Ancient History: 1906-1998
DNA Lounge has been here for a long time, but the building has been
here for even longer, and there were other buildings on this site
I've been trying to dig up as much history about DNA Lounge
and its predecessors as I can; it's been slow going, but here's what
I know so far. If you have any details to add, please let
I'm especially interested in any details about the the late 1970s,
which is when this building was first used as a bar/nightclub. I
haven't been able to find much information about that period.
The oldest prehistoric sites discovered in the Bay Area are
about 5,000 years old. Thirteen sites are known in the South of
Market area of San Francisco dating to around 2,000 years ago, the
most intensely-used being near Islais and Precita Creeks, which
originally ran from Twin Peaks through the Mission and Potrero, and
down to the bay through Hunters Point. At this time, the site of
DNA Lounge was
marshy banks of Mission Creek, which ran from Twin Peaks down to
the bay via what is now Townsend Street. It is unclear how the
indigenous population's nightclubbing needs were served.
Mission Creek, pre-1890
Islais and Mission Creeks were covered over and filled in some
time after 1850,
when the city granted a franchise for a toll road down Folsom Street
from First to Sixteenth.
Apparently this was very difficult, as the
pilings they drove into the ground just disappeared. Eventually
they piled planks over most of the waterways and poured dirt and
sand on top.
Before 1906, the entire half block from Slim's to Harrison Street
was residential flats: hastily-constructed "kit houses" used as low
income family housing for the growing Gold Rush population. As early
as 1893, the lot that today contains DNA Lounge was occupied by
two residential row houses, of the style found in the Mission
District today. Each one had a pair of 2-bedroom flats. These were
probably built between 1875 and 1880.
Nearby structures included:
- The Church of St. Joseph at 10th and Howard;
- The S.F.&P. Sugar Refinery at 8th and Harrison;
- The Cal Sugar Refinery at 8th and Brannan;
- The City Gardens at 12th and Folsom.
It's not clear what was on our lot before 1875 or so, but the
street existed, at least: in
"Wood Street" was renamed to "Eleventh Street."
11th and Harrison, 1899/1900
It's unlikely there was any construction in this area prior to
1850 or so. In 1840, only a few hundred people lived in San
Francisco, but with the discovery of gold, the population boomed:
by 1849, the city was averaging 30 new houses and two murders a day.
By 1870, the population was almost
making it the tenth largest city in the United States. From 1850
through the turn of the century, San Francisco's primary industries
were gambling and
"it has been said that by the end of 1852, there was no country in
the world that was not represented in San Francisco by at least one
Jan 9, 1880:
"Norton the First, by the grace of God, Emperor of the United States
and Protector of Mexico, departed this life."
By 1890, the city housed 3,117 licensed bars and taverns
(one for every 96 inhabitants!), plus at least 2,000 more unlicensed
The 1900 Sanborn Fire
Insurance Map shows that the close neighbors of our site then
included a plumber, a piano finishing shop, a brewery, a pair of
pork-packing and lard-rendering operations, a blacksmith, and the
Cleveland Grammar School.
11th at Folsom, Apr 1906
11th at Folsom, Apr 1906
11th at Harrison, Apr 1906
In 1906, there was a magnitude 7.8
that you may have heard of.
The buildings on this site (and, in fact, most of the city)
burned down in the aftermath of the quake. While we were remodeling
the club in 2000, we did some excavation in order to repair the sewer
lines, and we got to see what's underneath the DNA. It's landfill,
of course, like most of San Francisco, but I didn't know what
"landfill" really meant: around here it means, "two or three feet
of sand, and below that, the wreckage of whatever was standing here
before the quake knocked it down." So the DNA building is built on
top of the burned out rubble of whatever building was here before:
the next four or more feet underneath the sand is full of
old bricks and burned wood. When
we dug the holes, it made the whole building smell like fire for
days, from the cinders that had been stirred up. It was kind of
amazing that this stuff still smelled like a fresh fire after being
Some time after the quake, the building was razed and
reconstructed, but I'm not sure exactly when. The fact that the
wood still smelled like fire makes me think it must have been
soon afterward, but possibly they just knocked down the old building
and dumped sand over it.
