By Jessica Heller
On Fillmore Street at the corner of Fell Street, a neat yellow brick building dominates most of the block. Four rounded columns frame three pink doors. Angry, red NO TRESSPASSING signs adorn each of the doors. The windows that aren’t obstructed by plywood are intricate stained glass. Pink, green, yellow, purple and blue glass are encrusted with dust. The lead in between has turned from a once bright black to a powdery silver. In some places the glass is broken or tiles are clearly missing.
The bricks and glass and plywood are a shell of what was once the heart of the surrounding community. Sacred Heart Parish sits on a hill overlooking the Fillmore District, Western Addition, Hayes Valley and Alamo Square, and was completed in 1898. The Italianate building, designed by once-famed architect Tomas John Welsh, was home to a large and thriving congregation for more than 100 years.
We enter through a padlocked garage door, and venture into a dark passageway. A rough hand belonging to Kevin Strain, a friend of the owner of the building, flips a breaker and the garage springs into light. A city-issued work permit lies on the dusty concrete floor. The same rough hand reaches up onto a makeshift metal shelf and hands me a hard hat. We are entering a building deemed too unsafe for public use.
We cross the threshold from the garage and enter a dark, wood paneled hallway. Bead board and crown moldings still cling to the dirty walls. As we walk, his dirty work boots beat the ground and echo.
In his own right, Strain is an experienced landlord, real estate entrepreneur, ranch hand and cowboy. The off-white 10-gallon hat that was on his head when we first shook hands outside is still pulled down low over his eyes. He never replaced it with the awkward, dusty hard hat he handed me. For him, it was an unnecessary precaution.
“I’ve been a landlord in this city for 25 years. This is nothing,” he says as I try to genially pick my way past deserted wood, pails and garbage. My grey Converse shoes aren’t as up to the task as his work boots. “I was in here before they started stripping it. Back when people still thought the city would intervene and deem this place to be a historic landmark. Now look at it. Rat droppings in a church. Watch your step.”
So that’s what the smell is. I had noticed it the moment I set foot inside, but hadn’t said anything. Strain explained that it was a combination of the droppings, the poison designed to kill the rats, and the accumulation of dust in the shuttered building. When I take the time to focus, among the dust and papers on the ground, are small pellets—and I’ve been stepping in them.
Red, blue and white electrical wires protrude violently from the walls where sconces and lamps once hung. Strain walks us through a plywood door at the end of the hall marked MAIN in messy, black spray paint. The original door, like the sconces, is missing.
We have reached what was once a grand worshiping space. The room is enormous. The ceiling is high, and is obscured by the lack of light and what appears to be a net hung around it. In good light it would be obvious that the high ceiling is covered in a chipping mural. The mural was painted in 1920s by the muralist Achille G. Disi. The mural was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prietta Earthquake, and had to be netted to help preserve it.
An organ, which is also missing from the room, once dominated the rear of the church. Before it was illegally removed, the organ had sat silent for nearly 20 years. Parishioners were concerned that playing the giant instrument would further damage the fragile ceiling.
The hardwood floors are mostly intact and the stained glass is still beautiful when it’s illuminated. Light trickles in from gaps in the plywood on the outside and through higher, unprotected windows. The raised altar at the opposite end of the room is bare except for dust and rat droppings.
“Hey!” Strain yells. He’s forgotten my name, and I realize I’ve begun to lag behind. “I told you to keep close. Now, take a look at the floor. It’s scarred, see?” He uses his boot to kick around some dust and random debris. He reveals a foot-long rectangular shaped opening in the wood floor. The boards surrounding it are marred with deep scratches. Some have been pulled up and broken in the process. Someone hacked up the floor here. Six feet away, another wound. They’re everywhere.
“They pulled the pews up for auction. Didn’t do it nicely either. Everything that could go did. Couple hundred pews I think. Same with the doors, altar, trim, everything. When this place gets knocked down, the bricks will get sold too.”
If he feels sad, he doesn’t show it. This is business. If the building should have been saved, it’s the city’s fault. Instead, the city rejected designating the church a historically significant site and demanded that it be brought up to modern building and safety standards.
On Dec. 27, 2004, the priests at Sacred Heart conducted their last mass. Although the congregation prayed for divine intervention to save their beloved church, no help came. The church was in need of major upgrades and earthquake retrofitting that would have cost the parish over $8 million. Instead spending the money to save one of two churches of its kind in California, the Catholic Archdiocese closed Sacred Heart and sold the building.
In July 2005, a San Francisco lawyer named Fred Furth bought the troubled building for $5 million. The goal was to have the church designated a historic landmark, which would lead to the allocation of funds for some of the improvements. The rest of the repairs would be paid for through donations. In the end, even Furth’s efforts proved futile, and the building has sat vacant ever since.
“This is really just a big, fat, unfortunate mess,” said Jeffery Heller, the chief financial officer and one of the founders of the architecture firm HellerManus. The firm has worked on many historical preservation projects in San Francisco, including the preservation or San Francisco’s City Hall and the Columbarium, which is a domed building in the Inner Richmond that serves as the final resting place for the ashes of some of the city’s most famous and well-to-do residents.
“What happened with the church is really difficult. No one counts on all these things going wrong, but with such an old building, and the city’s reputation for barring construction it happens. These things go wrong, but with such an old building it’s going to end up costing someone a lot.”
After the auction, Furth was contacted with the possibility that Sacred Heart could, in fact, be eligible for historical salvation. But, now the church would be missing many of the elements that make it historical and beautiful. Two rose windows were sold, along with at least one of the original intricate marble altars. The inside of the parish was literally stripped.
According to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, no permits were issued by the city for the removal of anything inside of the church. Instead, a Stop Work Order was posted by the San Francisco Department of Inspection. From the inside of Sacred Heart, it appears that if any such order was issued it was subsequently ignored.
Groups that had tried in vain to save the site were dumbstruck by the auction, especially the group Save Our Sacred Heart, which spearheaded the preservation of the site. The group includes lawyers, architects, preservationists, historical society members, parishioners and friends of the church.
The group’s website quotes the Department of Building Inspection’s Deputy Director Ed Sweeney as saying that workers disobeyed the Stop Work Order and went to work during the weekend, crated everything up and off-hauled it. They took the altar, statues, pews, the organ, two windows.” The group states that within the marble alter were certified saint bones.
In a move that stunned both sides, the Board of Supervisors passed a resolution to support the preservation of the church on November 16, 2010. Along with it, the board would investigate and direct the City Attorney’s Office to pursue appropriate enforcement measures against the owner for the unlawful sale of pieces of the church.
When the vote was taken no public comment was allowed, but Tara Sullivan from the city’s Planning Department spoke in favor or preserving the church’s historical significance. Because of the ongoing investigation, and the possibility that the city may eventually choose to file a criminal case against Furth, none of San Francisco’s supervisors would comment on the status of these various responses.
Michael Covarrubias, the chairman and chief executive at TMG Partners and also a member of the Land Use Committee in San Francisco, would only say that what happened at Sacred Hear is an example of the “unfortunate nature of red-tape.”
Today, Sacred Heart is still vacant, its future uncertain. Sure, the Board is going to look into it. Eventually. In the meantime, the parish church, like many other buildings in San Francisco, is stuck in limbo. It has experienced a fall from grace.