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    Help Save the Iconic Cliff House, A San Francisco and LGBTQ Community Treasure

    “Change can be so constant you don’t even feel the difference until there is one. It can be so slow that you don’t even notice that your life is better or worse, until it is. Or it can just blow you away, make you something different in an instant.”

    —George Monroe in the film Life As a House

    San Francisco’s iconic Cliff House is so much more than the sum of its tangible parts. Like Lotta’s Fountain, the golden fire hydrant on 20th Street, and the rainbow flag in the Castro, it represents survival in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. Defiantly it stands perched atop the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean, overlooking the rocky coastline that led to the deaths of countless sailors.

    Consider its history:

    • Parts of the Cliff House blew to smithereens in 1887, after a schooner loaded with dynamite ran aground at Land’s End.
    • In 1894, the patched-up Cliff House burned down as a result of a kitchen fire. It was rebuilt.
    • After surviving the great earthquake of 1906, the Cliff House burned to the ground again in 1907.
    • Rebuilt once more, the Cliff House in 1918 was shut down due to military orders that held “all establishments within a half mile of military installations are to halt the sale of liquor.” 
    • December 13, 2020: The National Park Service (NPS), which owns the property, refused to agree to a 3–5-year contract with the long-term proprietors and it is announced that the Cliff House will close its doors permanently.
    • December 14, 2020: The San Francisco Bay Times is informed by a Cliff House spokesperson that the NPS may not reopen the landmark as a restaurant.

    If the recent news could have a soundtrack, it would be Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” being ripped off a turntable with an ear-piercing needle scratch.

    Surely the Cliff House deserves a better fate. It not only represents survival in San Francisco, but its walls also echo with the memories of countless weddings, first dates, anniversaries, engagements, family brunches, holiday celebrations, and even simpler pleasures such as enjoying a relaxing drink after work at one of the bars, or a lunch on a budget but with a million-dollar view.

    Not Just for But of the LGBTQ Community

    From its earliest days, the Cliff House embraced LGBTQ culture. Handsome silent film star Rudolph Valentino—outed by numerous biographies—literally danced his way through its rooms in 1917, hired to give dancing lessons to diners.

    José Sarria, the first openly gay candidate for public office in the U.S., chose the Cliff House as the first establishment to visit—in full drag—outside of known queer establishments. Don Berger, who owns a limousine service and drove Sarria to the site, recalls: “The entire room went quiet when Sarria made his entrance. After silence, they erupted into applause.”

    LGBTQ commitment ceremonies took place at the Cliff House for decades, followed by some of the first same-sex wedding celebrations. Members of our San Francisco Bay Times team chose to wed there, as well as to hold their engagement parties at the meaningful venue.

    Executive Chef Kevin Weber, Director of Food Operations; Procurement Manager Arthur Bradley; and so many others on the team are out and proud members of our community. Prior to the pandemic, they informed us that up to 30 percent of all events held at the Cliff House were for LGBT individuals, couples, and families.

    The Current Dire Situation

    Dan and Mary Hountalas, the proprietors of the Cliff House since 1973, issued a statement on December 13. We present it here in its entirety:

    It is with deep regret and heartbreak that we must inform you that The Cliff House will close permanently on December 31, 2020. Our 20-year concession contract expired on June 30, 2018; by that time, the National Park Service (NPS) should have selected an operator on a long-term basis to ensure the continued operation of this national treasure. Since then, the NPS has issued us one six-month and then two consecutive one-year concession contract extensions rather than proceed in a timely fashion with their responsibility to execute a new long-term contract or lease.

    The first step in this process was to issue a Request for Qualifications (RFQ), which they did not do until August 13, 2019, more than a year and a half after this process should have begun. Since 2018 we have negotiated in good faith with the NPS to continue our long stewardship of this iconic San Francisco Landmark including our teaming with another operator which submitted a response to the requested RFQ. Our last extension was executed on January 1, 2020, and expires on December 31, 2020.

    As we all know the unprecedented situation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated the restaurant industry. We have continued to uphold our responsibility throughout 2020 even though we have been unable to operate since March 17th. We did attempt to institute takeout service in early June but after 10 weeks could not continue to sustain the unbearable losses associated with takeout.

