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SVN West: Repurposing History

June 11, 2018 | by Andrew K. Lau

Jordan Langer is walking me into a cavernous space. It’s a big room with clear sightlines from one end to the other, and molded woodwork and arched walkways surround the floor’s perimeter. There are multiple sets of double doors lining the northwest wall, which overlooks San Francisco’s Market Street. The waning afternoon sunlight pushing through their colored panes isn’t enough to illuminate the vastness of the room, so a large temporary industrial lamp sits atop a five-foot tripod in the center of the floor. Once my eyes adjust, further details become apparent: pallets of paint containers and cans of lacquer thinner, wires and cords snaking around the tire-marked floor, a parked scissor lift, piles of swept drywall, metal, nails.

“This is it; this is where all the magic happened,” his voice echoes through the mostly empty room. His energy is infectious.

This is SVN West, a new event space in San Francisco overseen by Langer and his company Non Plus Ultra. For the previous 47 years this was an automotive garage for the still operational Honda dealership on the building’s ground floor. Before that, however, it was known as Fillmore West — without a doubt one of the most venerated music venues in the western world, a historical landmark in 20th Century popular music. Langer and company have saved it from a certain, grimy ruin.

“When we came in,” he says gesturing around to the piles of debris, “it was this sort of shit everywhere; there were about 30 odd vehicle lifts up here. We tore it all out, as you can see, we’ve been redoing everything, even put up a chair rail all over the place to bring it back to its original glory.”

The smell of paint is in the air from the freshly coated white walls and the hand-railing of distant staircases are still taped up to protect them from new coats. “We’ve put in a substantial amount of money. This was one of the most vile buildings I’ve been in,” his wide smile momentarily faded into a grimace. “Mechanics were pissing in gloves, tying them off and throwing them in the corner, just disgusting; our feet would’ve been sticking to the floor. We pressure washed this building fives times before we even started construction. People just stopped caring. What they didn’t know was the end was near for them, but the new beginning was right in line for us and the city. [But] it’s cost us a significant amount of money to get us where we are today, let alone where it’s going to be in a few weeks.”

Then Langer points up.

“This was a drop ceiling; the [original] was much lower when it was the Fillmore West and when I crawled up there and saw how magnificent this is, I decided to take the ceiling down.” He’s right. Photos from the ballroom’s early ‘70s heyday show the ceiling just above the arches, making the room more intimate, almost claustrophobic, though somehow still vast. The new look makes the enormity of the 100,000 square foot space all the more breathtaking.

Langer wants to make one thing clear: This isn’t going to be a 100% throwback to a bygone era. “We’re by no means re-opening the Fillmore West, it’s much more of a test run and a trial to see,” he pauses, “… this is going to be 974 units.”

Wait, what?

We need a bit of background info here. This building stands at the corner of South Van Ness and Market and the surrounding 12-block radius has been in the redevelopment cross-hairs for the past several years. A few tower cranes can be seen just a block to the west, already reconstructing new holes in the ground where old buildings had once stood — just another sign of the city’s rapidly changing skyline. At first it looked as though this building was going to be bulldozed to make room for a planned two condominium towers with 900+ residential units, ground floor retail, and an underground garage. Then, a few months ago came news of Non Plus Ultra coming in and saving the day by taking over management of the space and reverting it back into a venue once again. But now here’s Langer, standing next to me talking about those 900 units again — so, what’s going on here? Is this building going to be sacrificed anyway?

“Yep,” he answers rather emphatically, “the building is going to be taken down.”

Your reporter is suddenly crestfallen. Is there a date for that?

“No, in the typical San Francisco framework, it’s all dependent on entitlements, deferments, and approvals and all that kinda stuff,” he says casually, “so somewhere between the next three to seven years, and it will be an activated space in that timeframe.”

So you guys are just going to squat here and put on shows until it’s time to go?

“Exactly. And that’s really what our company does. We have the Palace of Fine Arts, the old San Francisco Mint, a number of spaces — it’s that short-term / near-term tenancy, while the city, private developers, whomever figures out what they’re going to be doing with the buildings in that time. It takes them two to 15 years to get their titles and permits. And rather than the building sitting here empty or being underutilized with real-life squatters, we come in and do pretty fun community stuff, concerts, corporate events, and everything in between, and really bring this space back to a little bit of its glory. Probably not quite — we’re not getting the Grateful Dead, as much as I’d like to get Jerry Garcia….”