Three years later, according to construction records, a man
named Simon Lerer built two buildings on the current site of DNA
Pizza: a warehouse was built where the pizza place is today, and two
years after that, a house behind it. That warehouse was only 50'
deep (half the depth of the lot) and the house at the back of the
lot was 30' deep, with a small yard between. Presumably the front
of the house faced onto Juniper Alley, or some closer,
I don't know what this building was used for, but at one point
I saw a document that suggested that it had at one time been a
Cost of construction of the two buildings: $1,000.
Harrison School, Feb 1920
While searching through the
SF Public Libary's
I happened across a few pictures of the former "Harrison Elementary
School," which I immediately recognized as the
Department of Human Services
building, around the corner from DNA. If you've ever been upstairs in
the lounge at DNA, you've seen this building: those bricks that you
see a few inches outside the lounge's windows are part of it.
However, that building grew over time: in 1920, only the central
part of that building existed. The photos show that the annex that
abuts our building (and blocks the windows) didn't exist yet.
The 1900 Sanborn Fire
Insurance Map describes that building as the Cleveland Grammar
School, and I'm told that earlier maps show a school there as early
as 1883, but the current building was built in 1920. (The detective
work leading to this conclusion was the observation that the keystone
above the door has "1920" carved into it.)
371 Eleventh St., around 1920
371 Eleventh St., 1923
Folsom at 10th Street, 1925
By 1921, the two buildings on the site of DNA Pizza were owned
by a man named Dave Lerer, who happens to be the grandfather of our
current landlord, Richard Gold. The house at 371 was his mother's
childhood home. Here's a photo of
Dave Lerer and his workers standing on the vacant lot that currently
houses DNA Lounge. He's the dapper one in the middle with his hands
in his pockets. You can see the Cleveland Grammar School in the
In the first photo they are
presumably breaking ground on construction of the DNA Lounge
building. because in the
second photo, dated March 1923,
you can see the familiar shape of DNA Lounge's roof beams!
Lerer was in the truck-parts business at the time.
That first incarnation of the DNA Lounge had unobstructed
windows on the South and East sides (looking in the direction of
Harrison Street and the Cleveland Grammar School, respectively) and
had fire doors on the North wall, opening in the direction of DNA
It's not clear to me how those fire doors fit in, however. One
of them is where the men's room is now, so it opened onto the open
space between the two buildings on the DNA Pizza site; but the other
one is near the front of the building, so either the front building
on the DNA Pizza site was narrower than it is today, or that door
opened into that other building.
We used to have a very old piece of paper that shows the
original building plans: it was a simple line drawing, that was
basically a rectangle, plus the annotation "single story building
with mezzanine." Things were so simple back then... (Sadly, I seem
to have lost this wonderful artifact!)
Someone told us that at some point, the DNA Lounge building was
a warehouse used for some kind of bottle storage, but we have no
idea whether this is true.
The DNA building was for some time a foundry. That's why, until
we took it out in 2000, there was
a rather large steel I-beam running the length of the roof. We were
told that the building was used to make manhole covers for the city,
and that it was also, at some point, a lead smelter plant. The beam
supported the big bucket that moved overhead, carrying hundreds of
gallons of molten metal. The plant was closed in the early 1950s
when all of the industrial stuff relocated to Dog Patch down by 3rd
Street and the old shipyards. (These days, most of those kinds of
businesses are on Oakland's waterfront.)
The building had big windows at the time, and a giant double-door
like a fire house, so that trucks could back in. There were also
train tracks up 11th Street, and going down towards the Bay to the
shipyards. These tracks were mostly torn out in the late 1940s, but
you still see old segments of track around SOMA and the bottom of
Potrero Hill that go nowhere.
Aerial view, 1938
Aerial photos show that the
Harrison School Annex existed as early as 1938, so the lounge
windows were walled up some time between 1923 and 1938.
Early photos that appear to be
from the 1940s (based on the cars that are visible), as well as later
pictures dated 1964, refer to the
building as being a warehouse for the Board of Education, so I guess
it didn't stay a school for too long...
