One Big Dust Up

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Photo courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/memespring/ via Creative Commons

The Gold Dust Lounge Vies For Historical Preservation

By Jessica Hilo

UPDATE: A city commission report released March 16, 2012 found that the Gold Dust Lounge did not qualify for historic landmark preservation. Members of San Francisco’s Historic Preservation Commission vote on the Gold Dust Lounge on March 21.

History is a funny thing: at once definite; then, one slip of the tongue, one fantastic elaboration, and history, as we know it, changes.

For months now, San Franciscans have heard the dueling sides of an argument between the Gold Dust Lounge, owned by Jimmy and Tasio Bovis, and its landlord, the Handlery family.

The lounge is a dimly-lit Union Square staple, which occupies a humble1100 square feet of valued commercial real estate. It is one of the last Powell street watering holes; and now faces eviction at the hands of a major, anonymous commercial retailer.

The fight to keep or discard the Gold Dust Lounge has become a bar-backed hazarai; with each new cycle of information amassing more media attention, more political support, and furthering divide.

The bar’s quest has collected more than 3,000 supporters online, including celebrity endorsements by sports writer Bruce Jenkins and the band, Train.

Meanwhile, the Bovis family has prepared a local landmark nomination, which it hopes will stall the impending eviction and, at the very least, protect the space from demolition. The nomination argues for preservation  on grounds of cultural significance—that the bar serves as a palimpsest of San Francisco nightlife history—and design, in that it contains elements of classic American cocktail lounge design with architectural features that date back to the 1930s.

An aura of mistruths bought into by mainstream coverage has blinded us from seeing what this Gold Dust Lounge debacle is really about: whether the bar is indeed architecturally and culturally significant to truly merit its preservation.

The Long, Convoluted History of the Gold Dust Lounge

A central tenet to the preservation movement headed by the Bovis family is that the Gold Dust Lounge occupies a space that served as scene to historically significant nightlife events.

The Gold Dust Lounge resides within the Elkan Gunst Building, which was erected in 1908 from the ashes of the city’s infamous quake and fire.

In 1918, the space served as the entrance to a longstanding establishment, the Techau Tavern. Though touted as a high-end, family restaurant, the Techau garnered headlines at the wake of Prohibition for the uproarious behavior of its clientele and staff. In 1921, Techau was raided by Prohibition agents, when two undeputized, undercover personnel were served alcohol in its dining room. Bottles of liquor were later discovered in lockers belonging to two Techau waiters, John Antonetti and Richard Bucking. Techau manager, Albert C. Morrison, Bucking, and captain of waiters, V.E. Lardi, were arrested and charged with possession and sale of alcohol. During their trial, Daisy Simpson, one of the undercover agents involved with the raid, claimed the chief investigator, Adam L. Estelle, had entrapped the establishment. Estelle purportedly acquired liquor outside the establishment months earlier with the intent of inducing the restaurant to increase its own supply later on.

Much of the folklore about the Gold Dust Lounge takes root here and projects a series of San Francisco nightlife activities that might not have existed in the space at all.

The Techau Tavern closed shop in 1922 and was replaced by Art Floral Company, a city-serving florist that occupied the space through the end of Prohibition.

The Bovis family asserts that this space operated as a speakeasy; and connected, by way of a secret passage, to the building next door. (The adjoining building happens to house the family’s other bar: Lefty O’Douls.) During Prohibition, this would have connected the Techau Tavern or Art Floral Company with the St. Francis Theater. Sanborn insurance maps housed at the San Francisco Public Library depict the space with ten foot thick concrete walls and no hidden passageway.

Historians associated with the Bovis family also wax poetic over the workings of Art Floral Company. A document prepared by architectural historian Christopher VerPlanck claims the florist operated as both a legitimate business, which may have been affiliated with Pelicano-Rossi Floral, predecessor to San Francisco’s longest-running floral company, Rossi and Rovetti, and as an illegal speakeasy. (This latter statement is based on pure conjecture.) Pelicano-Rossi Floral was located on Kearney Street at this time. Art Floral Company vacated the Gold Dust space in 1935.

Over the next two decades, Gold Dust tussled between owners, but remained a liquor-serving establishment. By the mid-1950s, the space had conjoined with Milton F. Kreis’ signature eatery located at the corner of Geary and Powell streets.

Kreis, a shop owner and restaurateur from southern California, revamped the space, then operating under its former title, the Techau Tavern. This new bar, called Bustles and Beaus, was an ornamental throwback to the heyday of Barbary Coast saloons. Female servers, adorned in netted stockings, were said to have served drinks after sliding down a brass-plated fire pole.

