To this day I still have a vivid memory of the first moment I entered the Armory back in 2005. The owner had been discretely testing the waters with prospective buyers as his condo project received opposition from preservationists and neighbors. I was being taken on a tour by a realtor. As the back door opened, my first sight of the inside of this boarded-up building was the vast drill court – a 40,000 sq foot arena with bleachers and an 80’ roof. It felt like walking into a roman coliseum.
I could not honestly believe that this treasure had laid unused for 30 years right in the center of the Mission District, less than 2 blocks from BART! The roof leaked and the wooden floors had long since rotted away. I soon found out that the Armory Drill Court had been San Francisco’s primary sports venue in the 1920’s through 1940’s, eventually earning the nickname “the Madison Square Garden of the West.” For almost three decades, at least two prizefights were held in the Drill Court each week.
The Armory Drill Court in the 1940’s aka ‘The Madison Square Garden of the West’.
While I knew I would not have the resources to renovate the Drill Court in the near term — accountants were telling me I could barely afford the down payment on the building — the prospect of someday resurrecting the space for public use seemed non-negotiable. Quite simply, I felt it was the responsibility of the owner of the building to make it happen.
So after acquiring the building in late 2006, moving my company’s operations into the ground floor and basement in 2007 the idea gradually started to take shape. The first phase was to restore a place of assembly (POA). Luckily, the Fire and Building departments already considered the Drill Court an existing POA, so we filed a permit to bring the space up to code – upgrades to doors, emergency lighting, handicapped accessibility, a fire detection system, etc. This took a great deal of negotiation back and forth with the city. Would we need to install sprinklers? (luckily, ‘no’), do we need to extend the fire detection system to the whole building? etc. Eventually the permit was signed off, the work was done and we received our shining newly issued POA permit from the fire department.
In parallel with that work, a “pie in the sky” master plan for the Armory was negotiated with the historical preservation group at the planning department. This included all the projects we might undertake in the next 3 – 5 years and includes things like an elevator, a commercial kitchen for TACC, lots of restrooms, a rehearsal area, etc. This plan received the blessing of the Historical Preservation Committee at a hearing and we received what is called a ‘Certificate of Appropriateness’. With this approval in place, we would get a quicker permit for any subset of the Master Plan.
Currently, significant work is underway not only legal, but a pleasant place for public assembly: The giant roof and walls are receiving acoustic insulation, all remaining surfaces are being painted, the windows are being replaced, and a 40,000 sq foot maple hardwood floor is being laid.
This last month we have been working on the ‘Place of Entertainment’ permit. This requires signoff from 7 city departments. There was support for the project across the board, and this last week we received the approval at a hearing. This currently allows us to host events under the ‘arts use’ category (theatre, performance arts, etc.). Occasional other events can take place subject to a one-off permit.
More work is still required to increase the scope of activities that can take place – this will doubtless include much more neighborhood outreach, more hearings, more construction, and more costs. However, in the interim, we are delighted to welcome ACT to the Drill Court for their month-long production of Black Watch. This will represent the first major use of the Drill Court and a first chance for the public to see this historic San Francisco treasure.
I would like to thank all those people who have helped us with this progress! – all the supporting neighbors, the city departments, the historic planners, those at SF Heritage, and of course the employees and contractors who have done all the hard work!