Sam McManis

Discoveries: Historic S.F. Armory tour gives peek at more than military history

The sub basement of the old San Francisco Armory occasionally floods because the Mission Creek flows through it.
The sub basement of the old San Francisco Armory occasionally floods because the Mission Creek flows through it.

My, such a lovely building anchored at 14th and Mission streets. So stately and, yes, regal is the former National Guard Armory and Arsenal, built in 1914, with its burnished brick facade and moody Moorish castle design, classical wainscoting and elegant stone portico. Its look connotes nothing less than solidity and forthright authority, unquestioned probity.

Wonder what they are doing with it now?

They give tours, I soon learned.

Great. Sign me up.

A few days later, I went online at work and – uh-oh – I got this stern message: “Content blocked by your organization.”

Turns out, the Armory now is the corporate headquarters and primary shooting location for the world’s largest conglomeration of BDSM websites. I did further research and discovered that BDSM does not stand for “Battle Depot for Service Materials”; rather, it’s “Bondage, Discipline, Sadism and Masochism.”

But we try to keep an open mind here at Discoveries, and I noticed that online literature for the Armory Studios tour promised “historic” information about the Armory, how its 200,000 square feet housed six decades of National Guardsmen and equipment until its closure in 1976; how it “served as both a barricade and safety point for officers during rioting in San Francisco in 1934”; how, during its dormancy post-Guard, George Lucas used its cavernous space to film the first “Star Wars” film; and how part of Mission Creek flows through the building’s sub-basement.

So, there is considerable non-prurient interest in taking the $25 tour. But, caveat emptor, there’s a lot of porn on this 90-minute tour. Make that talk about the making of porn and behind-the-scenes looks at the bare-bones, rather unsexy sets, props and elaborate studios that service 29 pornographic websites.

Some of the docent-led narration – “models” (euphemism for “porn stars”) moonlight as docents – is a little salty, language-wise, but except for a few in flagrante delicto oil paintings lining the staircases between floors, the tour could be rated a solid PG-13. OK, maybe R. But seriously, you’ll see much more flesh at, say, an afternoon Giants game, and certainly more cleavage on stage at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, than at the Armory. That’s because the tours are held in early evening, once the “talent” has long since left the building after a hard day at the office.

Only on rare occasion, say “docents” Dusty and Piper (first-names only is an industry mandate), have people innocently entered the Armory not knowing its current incarnation. That can be a little startling. And, in fact, sometimes it can lead to hilarity, because kink.com founder Peter Acworth rents out the huge, fieldhouse-sized gymnasium on the building’s west flank to non-porn organizations. Serious plays have been performed there, fundraising dinners held, as well as concerts, raves and community celebrations.

A month ago, Dusty said, a group came by and were gobsmacked to learn that filming of fetish porn took place within its walls.

The group?

Gov. Jerry Brown’s advance security detail.

Seems the governor was planning to attend the San Francisco Film Society Awards at the Armory’s public space, alongside such luminaries as Rep. Nancy Pelosi, director Francis Ford Coppola and actor Richard Gere. Brown’s bodyguards apparently inspected the site and, well, let Dusty describe the scene:

“They are like, ‘What’s that?’ and I explained what it was and, then I’m like, ‘Do you guys even know where you are?’ They’re like, ‘No, where are we?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s the original Armory for the the National Guard, but now it’s a BDSM porn palace.’”

“They honestly did not know. This (gym) was the area they were in so, obviously, nothing in here is kink-based. That’s on purpose. But they needed to inspect the whole building because, like, the governor and these big names were coming in.”

Were Brown’s functionaries OK with the site?

“No, not really,” she said. “It was really awkward. But also really funny.”

Nearly everyone else, though, goes into the building with eyes wide open.

“Definitely,” concurred Piper. “That’s the first thing we say on the tour.”

Beyond the whole “Fifty Shades (and then some) of Grey” stuff, you get a fascinating look at the interior of a historic San Francisco building, where the walls, when not lined with images of sex acts, are adorned with cool black-and-white photos of the Armory in its heyday. It hosted boxing matches and other sporting events in the gymnasium, first as an outdoor structure and later enclosed.

You also get a brief bio of Acworth, who, Piper recited with genuine enthusiasm, “was studying for his Ph.D. in finance at Columbia, and he read a newspaper article about a firefighter making his own porn and selling it online. Peter had this great idea to use his lifelong love of roped bondage to launch his own website, hogtied.com. So, Peter moved to San Francisco and met a bunch of perverted people …”

The rest is adult-entertainment industry history. Acworth became incredibly wealthy, so much so that he could easily afford to pay $14.5 million to buy the Armory, which had been abandoned after the Guard left in 1976 and was crumbling. Over the years, there had been talk of using the Armory for high-end housing, low-income housing, a shopping mall, a nonprofit center. But nothing ever came of it. When Acworth bought it in 2007, some city activists howled in anger, but the site was zoned for “industrial” use, so, voila, the SoMa/Mission corridor had a new corporate neighbor.

Acworth poured millions more into retrofitting and refurbishing the nearly acre-length interior. The only room he left the same was the sub-basement, the erstwhile Guard drill court, where water from what’s believed to be Mission Creek still flows under the cracked concrete.

“You can still see the bullet holes from target practice,” Piper said. “At night, it really gets creepy down here, guys. It’s the creepiest place at the Armory.”

And that’s saying something. I will honor readers’ tender sensibilities and refrain from detailing specific sets that Piper and Dusty showed our group, including tour-goer selfie opportunities inside iron cages. But one highlight was seeing a row of industrial-size vats of gel lubricant, 450 pounds worth. The expiration date on one read “10/2016,” but Piper assured us with a confidence that comes with first-hand knowledge that it would be used up well before then.

Dusty, the senior docent, said afterward that the tours, held several days a week, are popular and abide by kink.com’s mission statement: “to demystify BDSM and alternative sexuality through transparency.” But, also, Kink folks apparently are contractually obligated to allow public access, via tours, because of the Armory’s “federal historic landmark designation.”

“We’re happy to do it,” Dusty said. “The tours might be kind of edgy for someone who isn’t into anything like this. But, maybe afterward, they might be.”

Then she winked.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter

@SamMcManis

Take the tour

Historic National Guard Armory tour

  • Where: 1800 Mission St., San Francisco
  • Cost: $25 for 90-minute tour
  • Information: www.armorystudios.com
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