    It costs tens of thousands of dollars every month to maintain and guard the massive Cliff House building. There really is no excuse to be in this situation. There was no COVID-19 in 2018; one or more upper echelon leaders within the NPS obviously did not do their jobs, resulting in this sad situation.

    The NPS offered us a fourth one-year extension to continue guarding and maintaining their building with all costs to be paid for by us without any compensation whatsoever from the NPS. Unlike the government, which is not held accountable for profits and losses, we could not accept the additional extension as there is no possibility of doing a sustainable level of business for the foreseeable future.

    We attempted to work with them to find a way to move forward given the challenges everyone continues to face during the pandemic. We waited patiently for a response from the NPS to our inquiries regarding the fate of The Cliff House. We finally received an answer at the late date of December 7, 2020. The decision they provided is as follows:

    • The first RFQ has expired and will need to be completely redone causing a further delay of what could be years. Given how that went in more normal times we do not expect this to be done in a timely manner.
    • There will not be an interim successor/partner so the building will be left unoccupied and watched over by the NPS at taxpayers’ expense.
    • We must remove all personal property in the building including all memorabilia as opposed to being paid for our property by the ultimate successor operator as provided in our contract.
    • There will be no effort to speed up the process for successorship.

    We have been the proprietors of the Cliff House for 47 1/2 years and are probably the longest tenured in the 157- year history. We were, in fact, operating the Cliff House four years before it became part of the National Park System. We leased the Cliff House from George Whitney, Jr. in 1973 and the NPS did not purchase it until 1977.

    This is certainly not the way to thank us, a local small business owned and operated by native San Franciscans, for taking care of this San Francisco treasure this past year at a significant financial loss. Again, this all could have been prevented by the award of a long-term contract two and half years ago.

    It is obvious that the NPS has failed in its stated mission to safeguard natural and cultural resources:

                  As a result, The Cliff House will be boarded up and fenced in for several years as they once again try to implement their    own processes.

    Realistically we are looking at two to three years of a closed facility. And if there is insufficient maintenance done to keep it up, re-opening costs will be tremendous. How will The Cliff House look/feel when it eventually re-opens? Will there be some element of local ownership? Will it even be The Cliff House?

    All of us here at The Cliff House are outraged at the failure of the NPS to select a new long-term operator in 2018, thereby avoiding all this unnecessary hardship and heartache. In the meantime, a lot of priceless memorabilia will be auctioned off and be gone with the wind. Lost forever and with it an important part of San Francisco history.

    We are seeking help in holding the NPS publicly responsible for their failures resulting in the loss of the livelihood of 180 employees and their families, as well as the loss of one of San Francisco’s treasured landmarks and the financial loss suffered by those of us local folks who did our best to stay true to this legacy.

    What You Can Do

    Contact federal leaders with local ties and urge them to step in, mediate contract negotiations, and assure the public that the Cliff House and its rich, irreplaceable history will not be lost. A contract renewal of a year or less does not make sense when monthly expenses continue to mount during this pandemic time, and there is still uncertainty about operations in 2021 for all city restaurants and related venues.

    After decades of successful stewardship, the Hountalas family should be granted a 3–5-year contract (lease renewal) to ensure the immediate future of the Cliff House and its ability to continue once the pandemic threat subsides.

    You can also contact the NPS to express such concerns. See the below links, and consider contacting any other officials whom you believe might be able to help.

    Vice President-elect Kamala Harris
    https://www.harris.senate.gov/contact

    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi
    https://pelosi.house.gov/contact-me

    Laura Joss, NPS

    goga_superintendent@nps.gov

    Time Is Needed

    Cutbacks to the NPS and other changes enacted by the Trump administration have contributed to the Cliff House challenges. In 2016, during the centennial year of the NPS, then President Obama kicked off a second century of stewardship of America’s national treasures. The Cliff House, a jewel of the San Francisco Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is one of these treasures.

    A Biden administration hopefully will again value the NPS, along with the Cliff House—if it is still the Cliff House that we know and love. We at least hope that appropriate leadership can step in and prevent the destruction of the Cliff House, preserving this beautiful, magical place and all that it represents for generations to come.

    Published on December 17, 2020