While the City sits at the apex of innovation, San Francisco Heritage is preserving the landmarks of its past.Shielded by a band of (mostly volunteer) architects, preservationists and history geeks, San Francisco Heritage is akin to an urban Indiana Jones, racing against time to save city treasures from destruction and oblivion. But unlike “Indy,” who battled spiders, boulders and Nazis, the “bogeymen” that Heritage girds its fedora against are zealous developers and civic malaise. Fortunately, fundraising efforts continue to bolster the nonprofit’s preservation efforts that protect the unique architectural and cultural history of our fair City, and on June 12, Heritage celebrates its 50th anniversary at Soirée 2021. This hybrid fundraiser unspools online and in person at Fort Mason Center for the Arts, where a drive-in features film clips, dinner and live entertainment.
Heritage was founded in 1971 by architect Charles Hall Page, a San Francisco native who established Page & Turnbull, a vaunted architectural firm devoted to historic preservation, and his longtime friend, attorney Harry Miller. The idea of Heritage was sparked on a bench in St. Mary’s Square, where Page and Miller often shared brown-bag lunches and infuriation over architectural crimes. The S.F. Redevelopment Agency was demolishing swaths of elaborate 19th century Victorians in the Western Addition. The City deemed the area blighted and defended its actions as urban renewal. Today, the gutting of lower Fillmore is now viewed as wildly misguided and ultimately racist in its displacement of thousands of Black and Japanese American blue-collar families.
Page and Miller’s vision for Heritage would go on to influence City planning codes and salvage hundreds of historic buildings — from the port and Civic Center, up to North Beach down to the Mission and out along Westside avenues. However, Heritage’s crusades are not frozen in amber. Historic walking tours, education programs and scholarly publications aside, this nonprofit is also an advocacy organization, issuing conservation reports and co-authoring legislation such as Proposition J, which voters passed in 2015, creating the Legacy Business Preservation Fund (also known as the Registry) — the first of its kind in the nation. Working in conjunction with the Mayor’s Office of Small Business, some of those gems — at least 30 years old yet not eligible for landmark designation — include Dog Eared Books, Bimbo’s 365 Club, Picture Machine Tattoo, Caffe Trieste, Hockey Haven and Bix Restaurant.
“Our early Heritage programs attracted about 30 people watching a slideshow,” notes Heritage interim president and CEO Woody LaBounty, another San Francisco native — by way of the Richmond District and Sacred Heart High School — who co-founded the Western Neighborhoods Project. “Now Instagram is one of our strongest programs, engaging with hundreds more online.”
Last fall, Heritage launched its inaugural artist-in-residency program with North Beach artist Jeremy Fish. Like the Registry program, that was dreamed up by Mike Buhler, the dynamic former Heritage leader who now helms Fort Mason Center.
During the pandemic, Heritage has been busy supporting new cultural districts, such as the American Indian Cultural District in the Mission. It also advocated for Legacy businesses, which were deemed Heritage’s premier preservation crisis of 2020. “They’re all imperiled,” says LaBounty. “We assisted them with lobbying the City for emergency aid and strengthening Registry benefits so they can stay alive, and survive postpandemic. And we championed off-the-radar businesses and neighborhoods.” The midpandemic program Heritage in the Neighborhoods, succeeded in landmarking the Royal Baking Company building in the Excelsior and has now teamed up with Parkside Heritage to landmark the 1892 Trocadero Inn in Stern Grove. More recently, Heritage joined a coalition to landmark the Noe Valley Lyon- Martin House, longtime residence of late LGBTQIA activists Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, the first same-sex couple to be married in 2004 at a City Hall ceremony officiated by then- Mayor Gavin Newsom.
Heritage has a knack for historic homes: The organi zation is headquartered in the Haas-Lilienthal House, the exquisite 1886 Queen Anne Victorian on Franklin Street. Upon the 1972 death of Alice Haas Lilienthal, a doyenne of the City’s prominent Jewish community, the mansion was gifted to Heritage. But it came with a catch: That Gilded Age grande dame, which was on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, required more than $4 million of structural improvements to continue as a museum and licensed eventrental venue.
“My mother, Madeleine Haas Russell, who, when her parents died young, lived at the house with her aunt and uncle Alice and Sam Lilienthal, had wonderful memories of growing up there,” recalls philanthropist Alice Russell- Shapiro, who was co-chair of the Haas-Lilienthal capital campaign. “But none of Aunt Alice’s descendants wanted the burden of caring for a white Victorian elephant.” Though Haas Russell, a great-grandniece of blue jeans king Levi Strauss, wasn’t a direct descendent of the Haas- Lilienthal line, she established an endowment to maintain the home. And Russell-Shapiro and her cousin John Rothmann continue their admiration for and support of Heritage’s stewardship.
In 2018, Heritage was be queathed the Doolan-Larson Building, also known as the Doolan-Larson Residence and Storefronts, by the late Norman Doolan, a fourthgeneration San Franciscan who loved music and who, according to Heritage, “following a series of career failures,” became a prolific owner of property rentals. His home, a 1903 colonial revival building at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, was the epicenter of the 1960s counterculture revolution (ironically, Doolan wasn’t a fan of the hippie scene). Heritage partnered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Haight Street Art Center to reimagine the Doolan Building as a space to experience that counterculture through art and programming. But first, artist-in-residence Fish testdrove the three-story, 7,500-squarefoot house. “I moved to Doolan in September, which was a weird time to be in a place that big, just me and my cat,” notes Fish. “With COVID, studio visits or exhibitions we’d planned were scrapped. But if you’ve got to be stuck inside a house, Doolan is an incredible place to be stuck.” While there he created Living in the Past, a series of prints and drawings inspired by the cultural history of the Haight. “Doolan was an amazing place to work on my art,” says Fish. “When Mike Buhler and Haight Art Center director Peter McQuaid planned this residency, I worried since I love music and Club Deluxe is right outside the bedroom window. But with an 8 p.m. lockdown curfew, Haight Street was a ghost town. I was lonely, but productive.”
During COVID, Fish also worked from his North Beach studio, creating specialty artworks for sale to benefit hospitality industry workers pummeled by the citywide shutdown. Fish admits it would’ve been easier to close down, sit inside and wait out the pandemic. But so many neighbors, who feel like his roommates, lost jobs, businesses and livelihoods. “I feel a debt of gratitude, and obligation, to support businesses that are going down swinging — serving from windows or building parklets,” says Fish. “That’s why Heritage is successful, reminding us of the places we love.”