By Tyler Breisacher
On the north end of San Francisco’s Mission District, among the familiar apartment buildings, coffee shops, and Mexican restaurants, visitors might notice one structure that seems out of place.
The San Francisco Armory, built to resemble a castle, looms over the surrounding neighborhood. Its history goes back over a century and includes sports, Star Wars, and a pornography studio, but as the name suggests, its first use was as an armory for the National Guard, which had the structure built in 1912, and used it until the mid-1970s.
When State Historic Preservation Officer Dr. Knox Mellon nominated the building for the National Register of Historic Places, he described the architectural features that made it so intimidating.
“The exterior of the building is designed to give the harsh impression of a fortress, with four octagonal corner towers, a rough clinker brick exterior surface, and long narrow slit windows. The ground storey is very austere; the heavy walls curve outward slightly toward the ground, simulating the enormously thick masonry walls of a Medieval fortress.”
While the National Guard occupied the building, it also hosted frequent sporting events.
In particular, boxing matches were held in the building’s large high-ceilinged Drill Court. A boxing match was held in 2017, as a way to let modern boxing fans relive that historical experience.
An Armory spokesperson told Mission Local at the time, “It’s a way for us to pay tribute to the Armory’s history, and to bring in crowds that have probably never been in the Armory.” San Francisco native Karim Mayfield won the fight.
Some shots in “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” were filmed at the Armory. Accounts differ on whether these were spaceship interior shots, or explosions created by the special effects team. In either case, San Franciscans can be proud that their city was an early part of the historic multi-billion-dollar movie franchise that continued for decades.
However, the Star Wars filming session was one of the last major events to happen at the Armory for decades. The National Guard had stopped using it by then, so it generally remained empty for many years. It was accepted onto the National Register of Historic Places around the time the National Guard vacated, as if it were placed into a museum.
In 2007, the Armory began to be used as a movie studio again, but for a very different genre of movie. Kink.com, a BDSM porn studio and network of websites, bought the building for $14.5 million in late 2006.
“It’s already formidable looking,” porn director James Mogul told the SF Gate, as he surveyed what would soon become a porn studio. “You don’t have to build a fake dungeon; this building is already a dungeon.”
In addition to using the building for shooting porn, the new occupants hosted events such as kink classes, a Halloween haunted house, and tours of the studio, highlighting both the current use of the space, and its militaristic history. Kink.com didn’t shy away from making its presence known, putting a rainbow flag atop one of the Armory’s formidable corner towers, and a leather flag — a well known symbol in the leather and BDSM community — on another.
That visibility drew protests from the surrounding community. Some protesters were explicitly anti-pornography, while others had hoped the Armory would be used for other purposes, such as a recreation center or affordable housing.
As a New York Times report put it, “It seemed as if some in the beleaguered community had come to view the armory as a 200,000-square-foot storehouse of infinite promise,” but that promise disappeared when Kink.com was allowed to buy it out without community input.
A decade later, the protesters got at least part of what they wanted, when Kink.com announced it would stop filming in the Armory, with many of its directors moving to other areas, such as Southern California or Las Vegas.
The future of the Armory itself is uncertain. It was sold in January 2018 to AJ Capital Partners, a Chicago-based investment company, which has long developed resorts and high-end social clubs, including the SoHo House in Chicago and boutique hotels in Miami, New Orleans, Napa and elsewhere. It sold for a reported $65 million — over four times what Kink.com paid about a decade earlier.
But, according to Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who has met with the group, the new owner of the historic Armory in the Mission District plans to lease the building to manufacturing companies, with the exception of the top two floors, which the investment group hopes to convert to office space.
In the meantime, it still remains empty possibly for the right buyer at a substantial profit. But guided historical tours of the Armory are still available.
The San Francisco Chronicle once referred to the Armory as “long discussed, long fought over.” Those words were written not during the controversial Kink.com presence, but in 1914, when construction on the Armory was finished after years of planning and building.
They could not have known those words would continue to ring true over 100 years later, just as we don’t know what the next 100 years will bring for San Francisco, or for its historic Armory.