A few nights ago I had the very rare and fiendishly creepy privilege of getting a tour of the historic San Francisco Armory building hunkered down on the corner of Mission and 14th Streets, a monster relic right smack down along a scrubby industrial edge in the Mission district with a vital revolutionary past.
You can read a short history of the armory at Wikipedia which has also done a good job of tracking the many different proposed plans to re-use it ever since its closure in 1976, from dot.com office space (as you might have guessed) to (yes) more condos, to much sorely needed post-homeless housing, to, of course, what it is now finally being used for – sex films.
In the past it served intermittently as a place for social events like boxing matches, but for decades the armory has largely remained untapped in a big disappointing and unimaginative way. At the very least this space could make for an amazing installation venue, a temporary art space, a wicked pavilion or bazaar for a weekend wandering of sorts. But, anyway…
As we read, “The Armory served as a stronghold and rallying point for the National Guard in their suppression of the 1934 San Francisco General Strike (an event known as "Bloody Thursday").”
Essentially, it is a 152,000 square foot concrete behemoth with a brick façade that I spent the good part of over a decade myself walking around trying to climb up to the lower level slivers of look-out space that have remained for the most part boarded up ever since I can remember, just to see if there was any way to peak in, to get even a semi-worthless glimpse, the vaguest of ideas, anything about what the hell was or was not going on inside. And how could nothing have been going on, especially for so long? I tell ya, for a place this mysterious something sure as hell better have been happening in there, that’s all I can say.
[Image: The opened door to a prop room for Kink's fun little stash of props that properly reads "Fuckign Machine,", though, unfortunately it was empty, doh!]
I can’t count how many times I’ve circled this landmark hopelessly plotting, strategizing in vain as to how I might manage to sneak in, if even just to try in order to gather some bits of realism for a much more exciting future dream about sneaking in and wandering around inside this old military beast, where clandestine CIA operations were coming together or maybe being botched, or the NSA had set up another illegal domestic wiretapping facility, or entire secret societies of revolutionary squatters had secured the coolest fort in town, or where crazy avant-garde performance sex-art parties were happening completely unbeknownst to me in all my callous lack of urban cool wisdom.
Damn, for years this place occupied a menacing architectural fascination for me, that I have to say could only have been satiated by this eerie freaky-ass flashlight tour I got from one of the nutty caretakers there who was more than willing to let me indulge my pent up curiosity by running around like a fearless raving madman fishing for answers to my bottomless soul in the pits of the fortress’s urban dark.
With massive wands of light in our hands we kicked and crawled our way through the darkness of abandonment, a little group of us fingering and poking our way down the half-lit stairwells into hallway after hallway, getting darker and darker, combing every random room off to the side I could find like a dog let loose in a new property, sniffing out every corner nook and cranny, mapping a secret geography of his new domain.
In actuality the interior of the entire fortress has been kept excessively clean, I mean, really clean – like psychotically mopped and buffed over and over again. I swear Jack from The Shining must have been hiding somewhere watching us from a dark furtive corner while we admired his obsessive bleach work. Needless to say, the cleanliness was ironically chilling, purely spooky.
[Image: This was hilarious. A classroom setting with a simple desk, and a chalboard that reads over and over and over again, I will not leave my cage without permission again.]
But, irritated by my attachment to people, I bolted off alone following only the nose of my intrepid flashlight into corners of old officers quarters that had now been adorned with mirrors and turned into little unknown dance studios; or, wide open office like spaces from where I climbed onto indoor balconies that I should not have until I heard sounds of creaking wood and bending metal; that being my cue to backtrack into new clefts of storage space where little infrastructural skeletons of ancient trusses and bolted beams were revealed in jagged light fragments, while my panting nostrils siphoned pungent wafts of bleach and old wood just like an old ghost dog on the prowl in some purgatorial compound.
There were rooms with absolutely nothing in them, and others with out of place desks, displaced closet spaces, isolated chairs – presumably basic props for silly sex scenes I’d probably never see; black rooms with half walls holding up pitiful ceilings, bathrooms cautiously taped shut, rusted old bathtubs ideal for a horrendous torture flick.
Through lesser obvious rooms with crumbling door frames I found a set of ramps that led down even further to new hallways lower and lower until the groups’ giddy voices and cackles were trapped in far-off corners, searching for something (always searching for something) yet still lower until I skipped across a section of slimy planks and rotted boards that stretched over a water-logged floor where cold concrete walls whispered in drippy voices, gaining speed to just reach an end or a bottom to the armory until I finally tripped over a bucket and some strewn hardware. Finding a mess of tools and crap there with my light a small gang of drills and saws stared back at me like little mechanic heathens looking as if I’d just interrupted their orgy, or as if they’d just been turned off seconds before I got there. Moving past them until alas I heard Mission Creek oozing by my feet, and this was it, the bottom of the well, the absolute bowels of this massive concrete body where it finally met the earth and could sink into it no more; for a moment I could have sworn I saw a body flowing through the river of black foam as I stopped to just realize my point in time and place on the planet.
Down some more steps that led into the thick slush I flashed my camera over and over again, pretending to be the forensic psychologist I always dreamt of being, alone by the blackest creek in San Francisco, lost to the world inside the remains of an old shooting gallery where the walls had been blown to pieces, waiting for some dead hand to reach out from the water and pull me in, drag me under, on my way to some Subtopian neverland.
Then, I caught a whiff of some thing’s insides, unmistakably the stench of a mammalian cavity and I hustled back up the stairs rummaging through the blocky labyrinth with a flickering flashlight in my hand, catching my toes in ground rivets and looking for a new forward exit, until I swept past a series of cages tucked under a walkway, reminded for a moment of scenes from the recent film Children of Men where immigrants were stashed in stockades screaming in vain, when these were more likely at some point packed with rifles and ammunition, but which now had curiously and freshly mounted hooks for chains I figured ready to lace some secret little S&M scene for a flick soon to be available in Hi-Def on your TV.
Scrambling up some stairs I found the infamous boiler room with its scalded walls, and on my way up and up past the original half-lit stairwells from which I began further north until eventually I was funneled into a room with no other place to go than out an open window where empty beer bottles beckoned me towards a rooftop ladder that scaled dangerously the side of the rooftop where suddenly there I was staring at a view of San Francisco I’d never seen before in one fell swoop.
[All images courtesy of Subtopia, 2007.]