DNA Sequencing
with your host
Jamie Zawinski
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 before that.

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 me know!

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 on the 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:

It's not clear what was on our lot before 1875 or so, but the street existed, at least: in 1861, "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 150,000, 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 prostitution: "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 prostitute."

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 speakeasies.

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 earthquake 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 underground for ninety-four years!

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, no-longer-existent alley.

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 matress factory.

Cost of construction of the two buildings: $1,000.

Harrison School, Feb 1920

While searching through the SF Public Libary's photo archive, 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 background.

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 Pizza.

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 and aluminum.

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) Planet SOMA 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 flyer archive!

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 underground-style club.

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)
Major Ponds SFBG Ad, 1985
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 time.

There's a paragraph in a the 1989 issue of the Bay Guardian that mentions that "the stage has been moved back 20 feet".

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 Pizza.

DNA Lounge floor plan, 1996

DNA Lounge was sold to Tim Dale and John and Rob Schneider (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.

In March 2011, the DNA Lounge Empire expanded to the North with the purchase of the pizza restaurant, now fondly known as DNA Pizza.

In 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 called Codeword in the old Covered Wagon site. Sadly, that endeavour lasted only until mid-2017.

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 Underworld".

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 me know...