Ghosts, Royals And Singing Swedes: 108 Years of the Swedish American Hall

Interior of the Swedish American Hall; courtesy Swedish Society of San Francisco

Interior of the Swedish American Hall; courtesy Swedish Society of San Francisco

After more than a hundred years as a Scandinavian meeting spot, a low key wedding venue, and “that weird building on Market Street that looks like a ski lodge,” the Swedish American Hall is trying on a new identity.

Following a year of renovations, the Hall will reopen as a concert venue, operated by longtime music festival promoters Noise Pop. The first public show will be Noise Pop’s opening night party on Feb. 23, with the hall serving as the festival’s headquarters for the duration of the festival, and events taking place at the hall every night. When the festival ends, Noise Pop will continue to book shows for the space full-time, and two restaurants will open later this year.

And that’s not all that’s new for the Hall. The building–known for its alpine meets Arts & Craft style–is in the process of being officially designated a San Francisco landmark. Its owners, the Swedish Society of San Francisco, hope it will have achieved landmark status in time for the Hall’s rededication ceremony in early May.

It’s an exciting new chapter for the hall, built in 1907. The Gold Rush brought an influx of Swedes to San Francisco, who formed several fraternal groups in an effort to preserve customs and simply find people to speak their own language with. One such group was the Swedish Society of San Francisco, which started in 1873 as a choral group called the Original Orpheus Singing Club, and sang traditional Swedish songs like “Klara stjärnor” and “Sångarfanan.” Like many organizations of the time, they soon became more of a traditional fraternal organization, offering their members sick benefits and burial services in exchange for dues of a dollar per month.

A 1907 photo of the Hall; Courtesy SF Assoc./Swedish Society, San Francisco Ephemera Collection, San Francisco Public Library
A 1907 photo of the Hall; Courtesy SF Assoc./Swedish Society, San Francisco Ephemera Collection, San Francisco Public Library

After the 1906 earthquake destroyed their temporary meeting space, they decided to build something permanent. The society bought the property on Market Street to build a permanent residence for the society, but there was one problem, noted in a history of the hall written in 1925: “Thus the Swedish Society had land and wonderful plans and specifications for a building, but lacked a very important item, namely necessary capital.” But all wasn’t lost: “Did the committee confess failure? They did not.”

They were saved by Erik O. Lindblom, a wealthy businessman known as one of the “Three Lucky Swedes” for their discovery of the first gold in Nome, Alaska. Lindblom lent them $40,000 for building costs, and Swedish architect August Nordin built the hall in just one year, officially opening in December 1907.

The new hall helped transform the neighborhood into a Scandinavian hub for the first part of the century. In addition to the Swedish American Hall, there was a Danish hall, the offices of Swedish newspaper Vestkusten, and Finnila’s Finnish Baths, among others. When Cafe du Nord opened in the Hall’s basement in 1908, one of the things it boasted was its sillfrukost, a plate of herring for breakfast.

Over the years the hall stayed true to its original mission as a place where Scandinavian culture could flourish, where organizations could assemble in one of Hall’s several meeting rooms (many named for figures in Norse mythology, like Odin and Valhalla). This also meant hosting any Swedish nobility who might be in town — just few years ago, in fact, Sweden’s Princess Victoria stopped by to rededicate the hall.

The hall is also open to the public: churches hold services there, and to this day, it’s still one of the few relatively affordable wedding venues in the city. Everything from San Francisco’s first public meeting of Asian lesbians to WordPress conferences and talks on healing AIDS with positive thinking have taken place under the building’s gabled roof. The hall has also played host to a different kind of guest over the years; two ghosts allegedly call the hall home. One plays piano in the Hall, and the other haunts Cafe Du Nord.

One of the Hall's many events; Courtesy Swedish Society of San Francisco
One of the Hall’s many events; Courtesy Swedish Society of San Francisco

The Hall still hosts a wide variety of community and Swedish events. The Swedish Society of San Francisco, which now has about 45 members, continues to host meetings there, along with various other Scandinavian groups (one group hosts a contemporary Swedish literature book club there). But a few years ago, a restaurateur and an investor saw the potential of the space to be more than just a community hub.

When restaurateur Dylan MacNiven and investor Enrique Landa originally looked at the space, they just wanted to revamp Cafe Du Nord. But the more they looked into the Swedish Hall, they saw the space’s potential. They teamed up with Noise Pop, who’s hosted shows at the hall since 2004 to book acts for the building, and developed plans for both a restaurant downstairs at Du Nord and another restaurant upstairs.

The renovations took about a year, and while Landa describes the upgrades as costing “obscene amounts of money,” the changes were were relatively minor for such an old building. Licenses were acquired, kitchens were upgraded and plumbing was modernized, but there were no major overhauls. (There were some surprises, however: workers found what appeared to be coins that acted as drink tickets at the surrounding bars hidden in the walls. “A proto-sharing economy,” said Landa).

“The most surprising thing was that it was pretty much intact,” said Landa. “It never got ruined, it never had a bad remodel. We had the luxury of just kind of scraping off the dirt and the grime, cleaning things up and having a great new building.”

The most noticeable changes are upgraded bathrooms and — finally — a working elevator. When August Nordin built the hall, he included an elevator shaft, but no one ever put an elevator in it.

Noise Pop is still working on a programming calendar for the rest of the year’s events at the hall, and they’re promising a selection that includes film and literary events along with music. In terms of musical choices for the hall, there are sound limitations–the building isn’t soundproofed, producing acoustics that are great for an unplugged or electronic set, but less so for a punk show.

“Motörhead will not be booked there,” Dawson Ludwig, general manager of Noise Pop, says. “We’re not looking to compete with a lot of the great venues out there like the Chapel, Brick and Mortar, Bottom of the Hill. We’re looking to do something much more intimate, and have artists who can perform stripped-down sets, who are capable of doing something acoustic.”

One musician who meets those requirements? Portland’s Grouper, who’s bringing her ambient melancholia back to the Hall for a show on the 27th.

“The show that I’m most excited about is Grouper,” said Ludwig. “She does these really haunting, lullaby-esque songs, and putting that inside of Swedish, which is just a gorgeous old venue — it’s going to be really cool. And haunting. I think that’ll be perfect for the ghost.”

Ghosts, Royals And Singing Swedes: 108 Years of the Swedish American Hall 15 February,2015Shelby Pope

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Shelby Pope

Shelby Pope is a freelance writer in Oakland who's written for The Toast, East Bay Express and Bay Area Bites. You can find her on Twitter @shelbylpope

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