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Historic SF LGBT eatery step closer to landmark status

by Matthew S. Bajko

The wooden bar still has its luster at the former Paper Doll Club in North Beach. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The wooden bar still has its luster at the former Paper Doll Club in North Beach. Photo: Rick Gerharter   

A property in North Beach once home to several LGBT restaurants, most famously that of the Paper Doll, is one step closer to being designated a city landmark.

The building at 524 Union Street would be the city's fourth property to be landmarked for its association with LGBT history. It would also be the first landmark in the country to focus on an early queer restaurant.

As the Bay Area Reporter first disclosed in March 2017, the Smucha family that owns the building is seeking to have its historical significance be officially recognized by the city. For instance, the Paper Doll, which operated at the site in the 1940s, is believed to be San Francisco's first restaurant and nightclub catering to the gay community.

At its meeting September 5 the city's historic preservation commission unanimously voted to initiate the landmarking process for the property. It will next have to vote in support for making 524 Union Street a city landmark, after which it will be up to the Board of Supervisors to approve the designation.

There is no known opposition to the landmark request for the property. Barak Smucha, who helps his mother manage the site, explained to the commission how the family first learned about 524 Union Street's central role in the city's early LGBT nightlife after reading about it in a citywide report on LGBT history released three years ago.

"What a crossroads this location was," said Smucha.

The building at 524 Union Street has housed bars and restaurants since the late 1840s and was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake. Tom Arbulich opened the Paper Doll Restaurant and Bar there in 1944, according to research done by Shayne E. Watson, a lesbian and architectural historian hired by the Smucha family to assist with the city landmark request.

Arbulich, a relative of former supervisor Sean Elsbernd, the incoming chief of staff for Mayor London Breed, brought on in 1947 as a co-owner Mona Sargent, who was straight but operated several lesbian bars in town. It quickly became a favorite hangout for lesbians and other queer patrons, and remained as such even though Sargent sold her ownership stake after only a year.

In 1954 the late Dante Benedetti, a straight man and North Beach denizen, bought the Paper Doll, and its clientele morphed into mainly gay men. State liquor authorities revoked his license in 1956 on the basis of the restaurant being a "homosexual hangout," as described in an old newspaper report. He waged a legal battle in an effort to regain his liquor license but ended up selling the business in 1961.

Notable LGBT nightlife entrepreneurs with ties to the site include the late Rikki Streicher, a lesbian who worked as a bartender at the Paper Doll and went on to open her own lesbian bars in the city, and the late founding Bay Area Reporter publisher Bob Ross, who had two stints operating restaurants at 525 Union Street in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The late B.A.R. columnist Richard "Sweet Lips" Walters also worked as a bartender at the Paper Doll.

Beth Lemke, a great niece of Sargent's who lives in Pacifica, told the commission she saw no reason for why it would not support the landmark request.

"Aunt Mona was an extraordinary person, and I would love for the spirit of the business she created to be landmarked," said Lemke, who owns the Pacifica wine bar A Grape in The Fog. "Things change, politics change, and everything changes, but the property or where this property is located will always be there."

Commissioner Ellen Johnck applauded the Smucha family for initiating the landmark process.

"I think it is wonderful," she said. "Thank you for your support in bringing this forward. It is very exciting."

The three landmark buildings associated with LGBTQ cultural heritage in the city are the late gay supervisor Harvey Milk's residence and former Castro Camera shop at 573 Castro Street; the Twin Peaks Tavern at 401 Castro Street, the first gay bar in the nation to have clear glass windows; and the former Jose Theater/Names Project Building at 2362 Market Street, once home the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

While the Women's Building at 3543 18th Street is also a city landmark, it was listed for its historical significance predating the modern LGBT rights movement. In May it became the second location in the city to be deemed a national historic site due to its LGBT cultural significance.

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