A Happy Ending for San Francisco's Castle?
The City Landmark Remains Closed
By Laura Kiniry | Online Only | June 8, 2009
On a recent Saturday morning, a young father and son descending San Francisco's Greenwich Steps happened upon Julius' Castle. "We'll have to look this place up," the father said. "I never knew San Francisco had a castle."
It does ... sort of. Clinging to 284-foot-high Telegraph Hill just 150 feet below Coit Tower's parking lot, Julius' Castle isn't your typical fortress. It's a restaurant, or at least, it used to be. The 86-year-old beloved tourist attraction—San Francisco's first and one of its only eateries to be designated a city landmark—has been closed since 2008, and its future remains murky.
Italian-born architect Louis Mastropasqua built Julius' Castle in 1923 for Julius Roz, a local restaurateur and fellow Italian who immigrated to San Francisco in 1902. Mastropasqua combined fairytale elements—pointed-arch windows, and medieval-style battlements on the exterior's upper balconies—with Gothic Revival and Arts & Crafts influences. "It's an artifact," says local resident Larry Habegger. "A castle that's built to look like a castle."
From its entrance the building might pass for just another Victorian—multiple floors with pollen-colored shingles, topped with what was originally a residential unit. Its backside, however, visible from the Embarcadero waterfront below, has a medieval storybook quality, the words "Julius' Castle" displayed prominently in massive redwood script between a series of full-length windows and a hexagonal tower that Roz added in 1928.
When Roz died in 1943, the property passed through several owners, though it has always retained its name. With help from the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, a local preservation group that formed in 1954 to protect the area's character, the property earned landmark status in 1980, just prior to purchase by San Franciscan Jeffrey Pollack. The local restaurant mogul would become the castle's longest-running proprietor, owning and operating it for 26 years. "I was quite happy with the historic landmark status," Pollack says. "I never tried to change it."
Throughout Pollack's tenure Julius' Castle served as a popular celebrity hangout, with visits from Bay Area politicians ("Table 34 was the mayor's table," says Pollack), 1980s musicians like Huey Lewis and Journey, and Hollywood luminaries: Robert Redford, Sean Connery, and Ginger Rogers. Once, says Pollack, the entire cast of The Empire Strikes Back ("Everyone from 5'1" Carry Fisher to the 7'3" guy who played Chewbacca," Pollack says) came in for dinner. Later, the castle hosted an even stranger looking group: two dozen 60- to 70-year-olds, many with leathery skin and damaged limbs. After shaking several hands with missing fingers, Pollack learned they were mountain climbers. Their guest of honor? Famed Everest conqueror Sir Edmund Hillary.
Despite its architecture and history, rumors regarding the castle's future have swirled since Pollack made a spontaneous decision to sell in 2006. New owner Jim Payne shut down the restaurant for months, replacing doors and windows, hand-sanding and sealing interior walls paneled with wood Roz reputedly purchased from the city's 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, expanding the upper-floor apartment, and constructing a rear addition for storage. Unfortunately, Payne undertook the work without building permits or a Certificate of Appropriateness from the city's planning department. The castle reopened in May 2007, only to be shuttered again eight months later for unrelated issues.
Today, Julius' Castle's exterior shingles are chipping; cobwebs encase the sculptured grape vines wrapping the entry's outer balusters; and the circular parking lot—once a turnaround similar to those used by the city's cable cars—has morphed into makeshift residential parking.
According to Tim Frye, Telegraph Hill's Historic Preservation Technical Specialist, Julius' Castle falls within San Francisco's North Beach special-use district, stating that a restaurant not utilizing its grandfathered clause within three years may lose its permit. Julius' Castle is halfway there.
Though currently listed for lease at an undisclosed price on LoopNet.com, there appears to be little movement—a situation that may be due to the changes Payne made, which are still under arbitration between his architect, the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, and the city's Historic Preservation Board. While it's possible that Payne, who did not return phone calls from Preservation, could be trying to rid himself of the castle through demolition by neglect (as a recently tarped-over landslide adjacent to the structure may suggest), Frye says that's unlikely. San Francisco's city ordinance states that to tear down a city landmark, owners must prove there's no economic use for the property. "Obviously the space can be a successful restaurant," he says. "It's been operating that way for more than 75 years."
Truth be told, Julius' Castle's spectacular views and historic value have long been its main selling points, more so than its sometimes heavy menu and even heftier prices, and many locals eager to see the castle survive aren't as concerned about its use. "The important thing for me," says Habegger, "is that the exterior of the building not be [further] changed."
Still others, including Pollack, would like to see Julius' Castle once again rise as a restaurant. "From my point of view, it's sad," he says. "People keep asking me, 'When's it going to reopen?' I have nothing to do with it, [but] I hate to see the place closed."
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