With over 100 years of history, the San Francisco Armory is arguably the most memorable landmark in San Francisco’s Mission District. A true architectural heirloom filled with historical treasures, The San Francisco Armory holds a rightful place on the National Park Service National Register of Historic Places.
Credit: California Military Department Historical Program
The Mission Armory is located in the northern Mission District of San Francisco at the corner of 14th and Mission streets. It is the largest building in the Mission District, and is listed on the national register of historic places (NRHP Reference# 78000758). Similar to contemporary American armories, The Mission Armory represents a unique combination of revivalist architecture and early 20th century machine age construction. The Building is divided into two sections: the 84,700 square foot Administration Building and the 39,000 square foot Drill Court. A full basement is about 68,000 square feet, bringing the total to 192,300.
The exterior of the Mission Armory is designed to convey the impression of a heavily armored and forbidding Moorish fortress, with four octagonal towers, rough clinker brick exterior walls and narrow rectangular lancet windows. The building is constructed of a reinforced concrete frame consisting of twelve to twenty-one inch square columns. Concrete floor and roof beams span the length of the building to girders on the east-west grid lines. The exterior of the building features eight to twelve-inch thick exterior load-bearing brick walls. In the Drill Court, the upper portions of the walls are thirteen-inch thick unreinforced masonry.
The Basement originally housed a one hundred by sixty foot gymnasium, a natatorium (swimming pool), locker and dressing rooms, an industrial kitchen, a banquet room and the original quarters of the Naval Militia. The Basement, which extends beneath the Administration Building and the Drill Court, also contained an arsenal, company store room, boiler room, indoor rifle range, ammunition hoist, storerooms for field wagons and an elevator to haul the wagons to the vehicular entrances on Julian Avenue. However, the Basement is also the most heavily altered portion on the Mission Armory, many of the original brick and hollow clay and tile partition walls have been replaced over time with concrete masonry units. The most interesting features of the Basement are the exposed concrete frame and truss bases and Mission Creek, which runs beneath the building.
The Drill Court
The Drill Court is one of the most significant interior spaces in the Mission Armory. It is reputed to be the largest unsupported enclosed volume in San Francisco, featuring a dramatic exposed roof structure composed of curved steel open-web trusses. A reinforced-concrete balcony accessible from the third floor of the Administration Building runs around the perimeter of the Drill Court, sixteen feet above the floor. This was added in 1925 to provide a base for bleachers for boxing matches. The 170-foot-long roof trusses support the entire width of the barrel vaulted wood roof without intermediary vertical supports. The San Francisco National Guard Armory and Arsenal, as it is listed, was nominated to the National Register in 1978 for three areas of significance: architecture, engineering and military; for the period of significance 1900-1912. As an exceptional example of the work of the architectural firm of Woollett & Woollett (led by State Architect John F. Woollett), the building originally housed the California National Coast Guard Artillery, the naval Militia, and later acted as a social center for the City’s national guardsmen.
1920s – 1960s
From 1920s through the 1940s, the Mission Armory served as San Francisco’s primary sports venue, eventually earning the nickname the Madison Square Garden of the West. For almost three decades, at least two prizefights were held in the Drill Court each week, usually on Tuesday and Friday nights. One very notable fight included a light heavyweight title fight between Young Jim Corbett III and Jackie Fields. Other notable fights that took place in the Mission Armory included matches between Mike Teague and Armand Emanuel (Teague was the World Light Heavy Weight Champion); Jackie Fields and Jack Thompson (both were welterweight champions); and Young Jim Corbett and Pete Myers in 1929.
After the Korean War, the Mission Armory slowly lost its value as a military training facility. By the 1950’s, close-order drilling was no longer a central part of the National Guard’s training regimen. World War II era technological advances in air warfare rendered coastal batteries outdated. With the 250th Coast Artillery converted into an anti-aircraft unit, there was no longer any need for the large non-firing field guns installed in the Drill Court; they were removed in 1947. After the Korean War, training at the Mission Armory became centered on classroom instruction. With a large and permanent standing Armory, the California National Guard was increasingly deployed to the sites of natural disasters and to quell riots, including the Riots of 1967 in San Francisco’s Bayview–Hunters Point district. By the late 1960s, the Mission Armory was deemed obsolete.
Filming Star Wars
In 1976, George Lucas used the Drill Court to film some scenes Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, several special effects explosions were filmed at the San Francisco Armory. It was selected because it was the largest single room anywhere that was unrestricted. The Star Wars production company constructed their own ceiling that was black and measured about a hundred feet long by sixty feet wide, and they photographed several large explosions, about sixty feet off the ground. Five high-speed cameras going on each take, and only one jammed during production. There were two VistaVision high speed cameras that maxed out at seventy-two frames per second, and a new one that was shooting ninety-six, with three additional cameras shooting anamorphic. Filming lasted in the Armory for a couple of weeks with a total of four hundred different explosion shots, but plans to convert the building into a full-time film studio never came to fruition.
1980s – Present
From 1980 to 2000, several attempts were made to develop and rehabilitate the property, but nothing came to fruition and the building remained empty until January 2007 when Armory Studios, LLC purchased the building. The success of Armory Studios reuse of the building was due entirely to the fact that they aimed to reuse the building without new construction, and their arts-activity did not require major life-safety upgrades.