Mar 01, 2016
THEME: Point of View

The Tenderloin Museum: Preserving a Gritty Past, Progressing Toward a Bright Future

Many neighborhoods and developments struggle with building a reputation, but San Francisco’s Tenderloin has a different challenge, many people think they know the Tenderloin’s story, but most San Franciscans have a narrow perspective on this area. The Tenderloin Museum is working to update perceptions of this vibrant neighborhood with a rich history. How do you interest people in an area they think they know and immerse them in the part of town they have been told to avoid? These were the challenges Perkins+Will took on when we began design work for San Francisco’s Tenderloin Museum.


Image by Emily Hagopian

In getting to know the area, we quickly saw that when it comes to the Tenderloin vice may be the headline, but that was not the full story. A wider perspective includes the history of drugs, prostitution, and crime, but it also includes LGBT activism, jazz music, and immigrants from Southeast Asia and India looking for a fresh start.

One important challenge we considered was how we could create a space that would encourage visitors to stop and take the opportunity to learn about the Tenderloin. Once we framed the design in that way, it was clear that first and foremost visitors who were unfamiliar with the Tenderloin would need to feel welcome and secure. The streets of the Tenderloin are sometime rambunctious, and it was essential to create a large welcoming lobby that served as a calm gathering place that would help orient visitors. Our lobby space, sets the stage for visitors who typically explore the past of the Tenderloin through the museum exhibits and then join a guided tour to explore first-hand significant places in the neighborhood to get a more complete understanding of the area today.


Developed by designers Mucho, the graphic identity is deployed throughout the space. Image by Emily Hagopian

This past summer, the Museum opened its doors for the first time. Situated in the heart of the neighborhood, it showcases the dynamic stories of the Tenderloin’s part-gritty, part-glamorous past, including those of jazz legends, LGBT pioneers, rock recording studios, and waves of immigrants from all over the world. The Tenderloin itself, which was established in 1907, has since its earliest days been a critical player in some of America’s most defining social and political movements. The museum creates a daytime destination for visitors, who help activate the street by increasing foot traffic and integrate the neighborhood into the city and make it a safer place for residents and visitors alike.

At Perkins+Will, we are proud of the museum and the potential benefits that it will bring to the neighborhood and to the city of San Francisco. We started working on the project in 2009, teaming up with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, a San Francisco nonprofit that provides housing, legal, and supportive services to residents of the Tenderloin neighborhood, as part of our Social Responsibility Initiative (SRI), in which we commit to carrying out pro bono initiatives around the world. For nearly seven years, we donated our time and resources to design the Tenderloin Museum from start to finish.

The project is located on the ground floor of the Cadillac Hotel, the first nonprofit “Single-Room Occupancy” (SRO) hotel west of the Mississippi. SROs are multiple tenant residences where residents typically share bathrooms and kitchens. Many are converted from historic hotels and used as permanent affordable housing.

An early postcard of the Cadillac Hotel after its completion in 1907.

An early postcard of the Cadillac Hotel after its completion in 1907.

The project showcases the historic architectural features of the building, while also ensuring a contemporary and inviting space. The majority of the Tenderloin neighborhood was constructed during the time between the earthquake and fire of 1906 and the Great Depression, and features mid-rise mixed-use buildings with retail on the ground floor that feature classical detailing and wood and stucco finishes. The Cadillac Hotel is a good example of this common building type, and our team was careful to create a modern storefront that fit seamlessly into the historic neighborhood while helping to connect the museum and city with increased visibility.


Image by Emily Hagopian

For example, the lobby’s tin ceiling mimics the Tenderloin’s early twentieth century style, while the visitor reception area features a zinc-topped bar reminiscent of the many speakeasies and saloons in the neighborhood of the same era. Interactive exhibitions designed by West Office Exhibition Design, including a listening station with jazz recorded at the Blackhawk Jazz Club where artists such as Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck played and recorded, and an interactive photo album taken of soldiers during World War II at one of the Tenderloin’s famed bars, provide an edgy, hands-on experience for visitors. In addition to the permanent collection, the museum hosts neighborhood walking tours.


Image by Emily Hagopian

Given the historic nature of the project, it did not come without its challenges; but working closely with city agencies ensured that we met all requirements, and ultimately transformed what was once a boxing ring, then later a restaurant, and finally an office space into a must-see cultural venue. The result is a beautifully designed new space and a vibrant museum that brings to life the past, present and future of the Tenderloin for audiences everywhere.

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