So, what we have here, dear readers, is a historic building snatched from a certain greasy, lonely demise and, for its last chapter of existence, brought back to its original purpose as a performance space before it’s reduced to rubble in the end. Rather bittersweet, I’d say.

One of the prime factors in Non Plus Ultra’s success is getting support from the Miami-based urban development company, Crescent Heights, who bought this property in 2014 from the Boas family, owner of the Honda dealership for the past 30 years. Finding a developer empathetic to an area’s cultural heritage is a rarity, but Langer has hit the jackpot.

“[They’re] fantastic to work with and incredibly cognizant of what this space was and very interested in containing some of that legacy involved. As part of their plans, they’re thinking about actually having a venue in their [proposed] building, which would be pretty awesome, paying homage to what this once was and allowing us to continue that necessary artistic creativity in San Francisco.”

But then there’s also the finances of buying a building for as much as they did,” he continues, “and this is really kind of a test run, because 40 or 50 years ago San Francisco was a different world; [now] there’s residential all around us. How loud can we be until we start getting complaints? It’ll be a good indicator. We’ve worked with some other [developers] that’re like: [he claps his hands together, which echoes around the room like a shot] ‘Tear it down.’ There’s an acknowledgment that it’s not just about money — if it was, a car dealership would pay way more money than us to be in here. Speaking in pure numbers, that makes way more sense than what we’re doing. [But] we’re doing cool stuff, it’s better for the community, and it gives us a chance to dip our toe in the water before jumping in head-first by doing a 3,000-person room in a new building. And that to me is a huge testament to the developer, [who is] willing and able to do cool stuff in the short term.”

So how did a building of this magnitude fall into his lap?

“We worked with them on another project and after that they said, ‘Hey, we also have this other building, this big Honda space.’ And I walked in and said, ‘Whatever it takes! You tell me the day they’re out and we’ll be coming in.’ There was a lot of back and forth for a long time, and here we are. And this is what we’ve done in three months.”

“Did you walk in here at first and think: Oh, this won’t work... ?"

His response is quick. “Never,” he smiles. “A clear-span room like this doesn’t exist in San Francisco. Then I climbed up the ladder and thought, ‘This is awesome!’ Usually the gifts are in the other direction, as in, ‘Oh, this floor will only hold 10 people before collapsing,’ but this project has been moving in the right direction at every turn.”

SVN West debuts as a performance space on June 23, re-establishing a tradition for this building dating back 90 years. Originally built in the 1920s as the El Patio Ballroom, it was arguably the best dance hall in a city already dotted with fantastic music palaces. Times and tastes change, and by the mid-1960s it had been renamed the Carousel, where it was “managed” by a co-op comprised of managers and members of three of the most popular rock bands in the city: Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, and Quicksilver Messenger Service, which, due to the typically laissez-faire attitude of the era, lasted all of four raucous but money-hemorrhaging months.

Enter local promoter Bill Graham who just happened to be looking for a new location for the shows he was putting on at the actual Fillmore Auditorium, a smaller but no less grand ballroom on Geary Avenue. After Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, growing racial tensions were all but forcing him out. So when it became known the lease for the Carousel was going to be up soon, Graham used his trademark panache and pulled out all the necessary stops. The Carousel’s owner, Bill Fuller, was in Ireland at the time, and Graham knew he had to do what no other interested party was willing to do: fly to Ireland to meet Fuller face-to-face. The deal was finalized in a matter of hours at a small table in the Shannon Airport over breakfast and a lot of alcohol. On July 5, 1968, the Carousel was rechristened the Fillmore West with a show by The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and Ten Years After.

“The Bill Graham as we know today started inside these four walls,” enthuses Langer as we look over the grand emptiness. “For me, it’s incredibly humbling to be in a space like this, just to have the history, the weight, the presence of what happened inside these four walls.”

The caliber of talent Graham brought into the building adds to the mystique; in addition to the cornucopia of local talent, he continually pulled in national and international artists. Miles Davis, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Aretha Franklin, The Stooges, The Who, and B.B. King are a few of the impressive names who performed and often recorded albums here.

