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The Best Balcony: San Francisco Elks Lodge #3 Restores a Historic Treasure

A little-known fact: San Francisco Lodge No.3 is the longest continuous running lodge of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (BPOE). The BPOE was founded in New York City in 1868, and the San Francisco Lodge No. 3 came into being five years later. Since 1925, the city’s Elks have been meeting at 450 Post Street, a beautiful Spanish Gothic building in San Francisco’s Union Square. Commissioned by the Elks Lodge and designed by architects F.H. Meyer–who also worked on City Hall–and A.R. Johnson, the terra cotta–clad building spans 15 stories and appeared in early issues of Architectural Digest and Architect and Engineer magazine.

Another little-known fact: there was originally an elaborate terra cotta balcony balustrade on the exterior at the third floor, right off the grand ballroom. By the 1960s, the deteriorated balustrade was deemed a falling hazard and replaced with a plain steel railing. Extending about five feet from the building, the balcony was still a great place for members to socialize and have a smoke. The balcony didn’t have the same visual impact, but finding the funds to restore it to its original state was a challenge.

For many decades, San Francisco Lodge No. 3 occupied the entire building. More recently, the Elks have leased portions of the building to other tenants, including Farallon, Kensington Park Hotel, the Light Opera Gallery, and SF Playhouse. The Elks have reserved for themselves the basement level, which has a full gymnasium and a spectacular historic pool, and the third floor housing the grand ballroom, restaurant, bar, and lounge.

By leasing out unused portions of the building, the Elks gained the means to undertake their long-desired exterior restoration and repair project, which will considerably bolster the line of iconic 1920s and 30s buildings along that stretch of Post Street. As part of that project, they wanted to bring back the balustrade.

Luckily, along with historic photographs, the original architectural drawings for the balustrade still existed. When we studied them, we noticed a curious thing—each of the balustrade’s major piers featured a terra cotta shield displaying the acronym “BPOE.” For some reason, to judge from the historic photos, these shields don’t seem to have made it into the final product. We thought that as long as we were recreating the balustrade, we might as well incorporate the shields as a way of honoring both the original architectural intent and the Elks’ long history in the city.

The San Francisco Historic Preservation Commission agreed, so we used the drawings and the photographs to create a replica with all new terra cotta. We worked with the historic ceramics company Gladding McBean (one of the oldest manufacturers of any kind in the state of California) to match the color of the existing buff-colored terra cotta. While we don’t know who supplied the original terra cotta for the building, Gladding McBean, established 1875, would have been a contender.

The restoration required closing the balcony off for the better part of a year. Recently, it reopened, a piece of history restored. The Elks are celebrating with a 1920s brunch and unveiling ceremony, open to the public with purchase of ticket. We’re looking forward to brunching in the gorgeous Lodge in our finest 1920s wear.

Next time you’re walking down the 400 block of Post Street, look up. If you see any Elks hanging out up above, wave. They’re a part of history, too.