Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

San Francisco’s gay community (the phrase is narrow for such a diverse group, but it will have to suffice here) has a long and tempestuous history, and milestones of its struggles and victories are everywhere. The Twin Peaks bar was the first gay bar in the country to feature clear glass windows on the ground floor, rather than obscuring itself for protection. The AIDS Grove in Golden Gate Park is a sober commemoration of the thousands who were cut down within the city. And over time segments of the gay community have adopted certain neighborhoods as their own. The Castro is associated with gay men; the Mission District with the lesbian community; the Tenderloin with the transgendered. The San Francisco Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center — called simply “the Center” by its occupants — is at the corner of Octavia and Market Streets, the intersection of all of those neighborhoods. The intersection will soon frame a new doorway to the city: a boulevard carrying highway traffic down to grade just south of the Center, planned for 2005, which will make the building visible to thousands entering San Francisco each day.

According to board Vice President Dana Van Gorder, the Center is an alternative to the era “when the gay community’s activism took place in clubs and bars.” Its mission is to provide a central resource for the community — from counseling to adult education — and to provide office space to fledgling non-profits.

San Francisco’s gay community has changed tremendously over time. After a difficult road toward civil rights — from the arrival of the Mattachine Society, a small but groundbreaking parlor group of gay activists, in 1953, to the assassination of the city’s first openly gay district supervisor, Harvey Milk, in 1978, to the galvanizing crisis of the AIDS epidemic — it has risen to tremendous prominence in the city. It has also diversified politically and culturally within its ranks.

The political landscape reflects this. City leaders recognize the tremendous voting strength of the community, and must work to keep abreast of its diversification. The Center was a rare opportunity for city hall to show support for the community as a whole, and after city leaders watched a string of fundraisers draw overflow crowds several hundred people strong at as much as $1000 a head, it leapt in. Mark Leno, the Castro’s openly gay supervisor, helped to secure $6 million in city funding. (His current campaign for state assembly is headquartered next to the Center.) Federal and state funding provided $1.5 million. The rest of the estimated $15 million came from private donations — some of them enormous.

The Center counts among its donors some of San Francisco’s most progressive and powerful citizens. Entrepreneurs like George Rosenfield, a mortgage broker, and his partner Chris Hoover, a business consultant, were among the several who gave $10,000 or more. James C. Hormel, President Clinton’s ambassador to Luxembourg, donated $100,000. But the real coup came in the form of a $1 million donation from the estate of Charles Holmes, gay porn czar and activist, for whom the building will be named. The center masterfully shrugged off any controversy about its benefactor’s past, and held opening festivities in March. Approximately 2000 people attended.

The Center was first conceived in 1992, when a focus group of gay men led by Van Gorder and then-District Supervisor Carole Migden revealed the men had little sense of their personal future, and a growing sense of isolation. At that time (when AIDS was ravaging the country), there seemed to be an obvious, unified need for a central building. The Center’s design and construction took place during a shift in the identity of the city’s gay community, however. By the time an architect was chosen — Jane Cee and Peter Pfau, who formed a partnership, Cee/Pfau Collaborative, for the project — the community was growing more diverse, and its members’ needs more complicated.

“Our community struggles more and more with issues like diversity, race, and class,” Van Gorder says. “There are so many emerging needs out there, so we wanted to nurture new organizations.” Twenty-three tenants rent space in the center, and to walk past their offices is to see the future of the gay community in America. Far-ranging organizations such as the Black Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Bay Area American Indian Two Spirits (a Native American cultural activities group), and groups for the deaf, adolescents, and new gay parents all have facilities here. The center expects at least 4,000 people to use the building per month. Perhaps the most striking and hopeful sign of times to come is the fact that the Center does not include an AIDS clinic — something which at the height of the epidemic would have been a foregone conclusion.

Cee/Pfau Collaborative’s design had to not only embody the community’s complicated and shifting identity, but also adapt to a daunting list of physical complications as well: the renovation and incorporation of a landmark Victorian house within the design, a triangular site with a 12-foot rise, and a diverse and fluid program.

