3 Centuries Of History In 8 Stories: The NSGW Building

Before San Franciscans relied on technology to organize their free time, romance and entertainment, social halls ruled the day. 

Even though many have been adapted, they continue to operate; the Swedish-American Hall is an active concert venue, Social Hall SF operates inside what was originally a Scottish Rites Hall, and in Lower Nob Hill, the ground floor of the Native Sons of the Golden West Building is being remade as August Hall, a multi-purpose venue with live music, dining and bowling.

The building was dedicated in September 1912.

The site near the intersection of Mason and Geary streets was sold by Congregation Ohabai Shalome to the NSGW Association in the 1890s, according to Dennis McLaughlin, president of the Hall Association of the Native Sons of the Golden West.

The organization of men born in California was founded in San Francisco in 1875 with a mission of preserving the state's history and historical structures. The group dedicated its initial hall on February 9, 1896, only to see it burn in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake.

The current building, which cost $82,000 (almost $2 million today), was designed by Righetti and Headman, an architectural firm that operated during the construction boom following the earthquake and fires. The project's lead architect was partner August Headman.

The cornerstone of the new structure was laid on February 22, 1911 atop the previous one from 1895.

The cornerstone marks the old building's dedication and destruction.

According to documents from the building’s dedication on September 15, 1912, it initially included a large hall for dancing and concerts, fourteen meeting rooms, offices, a library, and reading rooms. 

When constructed, the ceiling over its main assembly hall was supported by the largest steel truss ever constructed in California.

Other buildings in the area also housed other social clubs, such as the Elks Lodge and other cultural societies, McLaughlin said. Gathering places for the NSGW association, known as "Parlors," once numbered more than 30 in San Francisco.

The building on Mason between Geary and Post was dedicated on September 15, 1912. | HISTORICAL RENDERING COURTESY NSGW

“That’s how people interacted in those days,” he added, noting that it was also a way to meet politicians and express needs and concerns to the community.

During Prohibition, however, 414-420 Mason St. was home to gambling and illegal drinking.

After World War II—and the introduction of television—people moved away from lodge-focused social life, McLaughlin said. By the second half of the 20th Century, the association began leasing out space for commercial use. 

The ground floor once housed a movie theater, which installed the marquee that now blocks the view of some of the building’s ornate panels, which depict scenes from California history.

Created by Spanish-born Domingo Mora, and his son, Joseph J. Mora, the panels depict notable events from state history, such as the discovery of gold and the first raising of the Bear Flag. On the third floor, a line of sculpted grizzly bear heads honor the state's now-extinct official animal.

The Stage Door Theater occupied the lower floors in the 1950s-1970s. | Image: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection, SFPL

The marquee is old enough to be protected by the city’s historical preservation ordinances, and is unlikely to be removed, McLaughlin said.

The building's longest-running tenant is Cercle de l'Union, a private supper club that's hosted dinners for more than 60 years in a space on the building’s top floor, McLaughlin said.

The current tenants of the NSGW Building.

Other tenants include a variety of theater companies, many of which offer arts, dance, and acting classes, as well as an elderly artist who still paints almost daily in his studio, McLaughlin said. 

“It’s basically a normal commercial building,” McLaughlin said.

A landscape architecture firm and web design studio also have offices within, and NSGW's state headquarters is located above the building’s main theater, which most recently housed dance club Ruby Skye. 

The marquee still features Ruby Skye as the building's main tenant.

McLaughlin said he and the association are excited about the new effort to open a music hall and bowling alley in its lowest levels. 

A group of Bay Area natives is collaborating on August Hall, which will host live performances, and the Fifth Arrow, a pizza-based restaurant with three bowling lanes.

Besides naming their venture after the building’s main architect, the impresarios have shown a great appreciation for the structure and its history, McLaughlin said. 

Rendering courtesy of August Hall.

Just recently, he found a piano that dates back to 1912 which had been gathering dust in the NSGW library; the new tenants plan to refurbish the instrument for use in one of their venues.

Also through the ongoing renovations, NSGW has begun identifying some of the faces depicted in glass circles around the main theater’s interior. They are all artists or teachers of the day, but their identities had been lost, McLaughlin said. 

Circular glass portraits of famous artists from the early 1900s surround the main hall.

At the building's 1912 dedication, a statue of a phoenix — the symbol of San Francisco — was donated by former San Francisco Mayor and US Senator James Phelan.

The work, a reproduction of a sculpture Phelan reportedly saw at The Vatican, stood in the library until the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, when it fell and shattered, McLaughlin said.

The phoenix statue is a replica of a work the Vatican's art collection.

This year, the association found a master sculptor to reassemble the piece. McLaughlin expects the statue to find a more prominent home now that it has been restored. 

There are still a few active NSGW parlors in the Bay Area, McLaughlin told us, including Parlor No. 1, the California Parlor, and the Excelsior Parlor, which currently meet in the Excelsior neighborhood. Another parlor meets regularly in Pacifica, he added. 

If you can’t wait for the new music venue and restaurant to open next spring, you visit the NSGW building for a theater performance at the Phoenix or Firescape theaters, stop by the Beverly Hills Playhouse, or rent space on the top floor for your next meeting. 

Never miss a story.

Subscribe today to get Hoodline delivered straight to your inbox.

3 centuries of history in 8 stories the nsgw building