Viewed from outside, the Regency Center, in which the Regency Ballroom is located, looks like a droll, white Beaux Arts building on the corner of Sutter Street and Van Ness Avenue. But from within, the five-story, 108-year-old structure houses many secrets and delights — like trap doors, Tiffany glass windows, and hand-cranked elevators — which most concert attendees will never see.
After two years of nonstop construction, the Regency Center opened its doors in 1909, and until 1911 — when the now-defunct Avalon Ballroom was built — it was the only building on that block of Sutter Street. Like the Avalon, which opened as a dance school called the Colin Traver Academy of Dance, the Regency Center was not intended as a concert hall.
Built and owned by the Scottish Rite Freemasons as a lodge, it housed the fraternal organization’s auditorium, cafeteria, throne room, offices, and library. The attic, located on the unofficial sixth floor and accessed by a steep, winding staircase, served as the Freemason’s robe room, and the wooden lockers, which resemble Catholic confessionals, are still there today. So, too, is the building’s original manual elevator, which received a new motor last February. The upper floors consist of a maze of rooms, some of which were used for playing billiards or for sleeping overnight, as evidenced by the Murphy beds built into the walls. There was even an entire floor that was off-limits to women, lacking even a women’s restroom.
The auditorium where the Ballroom is located was always used as a performance space, its mezzanine level rimmed with seats, just as it is today. Back when the Freemasons occupied it, however, most of the events consisted of formal dances, and the lion heads and double-headed phoenixes embedded in the molding were meant to symbolize rebirth and metamorphosis.
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Off-limits to most guests is the lodge itself, a large, rectangular room coated entirely in red cloth and crowned by a modest stage. The lodge was where the Freemasons kept their red velvet thrones, which are still scattered around the venue. Hanging chandeliers and torch lighting illuminate the space, which is now rented out for events, such as weddings and bat mitzvahs. The stage itself is equipped with 32 hand-painted backdrops depicting a litany of themes, like heaven, hell, and paradise, each coinciding with a certain rank and level within the organization. The hand-pulley system for lowering the backdrops still functions today, and one of the panels, consisting of paintings of demons and devils, was used as background art for country-rock singer Hank Williams III’s seventh album, Ghost to Ghost.
The original pipe organ in the lodge also still works and is played on a weekly basis to keep it in shape. Around 2011, when Williams and Tom Waits played a show at the Regency Ballroom, the musicians became enamored with the organ and took selfies in its bellows.
In one corner, close to the throne room, is one of the Regency’s better-kept secrets: a trap door. Now hidden under a blue rug, the rectangular hole in the floor was used as an initiation rite for Freemason members. The inductee would have a noose placed around his neck and was required to jump through the door to the floor below — at least a 20 foot drop — where he would be caught by other members.
Although the Freemasons continued using parts of the Regency until the 1980s, they sold it in 1966 to a corporation that turned the ballroom into an 800-seat movie theater. At some point during the movie theater’s 40-year existence, the entire ballroom was coated in white paint, while other areas were given baby-blue makeovers. In the 1980s, the Polish Arts and Culture Foundation used parts of the building as a dance studio and banquet hall.
By the turn of the millennium, both the movie theater and dance studio had closed, and the space had become a booking venue for corporate events, weddings, and trade shows. In 2008, when the Warfield Theater closed for renovations, its concerts were diverted to the Regency Ballroom, and Goldenvoice, the Warfield’s promoters, began renting the center soon thereafter.
It’s now been eight years since Goldenvoice turned the Regency Ballroom into a concert hall, and though hip-hop artists like Chance the Rapper, Migos, and Lil B, dominate the schedule, other acts, like Flight Facilities and Bad Religion, have graced its stage, too. Christopher Owens, of the former S.F. indie-rock band Girls, recorded a live album at the Regency, and even Hillary Clinton made an appearance for a DNC fundraiser. The street artist Banksy also drew one of his iconic “glitter rats” on the backstage door, although that has sadly been removed.
The most recent development was the opening of the building’s basement concert space, Social Hall, in fall 2015. Once the cafeteria for the Freemasons, the space is now one of the best venues in the city to see intimate, live shows with great acoustics, and everyone from David Duchovny and Vince Staples to Sevyn Streeter and Brazilian Girls have played there. The cafeteria’s original stage and wood flooring remains intact, but the hanging light fixtures have been replaced with plastic replicas, and its mammoth, industrial kitchen is now no longer used.
Much of the building has also been updated. The ballroom is now no longer monochrome and the original gold and woodwork has been painstakingly hand-restored. The chairs left over from the venue’s movie theater days have been replaced with comfier, maroon seating, and the former gas lighting fixtures have been updated. Some floors didn’t even have running water in the bathrooms, a hindrance that has since been fixed.
Check out more of San Francisco’s storied venues:
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The Great American Music Hall
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