In Gold Dust myth, B&B was co-owned by crooner Bing Crosby, who was said to have installed the tavern’s chandeliers and who commissioned a mural of cherubs and naked women from an MGM set designer. The mural and chandeliers adorn the ceiling of the Gold Dust today.

“I spoke directly with Kathryn Crosby, Bing’s widow,” said Judy Schmid, publicist for the Bing Crosby Estate. “She affirmed my suspicions that Bing’s supposed owning the Gold Dust Lounge is merely an urban myth.”

“Now, that’s not saying he might not have popped in during his lifetime, as he was known to happily grab a drink or two with his fishing, golfing or acting buddies;” Schmid continued, “but no, he was never an owner or investor in the property. Kathryn told me that Bing invested in no pubs, restaurants, clubs or watering holes. Horses, golf, cattle ranches, and the like were more his style.”

“We [also] had our [vice president] of marketing and production look through Bing’s business files from the 1950s through the 1970s,” Schmid said. “We can heartily confirm that Bing never invested in nor owned any portion of the club under any of its names.”

Bustles and Beaus was a bust by the mid-1960s. Jimmy and Tasio Bovis purchased the bar in 1967 and redesigned its interior, in part, to pay homage to the gold rush era. The bar has maintained a tradition of nightly live music, with selections varying from Dixieland jazz, to tinkering piano, and Rock and Roll.

The era of the Gold Dust Lounge is perhaps the space’s most iconic. The bar was seen in the opening shots of Bullitt; and, fittingly, a bevy of celebrities have festooned its barstools, including Liza Minnelli, Cloris Leachman, Lee Marvin, Jack LaLanne, Jimmy Hoffa, Nick Nolte, and Janis Joplin.

“It was a very popular place to go to for our incredible Herb Caen,” said Lee Housekeeper, a spokesperson for the Bovis family, on the venerable Chronicle columnist. “He actually played drums there. He’d stop in for last call or stop in at the end of the evening from whatever wonderful places he was reporting on; and was known to sit in on the drums and play with the house band…Herb was a regular there until he died.”

The Messy and Unforeseen Future of the Gold Dust Lounge

This past December, the Bovis family received a letter of intent from its landlord, which invoked a 90-day termination clause within the Gold Dust’s lease.

The Bovis family recruited Burlingame attorney Joseph Cotchett in filing a suit against the Handlery family on February 23. The suit charges the Handlery family with intentional misrepresentation, unfair competition through misleading advertising, breach of contract, injunctive relief, and financial elder abuse.

The Historic Preservation Commission vetted the Bovis’ landmark nomination in February and ruled to postpone a decision on the case until March 21. Even if they are successful in gaining landmark preservation, said Sam Singer, a representative of the Handlery family, the Bovis’ will still need to vacate or suffer significant financial and legal penalties.

“I think that the Gold Dust Lounge has got a very loyal following, but there’s nothing that keeps the Bovis family from continuing to operate the Gold Dust Lounge at a different location and take that loyal following of people with them,” said Singer. “There [are] many other places they can rent in Union Square [and] in San Francisco. There are many famous San Francisco institutions that are not in their original locations.”

“There are many, many nice bars and wonderful eating establishments around Union Square. This is one of many. It is a nice spot, but it’s not in any way a significant spot,” Singer continued. “Cities—and San Francisco is a major American city—change all the time. That is the nature of major metropolises. And this is another chapter of the history of Union Square.”

For nearly a century, the Gold Dust Lounge has been a meeting place for San Francisco natives and outsiders alike to glimpse at a dream—whether that dream was in ivory linens and top hats; in the bucking wilds of legal impropriety; tangled in the seedy strings of saloon faire; or in the faces of local luminaries as they brushed elbows with the common man.

Like any bar, this is a spot where our realities are escaped; defeated by the companionship of others. We’ve all been spoon-fed egregious facts, exaggerated truths massaged by representatives who have probably recited the script enough times that they bought into it themselves. But what this debate muddles down to is an age-old decision over whether to preserve our formidable institutions or accept the changing tides of our future.

The Gold Dust Lounge, though understandably revered by locals and endeared by celebrities, is merely a collection of quasi-cultural baubles—leftover artifacts of a tall tale housed in a quaintly antiqued jewelry box.

Will we lose the soul and spirit of San Francisco if the Gold Dust Lounge leaves? History belongs to the victors.

The Gold Dust Lounge is currently located at 247 Powell Street (at O’Farrell St.) S.F. Call 397-1695 or visit http://www.golddustloungesf.com.

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