It is time for last call at the Gold Dust Lounge.
The venerable Union Square nightspot received an eviction notice at the beginning of this year from its landlord, who is planning to lease the space in the heavily trafficked tourist district to a national retail chain. The eviction set off a chain reaction of fighting that has landed at the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission.
That voter-created body is now in the midst of ruling whether the 46-year-old cocktail lounge should be declared a historic location, which supporters are hoping could allow the bar to stay at its current location.
The battle between the lounge and the building owners has reached a fever pitch, mostly due to two high-profile public relations agents taking up the issue. And though the barbs are being exchanged at a feverish rate over the lounge, it benefits everyone to take a step back from the sentimentality and look at what it means to designate a building as historic.
Under the planning code, there are three determinations that would justify designation as a historic site: 1) The boundaries of the landmark site; 2) The characteristics that justify designation; 3) The description of the particular features that should be preserved.
There is no doubt the building in which the Gold Dust operates is part of the history of the Union Square area. The Elkan Bunst Building was built in 1908, and bar establishments have been housed in it — aside from during Prohibition — since 1918, according to a report from the commission.
The main arguments for the preservation of the Gold Dust, however, do not center on the building or the physical aspects of the bar itself, which, the Historic Preservation report points out, has not changed much since a 1974 remodel.
Instead, the fight for historic preservation centers around the Gold Dust’s “long and storied history in San Francisco’s downtown nightlife culture,” the report states.
The fight has digressed into twee arguments about the people who used to visit the Gold Dust, including Janis Joplin and newspaper columnist Herb Caen, and the overall atmosphere of Union Square during the late 1960s and 1970s. Yes, Union Square was once the center of the Financial District, where men in hats had three-martini lunches next to stores that are now nationwide chains and businesses that cater to tourists. Bemoaning what Union Square has become should not carry weight in the fight about the Gold Dust.
The fight about any historic designation for the Gold Dust needs to be refocused on the three points stated above. The Historic Preservation report states, “The Department recognizes that the Gold Dust Lounge is an important local business and gathering spot of many locals and visitors.”
The report goes on to say landmark designation of the site is not the appropriate tool to protect the bar and allow it to continue operations. A landmark status would only protect the physical aspects of the lounge, which, as stated, is not what supporters are looking to protect.
Preservation of the ambience and atmosphere of a location is a virtuous intention, but one that will ultimately fail. Just as the atmosphere of the Summer of Love on Haight Street cannot be perpetually preserved, neither can the bygone days of famous people frequenting Union Square watering holes. The crowd of celebrities has moved on from Union Square, and now it is time for the Gold Dust to do the same.