Physically, the Center is made up of three parts. A red stucco façade wraps around from behind the building to touch an angled, tinted glass curtain wall at the front, and the two come together and meet at a landmark Victorian.

The Victorian, known as the Fallon building, is the last Queen Anne-style house remaining on Market Street (years of fire, earthquake, and real-estate development wiped out the rest). The building was in shambles when it was purchased, and the Center planned to tear it down, in spite of landmark designation. But preservationists — mostly drawn from within the gay community — fought to save the structure, and only after a year and a half of vicious argument was a compromise reached: the empty lot would be developed, the Victorian restored. “It was the designer/architecture queers versus the political/establishment queers — an internal blood feud,” says Tim Kingston, news editor of San Francisco Frontiers magazine, a biweekly for the gay community. “It was no small success that they got through it.”

Cee/Pfau converted the Victorian’s interior for use as staff offices, and created distinct meeting spaces within it — among them, one for youth organizations and another shared by a senior center and art gallery. The most remarkable thing about the function of the building is the mix of old and young, and even in the structure, that mixture is visible. At the back end of the building, for instance, the façade of the blue-green Victorian overlaps with the rear façade of the new structure. (Even now, some preservationists shudder at the curtain wall. Its slope exposes a party wall of the Fallon building: a view that no Victorian architect meant anyone to have.) The Center’s design most directly embodies the complications of sexual identity in its two new facades: the curtain wall of tinted glass along Market Street, and the vivid red stucco wall along Waller Street, with its recessed windows.

The curtain wall makes those who choose to enter through its doors visible to an outside observer as they wend their way through the building. Visitors will be identified with the Center and its purpose, and must be reconciled to that identity as a result. The red façade allows a sequential entry, invisible and private, to those who wish to visit the center but don’t wish to make their presence a visible part of the building’s symbolism.

Visibility is also a symbolic theme inside the structure. From a balcony at the rear of the double-height lobby, occupants can watch one another as they come and go through the doors below. A long second-floor bench just inside the curtain wall allows visitors to sit and watch the pedestrian traffic of Market Street bob past along the incline — passing several feet below the bench at one end, and just underfoot at the other. The closer one sits to the West, the better chance one has of being visible to passers by.

More than one grid meets at the triangular site, and, because they were designing a center intended to serve all neighborhoods, Cee/Pfau worked to incorporate them all. Two sides of the building are oriented to the grid of Hayes Valley and the Tenderloin to the North, while the Market Street face is oriented to the grid of the South of Market neighborhood. Meanwhile, hallways on the first and second floors are aligned with Pearl street, which terminates against Market Street opposite the center. The building’s interior is anchored to the grid of the Mission and Castro neighborhoods as a result, and a visitor standing on the other side of the building can look through the interior and down the distant lane.

The third floor is almost entirely meeting rooms for the Center’s various organizations and programs. Ninety percent of the rooms are multi-use, and Cee and Pfau worked to capitalize on the relationship between these functional areas and the unassigned open spaces around them. The result is an overall fluidity to the layout within a constrained shell, gathering together people from different parts of the community. “Your A-gays aren’t normally going to see eye to eye with your Tenderloin trannies,” says Frontiers’ Kingston. “So having those folks fetching coffee and bumping into each other in the halls is good for the community.”

There is a story that many of the people involved in the Center like to tell. Sometime in the 1990s, the story goes, a young man, living near Sacramento, decided to reveal his sexual identity to his parents. They disowned him, and, not knowing what else to do, dropped the boy off in the big city,on the corner of Castro and Market, which features a seventy-foot rainbow flag. Whether the story is fact or legend (no one seems to know the boy’s name), it reveals that the Center has a very powerful symbolic place in the community imagination, no matter who one speaks to. It’s easy to imagine the boy in the story, and where he would go. At the time, the devastated young man could only have wandered to a church or a bar. Now that the Center is completed, however, one can imagine the young man in the story standing in front of the building. He knows that he wants to go inside, but he can’t decide whether he will march right on through the glass doors, or make his way around back.