The SF Eagle, the SoMa LGBTQ bar formerly known as the Eagle Tavern, is hoping to secure status as the third LGBTQ bar location to receive a landmark designation by the San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission. And earlier this week, a Board of Supervisors committee approved a first step toward getting there.
On Monday, January 25, the board's Land Use and Transportation Committee unanimously voted 3-0 to forward the Eagle's petition for landmark status on to the Historic Preservation Commission. As the Bay Area Reporter tells us, bar owner Lex Montiel spoke at the virtual meeting and said, "We have endured through hard times and bringing the community back together. As a person and San Franciscan, I want to point out the importance of the bar and its mission."
Proponents of the nascent SoMa Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District say that landmarking the Eagle will be an important step in gaining legitimacy for the district, which like everything else has been negatively impacted by the pandemic. Eagle Plaza, a streetscape feature that was meant to be a centerpiece of the new district, broke ground in mid-2019 with partial funding from developer Build Inc., who has been building a 136-unit residential complex across 12th Street from the bar for the last two years. It was intended to be open by early 2020, but instead it has sat dormant — the BAR notes that a leather pride flag that was hoisted there had already grown frayed and tattered from the wind and was removed by year-end, "an apt symbol for the battering the area's Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District experienced itself in 2020."
The Eagle has once before been the subject of City Hall's attention, when previous owners closed it and put it on the market in 2011 and it was in danger of disappearing at the hands of new straight owners. Supervisors Scott Wiener and Jane Kim intervened to help get the place leased to new gay owners, Montiel and his late partner Mike Leon, who reopened it (only slightly scrubbed of some of its former character) in 2013. Landmark status was something that was batted around at the time, but did not come to fruition.
Once again, fear spread through the community and among fans of the bar when a for-sale sign went up on the Eagle's building last September. As Hoodline reported, an agent for the owner was in talks with Montiel about purchasing the property, but it's unclear where things stand.
Landmark status would certainly complicate matters for any new owner if they wanted to demolish the bar. The only two other LGBTQ bar locations in the city that have received such status are Twin Peaks Tavern in the Castro, and the former home of lesbian bar the Paper Doll Bar at 524 Union Street, which hasn't been home to an LGBTQ space in decades.
SF's Eagle Tavern opened in 1981, just over a decade after the Eagle's Nest bar in New York City inspired a wave of similarly named leather bars opened around the country for masculine-presenting gay men who enjoyed the scene. As the bar notes on its website, the Eagle name is shared by many bars including the Eagle L.A. in Silverlake, the Eagle Bolt Bar in Minneapolis, the D.C. Eagle, and the Eagle upstairs from the Phoenix bar in New Orleans. NBC News covered some of this history of the "Eagle" name back in 2017, noting how the brand had endured despite these all being separate businesses.
In San Francisco, the Eagle was part of an ecosystem of bars and bathhouses that made SoMA a gayborhood in the 1970s and 80s, and gave birth to the world-renowned Folsom Street Fair. These included The Stud (which was once closer to the Eagle where Holy Cow is now), FeBe's on the corner of 11th and Folsom (which opened in 1966), and bars called the Ramrod, the Covered Wagon, and the Gas Station, as SF Gay History recounts.
All the bathhouses in the neighborhood were shuttered under new public health regulations in the AIDS era, but as the BAR notes, the Board of Supervisors last year passed new revised rules that would permit new bathhouses to open — once that becomes a post-pandemic possibility.
Following the sad May 2020 closure of the The Stud, what remains of LGBTQ culture in the vicinity is a handful of bars: Powerhouse, the Hole in the Wall, SF Oasis, Lone Star, and The Eagle. After six weeks operating as a food pantry, Powerhouse reopens today for outdoor drinks, with food from Azucar Lounge; and Oasis was open for rooftop service in the fall, and has not yet revealed its reopening plans.
"I think the designation of the Eagle as a historic landmark really codifies and acknowledges the historic nature and central pillar the Eagle has been to our community for so many decades," says Robert Goldfarb, president of the Leather and LGBTQ Cultural District's board. "I think that and the change in the bathhouse regulations will certainly represent an opening that we certainly think will promote business in SOMA, and we feel that it allows an unmet need to be fulfilled in San Francisco."
Photo: Riley Norris/Facebook