By Erin Bank
Efforts are underway to give landmark status to one of San Francisco’s hidden jewels in a location that has featured predominantly in the City’s history for more than a hundred years. The significance of the oldest building on the City’s west side may not have been fully appreciated by most of the City’s residents, but local history organizations and Supervisor Gordon Mar hope to change that.
In Sigmund Stern Recreation Grove, nestled among redwoods, pines, ferns, and eucalyptus, sits the Trocadero Clubhouse, a framed wooden building that is a picturesque setting for weddings and photographs. Its pale yellow exterior framed by a veranda, gabled roof, and white detailing sets it apart from most public spaces owned by the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department. Indeed, hidden in the charming beauty of the building – known as the Trocadero – is a rich history of the west side dating back to the late 1800s.
“The Trocadero has such a fun history: roadhouses and bicycle gangs, women being awesome, bears!” said Nicole Meldahl, executive director of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a history nonprofit focused on education, interpretation and preservation programming in the Richmond and Sunset districts of San Francisco.
In the 1880s-90s, western San Francisco was dotted with roadhouses from Geary Boulevard down Ocean Beach and out Ocean Avenue, according to Woody LaBounty, interim CEO and president of San Francisco Heritage, a 50-year-old nonprofit organization committed to “keeping SF special” though preserving buildings, businesses, and cultures.
City dwellers would take day trips by horse, and by the time they would get to the beach, they would be ready for a meal and a drink. The Trocadero was built as a roadhouse in the early 1890s by the landowner, George Green. He hoped to draw a classier crowd to the location that had been planted with trees, where Pine Lake had been stocked with fish for anglers, and outdoor games, like horseshoes and croquet, were set up. In actuality, more raucous groups of men on horseback or on bikes would come to drink and gamble, bar-hopping along the chain of roadhouses. Over time, the Trocadero was leased by multiple owners, each adding their special flair, from a beer garden to boxing matches to a tamed bear (that escaped a few times).
After the advent of the automobile, and when the Parkside became a housing development in the Sunset in the early 1900s, the roadhouse clientele started to decline, and many of the buildings burned down or were converted into restaurants. But the Trocadero’s role in San Francisco history continued. Notorious San Francisco political boss Abe Ruef hid out at the Trocadero for several weeks in 1907. He was eventually arrested on the site for his role in corruption following the 1906 earthquake and fires.
“One of my favorite things about the Trocadero is its connection to the rich feminist history of San Francisco,” Meldahl said.
Starting in 1910, the Trocadero served as the clubhouse for a Women’s Outdoor Club and other women’s educational groups. In fact, it was a woman – Rosalie Stern – who eventually bought the site from Green and named the grove after her late husband, Sigmund Stern. She donated it to the City in 1931. Continuing its place in San Francisco history, the Trocadero was renovated into the public clubhouse that exists today. It was designed by famed architect Bernard Maybeck, who is also known for the Palace of Fine Arts.
When San Francisco Heritage and its Parkside Heritage neighborhood committee wanted to identify landmarks of western San Francisco to help preserve, the Trocadero was an obvious choice.
“We did a month-long deep dive in July 2020, followed by a town hall involving the neighborhood, and everyone was like, ‘Well we’ve got the Trocadero!’” LaBounty said.
Although anyone can nominate any building for landmark status, LaBounty said there are two main characteristics of the Trocadero that make it especially appealing. First, its architecture has been maintained with great integrity and has been relatively unchanged. Second, it has cultural significance to the neighborhood that is more than it being just a pretty building.
In order to navigate the bureaucracy involved in obtaining designation as a landmark building, Parkside Heritage worked with District 4 Supervisor Gordon Mar. On Jan. 26, Mar initiated the landmark designation to the Board of Supervisors.
LaBounty estimated the process will take about a year. The request now goes to planning department staff to prepare a report, which then goes to the Land Use and Transportation Committee to sign off on. Then, the Historic Preservation Commission will need to approve the designation before going back to the Board of Supervisors for a vote. The final approval is given by the mayor.
“I hope the landmarking makes neighbors feel more connected to our history, highlighting that we share more in common than we think,” Mar said in a statement.
Not only does landmark status offer a level of protection against demolition, LaBounty said, it “resonates with people because it’s a celebration and recognition of the Trocadero’s and the neighborhood’s importance and significance.”
He added, “Go take a socially distanced walk around it, what will soon be San Francisco’s next landmark building.”
The Stern Grove Clubhouse is located on the east side of the Sigmund Stern Recreation Grove at 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard.