Stern Grove

Stern Grove’s Trocadero Clubhouse Smashed by Falling Tree

By Thomas K. Pendergast

For 131 years, the building now known as the Trocadero Clubhouse in Sigmund Stern Grove hosted generations of San Franciscans. On March 11, it became the final resting place of an 85-foot-tall eucalyptus tree.

The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department (RPD) reported that the tree caused severe damage to the SF Historical Landmark building.

Park rangers responded to an alarm in the clubhouse at 5:30 a.m. as a drenching storm passed over, discovering that the structure’s roof and eave were partially crushed and the interior was flooded.

The building was later red-tagged by the SF Department of Building Inspection.

“This is soul crushing,” said San Francisco Recreation and Park General Manager Phil Ginsburg. “The Trocadero and Stern Grove are San Francisco treasures. It will take political leadership, resources and community resolve to put the Trocadero back together again,”

Rec. and Park’s Spokesperson Tamara Aparton said they are still evaluating the extent of the damage with a structural engineer, so no decisions have been made about whether to attempt repairing it or call it a total loss and demolish it entirely.

The latter option, however, is unacceptable to historians on the west side of the City.

“It’s a terrible tragedy,” said David Gallagher, a founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project and a native San Franciscan. “I hope the city finds some way to restore this landmark that means so much to the people of San Francisco. I personally have memories of events there stretching back to my childhood. It would be a horrible loss if it was allowed to be demolished.”

SF Heritage is an organization with the mission of preserving San Francisco’s architectural and cultural identity.

SF Heritage’s archivist and historian, Stephen “Woody” LaBounty, is also concerned that Rec. and Park will demolish instead of repair the building.

“It can be repaired, and I want to make sure they actually put the experts on the job to make sure they do everything they can to repair it; not to just decide that it’s a lost cause,” LaBounty said. “It’s the most significant building in the southwest part of San Francisco. There’s nothing older, or if there is, it’s like a house or like a cottage.”

And certainly, the Trocadero Clubhouse is far more than a house or a cottage. It’s the last of the “roadhouses” in San Francisco.

“That’s why it got landmarked,” LaBounty said. “I don’t want Rec. and Park just to give up on it because they’d rather spend their money on Ferris wheels or whatever.

“So, that is where we are and we’re going to see, politically, where we end up,” he said.

San Francisco’s roadhouses go back to the Gold Rush era and are generally defined as bars or restaurants located on remote roads and sometimes offered overnight rooms to rent. According to the SF Planning Department, most of them were located on the east side of the City, as the west side remained sparsely populated from the 1850s through the early decades of the 20th century.

During a recent storm, an 85-foot-tall eucalyptus tree fell onto the roof of the historic Trocadero Roadhouse causing significant damage. Photo courtesy of SF Rec. and Park.

Built in 1892 as a roadhouse and inn under the direction of George W. Green, it is one of the earliest buildings in the Parkside area and one of the only extant 19th-century structures remaining in southwestern San Francisco.

The building is also architecturally significant as an excellent and well-preserved example of Stick-Eastlake architectural style.

“The Trocadero is a tangible touchstone to our neighborhood’s past that would be irreplaceable if lost,” Nicole Meldahl, executive director of the Western Neighborhoods Project, said. “The building has lived many lives and can tell many stories.”

Indeed, until it became part of Rec. and Park in the 1930s, it hosted quite a few interesting characters from San Francisco history.

At the turn of the century, the Trocadero was described as a “roadhouse, a cabaret and a resort all rolled into one,” and often served wealthy men traveling between the City and their estates down the Peninsula in Atherton and Belmont.

However, in a trajectory common to roadhouses, the Trocadero quickly began to be associated more with vice than well-heeled men or family recreation, according to architectural historian Stacy Farr of the Architectural Resources Group for the SF Planning Department.

“Headlines made oblique references to the rougher edges of society” at roadhouses, including the Trocadero, with incidences of assault, robbery, and the presence of “females of questionable character,” Starr wrote.

“In 1907, political boss Abe Ruef chose the Trocadero as his hiding place after he was indicted during the San Francisco graft trials. Ruef and a ‘female consort’ were the only guests when they were captured by detectives in what made for spectacular front-page news,” Starr reported.

“The Trocadero history I connect with most is the Mabel Hawkins-era,” Meldahl said. “She leased the building and its grounds in 1910 and opened the Women’s Outdoor Club (WOC) there, which taught women employable skills and hosted suffragette meetings.

“California allowed women to vote nine years before they could vote nationwide and it’s because of women like Mabel. So, it’s her I think of when the Troc’s floorboards creak beneath my feet because I know she’s walked these floors before me,” she said. “Buildings are so much more than buildings – they’re witnesses to our shared past. As a woman indebted to pioneers like Mabel, I sincerely hope Rec. and Park is able to prioritize the recovery of this landmark that means so much to so many of us.”

One notable event from December of 1912 was when the WOC announced they would “entertain thousands of dependent tots” at and around the clubhouse for Christmas, meaning children from orphanages and the like, to provide them with Christmas gifts. And when they asked for donations, the response was so overwhelming that it became clear that the event would be much bigger than anticipated.

So big, that they were forced to move the event to Golden Gate Park when 4,200 children signed up. Hotels and cafés were putting out contribution boxes, so by Dec. 19 they anticipated handing out gifts to 10,000 children.

A “small army of approximately 500 women and girls” were organized to help out, according to Meldahl. The event was hugely successful and held in what is now known as the Polo Field with Mayor James Rolph Jr. and the SF Board of Supervisors in attendance.

More than 100 vehicles were in a parade for the event, including 20 truckloads of toys and sweets.

“It’s a significant building. You don’t give up on buildings like that,” LaBounty said. “Why would you do that; because you don’t have enough money? Get the money. Get the disaster relief money from the state. Do whatever you have to do.”

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