Russian Hill is the only neighborhood I’ve called home in San Francisco. Consequently, I take a proprietary interest in the people, the businesses, and even the buildings that have been a part of the area for many years. That also means I have been witness to the changes that have hit the Hill over the past couple of decades. A few of these alterations may have been for the better. Many have not panned out. Some have been downright disgraceful — most of them triggered by the recent tech boom, its effect on the local population and demographics, and its economic consequences. Change is, of course, inevitable. But, as architectural landmarks and legacy concerns go, when does renovation cross the line to desecration?
I felt sheer delight back in 1988 when the faded Moorish revival movie house, the Alhambra Theatre — a Polk Street fixture since 1926 — was given a magnificent restoration. Its ornate facade with twin towers and its ornate interior with latticework on walls, ceiling, and balcony were all cleaned, repaired, and repainted as the space was converted from its latter-day twin theater configuration to its original single-screen status. An actual movie palace was restored to its glory (with updated tech added) a couple blocks from my apartment. For a cinema buff, it was heavenly. But it was not to last.
The owners of the Alhambra decided to close down the place around a decade after their wonderful overhaul of the venue. They said ticket sales weren’t strong enough at the location to keep it open. The rise of the multiplex was cited as eating into the Alhambra clientele. It was said that an unsatisfactory slate of movie bookings failed to draw large enough crowds. Box office shortfalls were also blamed on the lack of parking in the increasingly congested region around the theater. Although it was granted landmark status by the city before the closure, that didn’t stop the Alhambra from being reopened as a gym.
FIT TO BE TRIED, BUT NOT TRUE
As long as the fitness-center chain now in charge retained the exterior and interior furnishings in keeping with the building’s landmark status, the new tenants could do what they liked. That didn’t prevent them from bringing in weights, cardio machines, and other equipment for their upscale customers; using the marquee to tout their brand; and allowing the atmosphere and décor to be fouled by yuppie sweat. The fact that the management uses the big screen that still dominates the back wall — projecting a random selection of films as non-sequitur eye candy for its body-conscious millennial patrons to gaze at while they flex their muscles — is nothing short of a mockery.
You could say this is better than the fate of the similarly elegant Fox Theater that stood at Market and Polk until being razed by the wrecking ball and replaced by the Fox Plaza condo tower. Yet, it doesn’t make me any less pleased about the Alhambra situation. If I’m bitter about what happened, consider that a sort of health-club madness has multiplied in the five-block radius around the Alhambra, as at least five other gyms or workout studios have opened in recent years. They replaced small, diverse, long-running establishments that served loyal customers for a decade or more, but couldn’t deal with outlandish rent increases.
Commercial ventures generally hew to the bottom line. That’s understood. Nonetheless, where’s the true respect and reverence for what went before when, for whatever reason, a locale with history comes under new ownership? In the case of the beloved bar/café Tosca, the venerable North Beach artists’ hang-out was sold to restaurateurs Ken Friedman and April Bloomfield of New York City’s esteemed Spotted Pig, and they essentially kept its spirit and look intact while reimagining and refurbishing the space and upgrading its menu as befits an eatery overseen by James Beard culinary award-winners. They even made sure to keep a version of Tosca’s classic House Cappuccino (albeit, at $12, costlier than it once was) with Armagnac, bourbon, and a dollop of chocolate cream — and no coffee. So, yeah, that’s a little out of a beatnik’s price range. Still, you have to give Friedman and Bloomfield their props for honoring the Tosca’s past while running a high-quality operation. And hey! It’s not a gym.
FIDDLING WITH CLASSICS
It turns out that Friedman and Bloomfield are trying something similar in Los Angeles, having taken over the lease of what was the Cat & Fiddle — for years, Hollywood’s favorite British pub on Sunset, known for famous patrons from the expat UK entertainment-business community. Only Friedman and Bloomfield are doing a Middle Eastern restaurant on the property, since the Cat & Fiddle is moving to another Hollywood site. So much for sentiment.
A lot of my ruminations about questionable urban renewal were triggered by a recent visit to NeueHouse — a beautifully designed Art Deco-styled destination at Sunset and Gower in Hollywood that’s billed as “a private community of professionals and entrepreneurs with dedicated workspaces, thought-provoking events, and personalized services.” When you walk inside, the main lobby is airy and atrium-like with lots of twenty- and thirty-somethings sitting and fiddling with their laptops or chatting in an adjacent café that looks as if its foodstuffs are locally sourced and its coffee is made from responsibly grown, fair-trade beans. All is fine and acceptable until you notice that the plaza outside is called Columbia Square, and you realize that this used to be the 1938 CBS Radio Building, West Coast headquarters for one of the first great broadcast networks — the Columbia Broadcasting System.
Starting in 1938, Columbia Square was where L.A.-based CBS radio stars like Jack Benny, Burns & Allen, and Red Skelton did their programs. Until 2007, this was also the home of CBS’s original Los Angeles radio and television stations, including KNX-AM and KCBS-FM, and KNXT-TV which is now KCBS-TV. CBS’s legendary West Coast network TV operations began there before moving a few miles away to CBS Television City in 1952. How significant is this real estate in the annals of popular culture? It’s where Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz shot the pilot of a rather famous television show called I Love Lucy. And a number of the theaters that were used for radio broadcasts (with live audiences on occasion) were turned into recording studios where Columbia Records’ artists such as Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand, Janis Joplin, Simon and Garfunkel, and others created some of the most renowned albums of all time.
As I took time to investigate the revamped edifice which, to be fair, has a pretty sweet rooftop restaurant and bar, I realized that the Columbia Square signage and one preserved recording studio were the sole indications of what this particular bit of architecture meant to the world — and I do believe I heard the ghost of Jack Benny sighing. Or maybe it was just me.