Events at the Signal Room typically involved 15 or 20 people invited by previous guests. (Courtesy Mona Caron)
Up at the summit of Yerba Buena Island, at the top of a lone tower, sits the Signal Room. It’s a treasure hidden in plain sight that boasts incredible views.
Built in 1944, the tower was originally used for signal operations by the Navy. Since January of last year, the signal tower has housed a secret speakeasy and cabaret run by Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez. Next month the tower is scheduled to be demolished to make way for open space known, fittingly enough, as Hilltop Park.
“I want to stop them from tearing it down," says Ashton-Gonzalez. "The Signal Room made me fall back in love with the Bay Area again."
He’s built a small community around the tower, organizing secret performances and concerts. Amid a tech boom that has displaced many artists, some saw this speakeasy as evidence that counterculture can still thrive in the Bay Area. That said, Ashton-Gonzalez wasn’t the first to use the tower as a drinking spot.
After the tower was retired from signal operations, it was turned into an officers' club. For years, the place was known as the Tower Club, a place where military personnel would go to drink and be merry. The bar shut down after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and the building was condemned.
Although planning for Hilltop Park has been underway since 2005, Ashton-Gonzalez found out about the fate planned for the signal tower only last December.
"I actually felt energized by history, honestly. They used to call it ‘the tower that talks,' " Ashton-Gonzalez says. "... I felt I needed to double down and bring as many people up to the Signal Room as I could, to share it with as many people as possible. I wanted this little cabaret to stand for something bigger for San Francisco."
At first, Ashton-Gonzalez looked into using environmental law to save the tower, claiming historical significance. But the argument for historical preservation became more difficult when it was revealed that the tower was younger than he previously believed. He didn’t realize that a tower built in 1917 was replaced by a remarkably similar one in 1944. But Ashton-Gonzalez is still trying to find ways to save the structure.
Bob Beck, director of the city's Treasure Island Development Authority, says he can't recommend saving the tower.
“The merit of the building lies in being able to go up into the tower," he says. "But, if you want it to be publicly accessible, then you’d have to install an elevator. That would be a significant structural investment. You’d end up with little space for the actual observation deck and it would hinder the views. It wouldn’t be the space that it is today.”
Beck adds he can't endorse Ashton-Gonzalez's transformation of the tower into the Signal Room.
"There’s signs posted on the structure advising against trespassing," Beck said. "[Ashton-Gonzalez’s] use has been a trespass. He’s taken the facility for a private use and it’s not a replicable or sustainable use."
Kheay Loke, the senior development manager at Wilson Meany, the co-developer with Lennar and Stockbridge on the hilltop project, says the open space at the island's summit is designed to provide better public access to the site's special views.
"It will be a really nice series of parks with trails connecting them, Loke says. "So people can enjoy the great view of the bay and surrounding hills."
The Hilltop Park project has a budget of $4 million and is set to be completed sometime in 2018. Downhill from the park, developers plan to build 200 to 300 townhouses. To make way for the homes and parks, about 60 existing units are slated for demolition beginning next month. There is no set demolition date for the Signal Room, but Loke doesn’t believe plans will change.
"Saving the tower isn’t compatible with the current plan,” he says.
Loke knows about Ashton-Gonzalez, but isn't thrilled by what he's been doing at the Signal Room.
"I’m aware that someone has been trying to save the building," he says. "It’s been a nuisance and annoyance. He has never officially contacted, but we do try to listen to the opinions out there."
Ashton-Gonzalez says he’s met employees of one developer, Lennar, at social events and hopes these informal connections will help rescue the tower. He won’t disclose names, but he says he’s also brought a number of San Francisco city officials up into the tower in hopes of saving it. However, these efforts have been cut short after the developers installed gates and padlocks around the entrances.
Among those officials have been members of the city's Arts Commission, Ashton-Gonzalez says. He hopes to turn the building into an architectural sculpture if it can’t be maintained as a publicly accessible building. Ashton-Gonzalez says he’s talked to a local artist, Brian Goggin, about turning it into an installation.
The Arts Commission declined comment on the tower. Although there are plans to build sculpture gardens elsewhere on Yerba Buena Island, it looks as if the tower will be gone long before sculptures and artists are selected.