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San Francisco Landmark #8: Bayview Opera House 23 January 2004
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The Bayview Opera House "currently provides arts education and cultural enrichment to San Franciscans on a low or no cost basis" and maintains a website at http://www.bayviewoperahouse.org/.

San Francisco Landmark #8
Bayview Opera House
1601 Newcomb Avenue At 3rd Street
Built 1888

The following information is extracted from the National Register Nomination Form dated 23 September 2010 and prepared by Architectural Resources Group of San Francisco

The Bayview Opera House was designed by Architect Henry Geilfuss was born in Thurin, Germany in 1850. He attended architecture school in Erfurt, Weimar and Berlin, and began his architectural practice in Berlin and Schlessing, where he designed railroad bridges and related masonry structures. He came to San Francisco in 1876 where he remained in practice until at least 1910. By the late 1880s he was known in San Francisco for having designed "some of the best buildings erected here." Geilfuss was one of the foremost practitioners of the Victorian style of residential architecture - a style that incorporated Italianate, Gothic, Eastlake, and Stick elements - that has since become synonymous worldwide with "historic San Francisco architecture."

The South San Francisco Opera House was built in 1888 by Masonic Lodge No. 212. It was the first cultural building constructed in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, then known as South San Francisco, a fledgling district of cottages, farms and slaughterhouses at the City's southeast corner.

In their survey of nineteenth-century performance halls, David Naylor and Joan Dillon cite the South San Francisco Opera House as a classic example of a western boomtown opera house. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, these opera houses, which sprang up across California and the West, provided "some semblance of conventional community life" for residents of the makeshift boomtowns. These halls, which were often attached to larger commercial buildings, hosted a wide variety of events, including dances, political rallies, and theatrical performances. Despite their common moniker, however, few of these Opera Houses actually showed opera. As such, the "Opera House" name appears to have been more an ironic reference to the "rough and ready" nature of life in the Western mining towns than an indication of the specific theatrical fare on tap. According to a survey of nineteenth century theater in Oregon, these "so-called opera houses were quite often built by either the Masonic or Odd Fellows lodges, doubling valiantly as community centers."

South San Francisco was relatively little affected by the 1906 Earthquake. The fires that extended southward from downtown were stopped miles north of South San Francisco, and the substantial bedrock beneath much of the district likely reduced the effects of the earthquake itself. Despite its remoteness, South San Francisco hosted thousands of refugees in the wake of the disaster.

Even though the South San Francisco Opera House had survived the 1906 Earthquake and Fire, its use as a performance venue slowed in the wake of the cataclysm. Virtually every other theater in the city was destroyed, leaving acting companies with no reason to travel to San Francisco, and thus no reason to pass through South San Francisco.

The Opera House's use as a stop-over for traveling performers was further reduced by the Southern Pacific Railroad's completion of the ambitious "Bayshore Cutoff" in 1907, which made stopping off in South San Francisco both inconvenient and unnecessary.

Over the next several decades, the Masons continued to use the Opera House as a community social hall. The building hosted card parties, club meetings and barn dances, among other events. The 1951 Sanborn Map of the area identifies the Opera House as the "Bayview Center Recreation Hall." For several years in the 1950s and early 1960s, Olsen's Saddlery Shop, which occupied the first floor of the Masonic Lodge, rented the Opera House from the Masons for $100 a month for use as a warehouse. In 1964, forty of the Opera House's velvet-upholstered iron seats, which had been packed away in the balcony, were sold to Macy's, which reupholstered the seats with leather and installed them in the men's shoe department of their new Sacramento store. At the time, the original curtain, "ablaze with ads of its heyday," was still in place and "roll[ed] up and down without much difficulty." South San Francisco Lodge No. 212 sold the Masonic Hall and Opera House to life-long area resident Arthur Viargues for $100,000 in 1965, after 77 years of continuous occupation.

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