375 11th St. floor plan, 1953
Harrison Warehouse, no date
Harrison Warehouse, no date
Harrison Warehouse, Aug 1964
Records indicate that in 1953, the building just to the south of
the DNA Lounge building was constructed (the building that is the
Glass Block shop today). The plans call this an "addition" to our
building: the two buildings were both numbered "375." This is when
the windows on the south side of the DNA building were bricked over.
Also this year, the two buildings on the pizza place's lot were
coalesced into a single warehouse building that had roughly the
layout that that building has today. They did this by hanging a
floor and ceiling between the two existing buildings, which is why
the front and back rooms on the second floor of the pizza place
have a ramp between them and floors that don't line up.
This work was also labelled an "addition" to the DNA Lounge
building, though it did get its own street number, 371. At this
point, the large double-doors on the north side of the DNA Lounge
building either became inaccessible, or opened into the new
addition; I'm not sure which!
At this time, the DNA building seems to have been an auto repair
shop, owned by D. M. Lerer (the same Dave Lerer who owned it in
1921, I assume). There was a single truck-width double door in the
front, another on the left side, as mentioned, and there were front
windows on both the ground floor and upstairs. The balcony was in
place, but the stairs were elsewhere: there were two thin stairways
going up to the balcony, one in the middle of the south (right)
wall, and one near the northeast (left front) corner. There were
also two external doors on the north (left) wall.
Amusingly, the employee toilet seems to have been in the same
place then as it is today.
The oldest blueprints we currently have are of the building's
configuration as of 1953.
Chaps floor plan, 1982
A leather bar called Chaps opened at 375 Eleventh Street,
owned by Chuck Slaton and Ron Morrison. (The building had housed an
auto repair shop immediately before that.) The center auto-door was
filled in, and smaller doors were added on the left and right sides,
roughly where they are today. They were single doors, made of glass
They added a new railing around the balcony, and added the
support posts under the balcony. Prior to this, the balcony had been
supported by hanging struts attached to the ceiling.
From reading our 1982 blueprints,
it looks like the balcony went all the way into the back area of
the building, which I guess means that one could look down onto what
is now the backstage/office area. Though, on the plans, this is marked
as "storage, no occupancy." So I can only assume that to be a lie,
and that area was actually open to the public, just not legally.
The bar was a four-sided bar in the middle of the main room, in
roughly the same place as the late-90s bar, though it was thinner and
longer. It extended most of the way to where the stage would have
been. Except that there was no stage: most of the space where the
stage is today was taken up with a a large X-shaped crossing
staircase, with entrances on the left and right, upstairs and
downstairs. The dance floor, such as it was, was the area under the
balcony on the left (north) side.
Jim English says: "It was a pretty dark and intense space; jet
black paint everywhere, with black leather curtains, chains, and huge
screens around the balcony to catch bottles and shot glasses tossed
by the boys when things got a little too rough."
We've also been told, by someone who was there at the time, that
Chaps retained the oil-change pit from the building's tenure as an
auto shop. This was a (sometimes-covered) hole in the ground,
basically in the middle of the (current) dance floor. A common
spectacle was for there to be nude men wrestling down in the pit
while the crowd gathered at the edges to jerk off onto them. Ah,
the Seventies! A simpler time.
It's possible that the name of the bar changed a few times in
the late 70s and early 80s, but I'm not sure.
There used to be a lot of fascinating history of the various other
San Francisco nightspots in the 1970s over at the (now-defunct)
web site, but unfortunately, nothing on DNA or its predecessors.
Jim English, Jeff Mason and Brian Raffi bought Chaps, and the
DNA Lounge was born. It opened on November 22, 1985.
