Sea Change: Beach Chalet

Sea Change: Beach Chalet, Marin Magazine

WILLIS POLK would have loved the Beach Chalet. A “bon vivant,” as one obituary described him, and a “light-hearted lover of the beautiful,” in the words of another, Polk died at age 57 in 1924, 10 months before construction finished on this stylish onetime bathhouse/ restaurant that today is one of only two dining locations directly overlooking San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. It was his last building.

For decades one of San Francisco’s best-known and most prolific architects, Polk was a visionary who made a mark on the city with late 19th-century shingled houses that, simultaneously rustic and sophisticated, helped create the Bay Region Style.

He designed office blocks and towers; the PG&E substation whose facade now decorates the Contemporary Jewish Museum; and many fine houses, including Filoli in Woodside. Polk was overseeing architect of the Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915 and the reconstruction and restoration of Mission Dolores in 1920.

The architect, who was caught by one newspaper columnist dancing in his seat along to a performance by Anna Pavlova, loved nightlife and would have appreciated how the Beach Chalet’s upstairs restaurant has become a lively watering hole.

Beyond the bar and restaurant, the downstairs former bathhouse and lounging area have a new life as Golden Gate Park’s visitor center and a de facto art museum thanks to slice-of- 1930s-life frescoes by Lucien Labaudt, mosaics by Primo Caredio, and sensuous wood carvings by Michael von Meyer, done for the WPA and installed in the mid-’30s.

Polk was a visionary who dreamed of redesigning the city following the 1906 quake. He had eyes on Ocean Beach, which he complained was ignored except by people taking “joyrides at night.” He proposed an esplanade with towers and piers, a miniature railroad overlooking the sand and grand homes facing the surf.

“The beach should be made a place for recreation … and the people should be given every opportunity to enjoy it,” he told the city park commission, which 14 years later engaged him to design the Beach Chalet.

The style of the restaurant, which opened May 30, 1925, is hard to categorize. The building was dubbed “Moorish” by the San Francisco Chronicle; when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981 it was called Spanish Colonial. With thick, textured stucco, low-arched doorways, paired and unadorned columns, terra-cotta roof tiles, and rough-hewn interior beams, the downstairs does suggest an adobe.

Polk was always a rhythmic designer, and the play of the windows against the paired columns and arches of the second-story restaurant’s ocean-view wall is beautiful. The simplicity and straightforward functionality of the upstairs suggests Polk’s most farsighted creation — the Hallidie Building on Sutter Street with its curtain wall of glass from 1917, about 40 years before glass-walled offices became common.

For decades, starting with what the Chronicle called “lewd shows and gambling parties” in the early 1950s and after being shuttered and abandoned in 1981, the Beach Chalet was a dump. It was restored in the mid-1990s and the Beach Chalet Brewery and Restaurant opened in 1997. Get there early if you want a window seat for the sunset.