San Francisco supervisor panel backs request to landmark gay-owned Eagle bar

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Monday January 25, 2021
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The SF Eagle Bar was crowded in 2018; it is now closed due to the pandemic. Photo: Rick Gerharter
The SF Eagle Bar was crowded in 2018; it is now closed due to the pandemic. Photo: Rick Gerharter

The members of a San Francisco supervisors' panel are recommending that their colleagues start the process to landmark a gay-owned bar in the city's South of Market district.

At its meeting January 25 the supervisors' land use and transportation committee unanimously voted 3-0 in support of having the city's historic preservation commission consider if the Eagle Bar, an important entertainment venue located in the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District, should be designated a city landmark. It would be the third gay bar location in San Francisco given such status if approved, and the first LGBTQ city landmark located in SOMA and related to queer leather culture.

Architectural historian and preservationist Shayne E. Watson noted that SOMA is one of "the most important queer enclaves" in the country with a history that predates the city's Castro district becoming an LGBTQ neighborhood. That history deserves to be recognized and preserved, she told the supervisors' panel

"This will bring much-needed attention for this neighborhood as an important center of international queer significance," said Watson, a lesbian who co-wrote San Francisco's LGBTQ historic context statement released six years ago.

Should the full Board of Supervisors vote next month in support of starting the landmark process then the historic preservation commission would have 90 days to take up the matter. Following their decision, the supervisors would then need to vote on designating the entertainment venue at 398 12th Street historically important.

The Eagle opened in May 1981 and closed in 2011. It reopened in March 2013 after Lex Montiel and his late business partner, Mike Leon, who died in 2019, bought the business the year prior and revived its enormously popular Sunday beer busts held on its spacious outdoor patio.

Broad support

It has been shuttered since last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. And it is unclear when it will be allowed to reopen again. Landmarking the bar has attracted broad support, with more than 1,000 people signing an online petition in recent days urging city leaders to approve the designation.

"We have endured through hard times and bringing the community back together. As a person and San Franciscan I want to point out the importance of the bar and its mission," Montiel told the supervisors committee Monday.

All three members — chair Supervisor Myrna Melgar and Supervisors Dean Preston and Aaron Peskin — asked to be made co-sponsors of the landmarking request.

"This is really important and I will be voting to support this and hoping all of our colleagues do as well," said Preston.

Montiel has already started asking LGBTQ community leaders and organizations to send letters in support of the landmarking request to the historic preservation commission. In a letter sent January 25 GLBT Historical Society Executive Director Terry Beswick noted the Eagle was named a legacy business by city officials and provided the name for the new public parklet, the Eagle Plaza, built in front of it on a portion of 12th Street.

As such, the bar is "an anchor institution" for the leather cultural district and is worthy of being preserved, wrote Beswick, who offered the preservation group's "full support and services" in documenting the Eagle's "four-decade history of providing arts and cultural programming and entertainment, in addition to countless charitable efforts, for the leather and LGBTQ communities."

District 6 Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents SOMA, started the landmark process for the bar last month following the listing of the property on which it is located at the corner of 12th and Harrison streets. The building that houses the bar remains for sale.

"I think the designation of the Eagle as a historic landmark really codifies and acknowledges the historic nature and central pillar the Eagle has been to our community for so many decades," Robert Goldfarb, a gay man who is the president of the cultural district's board, told the B.A.R.

Other LGBTQ landmarks

To date, San Francisco has granted city landmark status to only four sites solely for their importance to LGBTQ history. All are located in commercial corridors.

Two are gay bar locations: the Twin Peaks bar in the Castro and the former Paper Doll restaurant and bar site in North Beach. The two other LGBTQ landmarks are both in the Castro: the former home to the AIDS Memorial Quilt on upper Market Street and the late gay supervisor Harvey Milk's residence and former Castro Camera shop at 573 Castro Street.

Similar to the process being undertaken to landmark the Eagle bar, city officials are also considering designating the Noe Valley home of the late lesbian pioneering couple Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. Gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman authored the resolution unanimously supported by the Board of Supervisors last fall to begin the landmark process for the Lyon-Martin House at 651 Duncan Street.

The Historic Preservation Commission is scheduled to vote on landmarking the couple's home February 17. As the B.A.R. first reported last week, new owners Paul McKeown and his wife, Meredith Jones-McKeown, have told city officials they intend to construct a single-family residence on the garden section of the property, which has an address of 649 Duncan.

As for the Lyon-Martin House, their architect has told city officials the plan is to remodel it "only to the extent appropriate after much further study (potentially kitchen/bath, etc or other non-impactful ideas)." Should the home be landmarked, any development proposal for the site would need to be reviewed and approved by the city's historic preservation commission.

The same would be true of the Eagle bar site should it become a city landmark. Backers of granting it such a designation argue it would help protect the business from being closed down due to gentrification of the neighborhood. Many gay-owned and leather-focused businesses in SOMA have closed in recent years as the formerly industrial area has given way to new housing developments.

"The San Francisco Eagle is one of the few leather bars left in this area and holds much significance to the LGBTQ community," said Honey Mahogany, a queer nonbinary trans person who is Haney's chief legislative aide, at the committee hearing.

Making it a landmark, added Mahogany, would help "prevent this history from being erased due to the ongoing pressures of gentrification."

Updated, 4/12/21: This article has been updated to state that the building that houses the Eagle is still for sale. The article previously stated it had been sold to a man but that information was incorrect.

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