You can see a number of photos of the club's grand opening
in our photo gallery, and some
of the very early event flyers in our
Jim English had previously run a dance space called Sub Club at
9th and Folsom, which closed some time in the early eighties due to
trouble with the landlords. Most of the staff of Sub Club were
involved in the early DNA, so DNA was largely a descendant of Sub
Club: the owners wanted to keep the staff together, and have a legal
Club Nine, 1985
(later, The Stud)
The Stud, 1985
(later, Holy Cow)
Cissy's Goodtime Saloon &
Hamburger Mary's Restaurant, 1985
(later, Mercury Lounge)
Major Ponds Dance Garden, 1985
(later, Club 1015 Folsom)
The Oasis, 1985
(later, Clubs VSF & Caliente)
Prior to Sub Club, Jim had run a club called "Science Club", so
the name "DNA" was chosen to fit with the previous two names and the
slogan, "The Evolution of Underground Dance". Jim left around 1988
to open Club Townsend, at which time restauranteur Jeff Mason became
Raffi's new partner.
In 1984, Mark Rennie and Ari Ghanbarian (who later started SoMa
Magazine) opened Club Nine, located where The Stud is now. (The Stud
existed at the time, but it was where Holy Cow is today: it had been
in that location since it opened in 1966.) Club Nine was similar to a
New York club called Area. It was a performance art space, with
dancing secondary. The club also used the motel rooms next door as
art spaces, and you could go up on the motel balcony and look into the
exhibits. At the time, Area in NY was redecorating completely every
six weeks, with a one-week shutdown and a new theme each time. Club
Nine tried to out-do this, redecorating every week. This ran the
staff ragged, and didn't work.
Some say that DNA was created partially as a reaction to Club
Nine. "DNA" never really stood for anything, though a number of
people have told me that "Dance, Not Art" was a slogan that was
used at the time. (Jim English says that's not true, however.)
One version of the story goes that the "Dance, Not Art" thing was
meant in contrast to Club Nine, which had a lousy dance floor with
columns in inconvenient places and lots of bad performance art;
whereas, DNA was intended primarily as a dance space.
DNA opened in 1985, with the doorman from Area and very strict
door control; you had to look very cool to get in. It was the
hottest club in the city for quite some time. Some nights there'd be
more people outside trying to get in than there were inside.
DNA's first regular DJs were Ted Cousens, Adam Fisher and Brian
Raffi. Spencer Coppins was the first manager. One of the early
doormen was Doc
Martin, who went on to be a famous house DJ.
In the beginning there were very sophisticated visuals and
strange art events going on all the time. Ermanno di Febo, an
Italian guy with a background in design and architecture, was behind
a lot of this. Some of it was simple sheeting behind which people
would make motions in silhouette, or a filmstrip/super 8 projected
onto fabric. Ermanno later threw the very big Glashaus parties.
One of the first things to happen at DNA was the evolution of
"nights," which is so common now: the idea that particular genres
of music occur on certain days of the week.
According to blueprints from
1989, the DJ booth was where the men's bathroom is today. It had
a split door. They pushed a beer refrigerator up to the door and
put two turntables on it, and that was the DJ booth! Some time
later, they added a plexiglas window to prevent the customers
from bumping the records. The DJ booth kept this same somewhat-hidden,
enclosed configuration until the 2001 remodel.
The layout of the upstairs lounge area was completely different:
instead of an L-shaped seating area bracketing a slightly raised
dance floor, as it is today, the dance floor area was taken up by two
separate storage rooms, and the L-shaped area was two separate square
lounges, connected by a thin hallway. The hallway went past what is
marked as a "conference room"
that takes up most of the middle portion of the L. So there were
three tiny lounges, when you count the green room on the south wall
(which was shaped then as it is today).
There was also a door between the upstairs lounge and the second
floor of what is now the pizza place. Brian Raffi remembers
discovering it and prying it open in 1986, but the fire marshall
wouldn't let them use it. It was eventually walled over again.
It looks like the balcony bar was in place at this time.
The building to the north (where the pizza place is today) was
extensively remodeled and became The Bruce Velick Gallery, an art
gallery. This is when the inset alcove was constructed, which
persists in that building today.
The Covered Wagon Saloon opened some time in early 1988.
