A piece of San Francisco musical history will be brought back to life at the end of the month, at least temporarily. The historic Fillmore West—most recently the site of a Honda dealership on the corner of Market Street and South Van Ness—is reopening under new management and will host events for the first time in 45 years. But before music fans start celebrating the reemergence of the storied venue, there’s a catch: the events company managing the former Fillmore West may only have three to five years to utilize it before the developer who owns the underlying land turns the site into a high-rise apartment tower.
SVN West, once a '60s counterculture mecca, utilizes much of the Fillmore West's original architecture and will feature a mezzanine, an approximately 25,000-square-foot ballroom with high ceilings and a similarly sized outdoor terrace. The ballroom holds 4,000 to 6,000 people—a rarity among independent venues in the city.
Non Plus Ultra, Inc., a local company with philanthropic roots, manages SVN West. (Its leadership team helped found Project Wreckless, which teaches at-risk youth to restore classic cars, and the company frequently donates proceeds from events to community organizations.) Non Plus Ultra (NPU) also runs The Mint, Palace of Fine Arts and The Midway.
Although the company hasn’t disclosed many details about upcoming booking at SVN West, NPU president Jordan Langer says he plans to host a variety of corporate and community events. The first event at the new SVN West is a Pride celebration featuring several DJs and drag star Juanita MORE! on Saturday, June 23.
“We’ll do some parties, live music and art stuff including installations,” NPU President Jordan Langer said of his vision for SVN West. “Rather than the building sitting empty or underutilized, we wanted to activate it in a cool, positive light. It’s an incredible venue—and if those walls could talk!”
The ballroom of 10 South Van Ness is certainly hallowed ground. Originally a big band dance hall called The Carousel Ballroom and a stop on the West Coast Chitlin' Circuit, the network of venues where African-American artists performed during segregation, the venue became the epicenter of the San Francisco scene under the stewardship of concert impresario Bill Graham in the late '60s. Graham renamed the venue Fillmore West after leaving his original location (today’s current Fillmore), and promoted a 1967 BB King show that became the legendary guitarist’s first performance in front of a majority white audience.
The space was also briefly run by a collective formed by Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Big Brother and the Holding Company and The Grateful Dead—all of whom would become regulars on the Fillmore West stage. The Fillmore West closed in 1971 with 14 bands performing between June 29 and July 4; an album and documentary titled Last Days at The Fillmore was released in 1972.
While NPU is contacting some of those living legends from the Bay Area’s heyday for future programming, Langer noted that SVN West won’t strictly be a throwback. “We really want to keep it as a continuation of the cool stuff that’s happened in the building as opposed to re-launching the Fillmore West. Those are somewhat impossible shoes to fill.”
Non Plus Ultra will likely have several years to take advantage of the space. The building is owned by developers Crescent Heights, which aims to build a 984-unit mixed-use development on the site and has undergone a years-long planning process with the city. The Miami-based company acquired the land in 2014 and Langer estimates that in three to five years, development will begin. Crescent Heights could not be reached for comment on this story.
“Crescent Heights is looking at this being a test run pilot program for potentially doing something more long term,” Langer said. Ultimately, NPU hopes to convince Crescent Heights that a ballroom will suit their plans.
In the interim, NPU is acquiring a sound system and securing its fixed-place permit from the city’s Entertainment Commission, which would allow SVN West to host events on an ongoing basis. That lengthy process involves multiple public hearings in front of the commission as well as neighborhood outreach, in addition to standard building, health and fire inspections. While it waits for a permanent permit, the company has secured multiple one-time entertainment event permits to host events such as its Pride celebration. NPU can have up to 12 such permits each year.
“It’s great to see new places crop up, especially one that was so major in the city,” said Maggie Weiland, acting director of the city’s Entertainment Commission. “We’ve definitely seen a trend of some of those [larger capacity] venues we’ve known and loved for so many years going away. Any way we can support bringing them back and support the people who are working to bring them back is great.”
The opening of SVN West comes at a time of corporate consolidation in the Bay Area’s live music scene. Live Nation and Goldenvoice, which recently took control of the Great American Music Hall and Slim's, along with Another Planet Entertainment, have an effective stronghold on booking in San Francisco; each controls small clubs, larger venues and music festivals such as Outside Lands. East Bay Express speculated whether corporate control of San Francisco’s clubs and concert halls could homogenize live music in the region at the expense of local acts and promoters.
Langer, however, is unfazed and surprisingly upbeat. “I’m a huge believer in the more, the merrier,” he said, adding that, while NPU works well with bigger companies, he does not intend to use any of those corporate names as full-time bookers. Instead, NPU plans to keep booking in-house and is actively hiring a booker who can bring in unique talent and national acts that aren’t quite a fit for the nearby Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, which Langer jokingly referred to as the “900 pound gorilla in the room.”
“I’m not concerned about the competition. More artists and DJs and talent and events will make everything better,” Langer said. “We’re really excited to be in the booking arena. I think that San Francisco is ready for more of the unique stuff that we’re going to bring the space.”
Langer’s pointed to an exhibit at The Midway called "She Bends: Women in Neon" as an example of future art installations that could be held at SVN West. His other dreams for the venue include the return of Aretha Franklin, who recorded Aretha Live at the Fillmore West in 1971. However, Langer cautioned against pigeonholing SVN as a venue dedicated to a specific genre of music.
“My hope is that we knock it out of the park in the next three to five years and there’s a longer-term solution for keeping this space in San Francisco,” Langer said. “Every day, spaces are closing and changing, very often not for development, but just the cost of doing stuff in the Bay Area is crazy. Hopefully we’re going to be able to show Crescent Heights and the city as a whole that spaces are a viable business still. You don’t need a tech company to come in and fill out your space; we can make it cooler and more fun and definitely more engaging to the community.”
NPU hasn’t announced a calendar of events at SVN West (the space was scheduled to host a benefit for Project Wreckless on June 14 with a workshop, go-kart racing, rooftop zip lining and performance by local funk band The Humidors, but the event was moved to The Midway) but Langer said there are multiple projects in the pipeline. He expects to host an official grand opening party in the near future.