“And rumor has it — we’ve been very careful — there’s a wall somewhere in here that every one of the artists signed. So, before we paint or touch anything, we scrape it a little bit looking for signatures. We’re keeping an eye open for it.”

Langer is smart enough to realize there’s no need to try and fill Graham’s shoes, just as there’s no need to recreate what was here 50 years ago, yet the historical value here is unavoidable.

“We want to get as many people in and out of these doors as we can over the course of the next three, six, 10 years, and let them have their own ‘60s, ‘70s experience. Ideally, we’re going to try and book some of the talent that originally performed here who are still on tour or for a one-off — get Santana, Aretha Franklin, Bob Weir… it would be awesome to have them perform. But on a personal, selfish side, I would just love to pick their brain for five minutes: ‘Tell me how it was in 1971 for you to perform here.’”

That brings up one of the bigger challenges Langer is facing: how to navigate the highly competitive world of booking shows in a major US city.

“We haven’t decided if we’re going with one of the big bookers, Live Nation, AEG; I would rather keep it a little more close to the vest, but who knows. And that’s the crazy thing about the industry — you have Vegas and some of these other places that are just killing it for us smaller folks. Vegas is offering time-and-a-half what you’d pay a DJ or band to come and perform in San Francisco, because they don’t really care much about the ticket or bar sales. That person who spent a hundred bucks to go to a show is going to spend a thousand at the casino, and that’s made it tricky for us to be competitive with booking in San Francisco.”

I make some comment about the cutthroat nature of the business, to which Langer agrees, but he then smiles, extends his arms, and declares with yet another laugh. “But then, they also don’t have this space.” It’s true; the lure of playing a historical venue will certainly have its advantages, and any artist should take the cachet over cash.

SVN West gets a brilliant kick off with a benefit for Trans youth on June 23 when Juanita More throws her annual Pride Party. Seeing how that’s just around the corner, I wonder how Langer is faring with the fast approaching deadline.

“How do I feel, or how does James — the guy who is running the job — feels?” He laughs. “I feel great. It’s going to be awesome, and we’re going to knock it outta the park. James is very, very stressed out, but this is what we do: We come into very cool spaces, make them safe, reliable, and make them function as event spaces. And if you did see it three months ago, you’d feel the same way as me — super excited. We’re going to make it happen. It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s going to be safe and it’s going to be great.”

Putting this much time, money, and love into a time-sensitive project must be hard on a number of levels, especially emotionally. But again, Langer’s confidence is infectious.

“We come into these deals knowing exactly what we’re getting into. It helps getting my mind into leaving. At the end of the day, we have to still generate revenue, we have to pay rent and pay employees — you see all the painting and upgrading, we can put in this much money to yield this much. Some of [the deals] we’ve lost our asses on, others it’s been great. The arts and culture is so important to what makes San Francisco. No offense to the big tech companies, [but] every day there’s bigger money and bigger stuff coming in, and us artsy folks get the boot, for a lack of better term. The reason why I’m so excited and optimistic about this one is the potential for long term: 50 years, 100 years of space inside this building, depending on how this goes.

“I started owning bars and nightclubs and still have a couple of them, but this is so unique. Every time you do a new show it’s like opening up a new space — the creative and talented people that come in, it’s just super cool. We did a show a couple weeks ago at the Palace of Fine Arts with Wiz Khalifa and St. Vincent. Who ever thought that something like that could, would happen inside the walls of the Palace of Fine Arts? We try to make that kind of crazy shit happen.”

As if on cue, a small bulldozer crawls in from the back, filling the room with an ear-splitting roar; it stops at a pile in the far corner. The driver cuts the engine, gets out, and begins to sweep the pile into the scoop. Our conversation finished, Langer goes off to confer with a group of people, there's a long day of meetings and strategizing ahead. Their voices, mixed with the sweeping, are the sound of renewal here at SVN West. It’s not often a building left to decay is given a last chance to serve its original purpose. Protecting a historical venue, even momentarily, from the wrecking ball’s finality is a victory nonetheless.

It’s time to celebrate not just the saved history but Langer and his company’s determination to keep the lights burning in these windows for just a while longer.

Check out the opening of SVN West on Thursday, June 23rd at 5:30pm to benefit Project Wreckless.

SVN West is located at:

10 S Van Ness

San Francisco, CA 94104

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