DNA Lounge floor plan, 1989
In 1989, DNA's X-shaped staircase was removed, and the stage was
added, with the modern configuration of stage stairs. The downstairs
four-sided bar was cut back: it was made shorter and wider, enlarging
the dance area in front of the stage. (Or possibly this happened in
1991, and planning for it began in 1989. It's hard to tell.)
Coat check and the lounge dance floor were constructed at the same
You can (just barely) see the stage-less configuration of the
stairs in a couple of
photos from the
1985 gallery. That railing
the the people at the back are leaning against is a few feet in
front of where the front edge of the stage is today.
The gallery next door became Za Spot, its first incarnation as
a pizza restaurant. Za Spot was there until mid-2002, when it became
Dulcinea Cafe, a full restaurant. A year later, it
became Bowzer's Pizza, and
in 2011 joined the DNA Lounge empire as
DNA Lounge floor plan, 1996
DNA Lounge was sold to Tim Dale and John and
(of Saturday Night Live fame). Some time later, the Schneiders
bought out Tim Dale. They had a very popular disco cover band
every Friday night for several years, but the place pretty much
fell into disrepair and off of the radar.
DNA Lounge floor plan, 2000
Jamie Zawinski (that's me) started negotiating to buy DNA
Lounge from the Schneiders in July, 1998. After several false
starts, escrow was entered in April 1999, and the battle with the
police department over transfer of the after-hours permits began.
All of this is documented in excruciating detail in my
online journal. We finally re-opened
for business on July 13, 2001 (Friday the 13th!)
Our major architectural changes
at the time were: replacing the front wall of the building and
sealing up the windows for soundproofing purposes; replacing the
four-sided bar in the center of the main room with a straight bar
against the front wall, making the dance floor much larger;
re-building the balcony and its railing, supporting it with fewer
(larger) girders, thus improving sight lines; and moving the sound
booth and DJ booth up to a new catwalk below the balcony. Oh, and
brand new sound, lighting and ventilation systems. Not counting the
legal battles, the remodeling effort took an entire year!
The Covered Wagon Saloon closed in August 2002, and soon
reopened as Cherry Bar. Cherry Bar closed in late 2006,
and Annie's Social Club relocated there from it's previous
location at Boardman and Bryant, across from the jail.
In early 2007, we replaced the bathroom on the south balcony
with a kitchen and began serving full meals, in anticipation of
converting our liquor license from one that restricted us to being
21+ at all times to one that would allow us to do all-ages or 18+
events as well. That required another ridiculously-extended legal
battle, but on August 18, 2008 we
successfully negotiated that license conversion, and the first-ever
all ages show at DNA Lounge took place on
September 7, 2008!
Annie's closed in December 2009, and was replaced by
Qi Ultra Lounge, which was hardly ever open for the next five years.
March 2011, the DNA Lounge Empire expanded to the North
with the purchase of the pizza restaurant, now fondly known as
October 2011, the DNA Lounge Empire expanded upwards with the opening
of Above DNA, a new performance space upstairs from DNA Pizza.
This expansion transformed the two-room venue into a four-room venue,
or into a pair of separate side-by-side venues, depending on the night.
In November 2015, the DNA Lounge Empire expanded to the East,
opening a second location of
DNA Pizza and a new nightclub
Codeword in the old Covered Wagon site. Sadly, that endeavour
lasted only until
And in conclusion...
San Francisco has a quite fascinating history, starting with its
settlement by dictatorial naval mercenaries, and proceeding through
two centuries of explosive greed, mob rule, vigilantism,
assassinations, hedonism, plus a healthy dose of natural disasters
just to keep it interesting. I highly recommend two sites in
particular that have had me reading and clicking for days and days:
And I can't recommend highly enough Herbert Asbury's book,
The Gangs of San Francisco,
originally published in 1933 as
"The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco
Huge thanks to Electra (DNA's sound guy through most of the '80s
and '90s), John Nagle, Michael Wharton (door man and night manager in
the '80s), Ted Cousens
(one of DNA's first DJs), Jim English, and Mark Rennie for providing
me with many of the details about the mid-to-late 20th century, and
to Darren Mckeeman for researching the contents of 11th street in the
late 19th century! Again, if you have anything to add, please let