In 1934, a brief moment of fame highlighted its drab existence when it was used as headquarters for the Guard during the Bloody Thursday General Strike, which had major consequences for the labor movement. The massive building was closed in 1976 when the National Guard moved to Fort Funston. With the building slated for demolition, community pressures culminated in its declaration in 1978 as SF City Landmark #108, a Class 2 Historic Landmark in the National Register of Historic Places. The building was declared surplus by the state in 1980 and remained empty for 30 years, slowly and inexorably deteriorating. From below, the Mission Creek began to leak in.

Some space-ship scenes from Star Wars were shot there, and in the mid 1990s the SF Opera used it for set construction and rehearsals.

Community controversies repeatedly stymied multiple worthy development proposals, which included self-storage, rehab clinics, a gym, office park, condos, and luxury or low-income housing. Increasingly problematic disrepair with inevitably ballooning rehab costs substantially discouraged potential buyers, who were also confronted by the restrictions of the National Register of Historic Places. In 1996, the SF Redevelopment Commission declined to buy it for one dollar. Later in 1996 a daring investor group bought it for $1.25 million, but its plans quickly sank.

And so the future of this burdensome architectural excrescence seemed hopelessly mired. How could this possibly be salvaged? Suddenly, in 2007, a purchase for $14.5 million was announced, transacted unnoticed in 2006. The buyer was an internet pornography film maker, specializing in BDSM (bondage, domination, sadomasochism), who promptly converted this vast unlikely space into a very profitable and effective work site, described in extensive detail in the New York Times.

Loud, angry protests by community groups have abated under the soothing influence of the owner, who has projected a very public business-like stance, enhanced by his 70 (as of 2007) contented, talented, and well-treated employees. The building itself has obviously been spruced up, with clean well-lit exteriors, new paint around the base, new wood-framed windows enclosing neat white drapes, and an open, inviting entryway. A San Francisco phoenix flag flaps proudly from one tower.

Thus another phenomenal San Francisco transition has occurred. Could such a remarkable transformation of a National Historic site happen anywhere else?

Sources: Wikipedia Jan Moorallem, A Disciplined Business, New York Times, 4/29/07 Peter Acworth, Come Meet Armory's New Owner, Open Forum, SF Chronicle, 2/12/07

Photo credits: Mission Street side of the Armory by Jack Leibman Fourteenth Street side of the Armory courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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Undated photo of the 14th Street side of the Armory

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Mission Street side of the Armory today

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