After the Loma Prieta earthquake struck in 1989, the radio tower was sealed shut -- until Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez found a way to sneak inside.

After the Loma Prieta earthquake struck in 1989, the radio tower was sealed shut -- until Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez found a way to sneak inside. (Courtesy Mona Caron)

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On a recent evening I joined a group of strangers on a twilight tour of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Island. This wasn’t your typical urban outing. First, consider our guide, an artist named Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez. He’s wearing a tattered nautical jacket and a two-day beard. He’s confiscated our cellphones and placed them in a heavy briefcase.

Then there’s our stealthy, guerrilla-style approach. Ashton-Gonzalez leads us across a small beach, around a clump of trees and up a steep trail. As we pass rows of empty military homes, he orders us to take cover while a private security guard passes nearby. We’ve entered a restricted area that is scheduled for demolition.

“Step lightly,” he whispers.

At the top of the island we dart across a small parking lot to reach our destination — a lonely wooden tower. Ashton-Gonzalez delivers us through a secret passage and up a darkened staircase to the top floor.

That’s when our collective jaws drop. It’s as if we’ve entered the bridge of a giant ship anchored grandly in the middle of the bay. Jutting beneath us are the white towers of the Bay Bridge. And shimmering all around are the lights of San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and beyond.

Events here are free unless food is served, and typically involve 15 or 20 people invited by previous guests.
Events here are free unless food is served, and typically involve 15 or 20 people invited by previous guests. (Courtesy Mona Caron)

Welcome to the Signal Room. It’s a rogue museum and a modern-day speakeasy, except that the illicit part of the experience is not what you drink, but how you get in.

Ashton-Gonzalez created the Signal Room last year after returning from a few years in New York City. He was moonlighting as an actor and storyteller, and conspiring with a group of urban explorers and trespassers. Their rogue pop-up projects included running a bar in an abandoned water tower in Manhattan.

Ashton-Gonzalez was looking to replicate his New York experiences back in his hometown. That’s when he discovered the abandoned radio tower on Yerba Buena Island and began researching its history. It was built by the military in 1917 to direct ships through San Francisco Bay. Later, it guided aircraft during World War II and served as an officers club. After the Loma Prieta earthquake struck in 1989, the building was sealed shut. Until Ashton-Gonzalez found a way to sneak inside.

Navy signal corpsman F.R. English at the berth board receiving instruction from Chief Signalman Stanley Jones. The operations of the signal tower were military secrets until Dec 27th, 1945. One of the towers of the Bay Bridge's western span is visible in the background.
Navy signal corpsman F.R. English at the berth board receiving instruction from Chief Signalman Stanley Jones. The operations of the signal tower were military secrets until Dec. 27, 1945. One of the towers of the Bay Bridge’s western span is visible in the background. (Save the Signal Tower/Facebook)

Working with a small group of artists and urban explorers, he repaired and resupplied the tower. He installed tiny exhibits detailing the island’s history — as an Indian burial site, as a smugglers’ haven and as a listening post for the military. He’s also staged dozens of secret events — from small concerts and poetry readings to panel discussions and plotting sessions — making this location the most exclusive (or certainly the most restricted) nighttime venue in the Bay Area.

Events here are free (unless food is being served) and typically involve 15 or 20 people who are invited by previous guests. Eugene says that protects against what he calls “cool hunters.” On my visit I nibbled on plates of smoked lamb, while a group of storytellers recounted old family yarns and Oakland-based musician Alycia Lang sang her tender songs.

Ashton-Gonzalez says the tower’s wooden construction, combined with traffic noise from the Bay Bridge, provides an acoustic camouflage that protects his events from the scrutiny of police and private security (so far not a single happening has been raided).

All this cultural commotion caught the eye of San Francisco writer Gary Kamiya, who visited the tower earlier this year.

“When you see a site like that, you cannot be intellectually prepared for it,” he says. “It’s so stunning.”

The view from the Signal Room looking across the western span of the Bay Bridge toward San Francisco.
The view from the Signal Room looking across the western span of the Bay Bridge toward San Francisco. (Courtesy Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez)

Kamiya says the work of Ashton-Gonzalez and others is proof that an underground countercultural scene is still vibrant in San Francisco in spite of a tech boom that has driven many artists from the city. He says it’s a tradition that began decades ago with groups like the Suicide Club and Cacophony Society. They used tunnels, bridges, sewers and civic buildings as a kind of illicit stage set.

“That’s why people like Eugene describe themselves as ‘experience designers,’ ” Kamiya says. “It’s not that you’re going to design a play or a piece of music. You’re going to design an experience. And ideally it will be an intense experience. So when you go up into an abandoned old room with one of the greatest views in the world with a group of strangers, you’ve succeeded in doing that.”

Another fan of the Signal Room is John Law. He joined the Cacophony Society in the 1980s and was a co-founder of Burning Man (he later broke with the festival).

“To me the whole thing about urban exploration — and the best thing about it — is that it’s a connection with the past and it’s really ephemeral,” Law says. “And Eugene, finding this space and understanding what it was and giving it a last breath of life, that’s brilliant.”

At this point you’re probably wondering something. If all of this is such a big secret, why is Ashton-Gonzalez talking about it to a reporter?

“I want to save the building,” he says.

Preservation isn’t what motivated him at the beginning. He admits that when he first discovered the tower all he wanted to do was have a huge party. But he’s come to see the space as something more than a speakeasy on life support. It’s a San Francisco landmark, albeit a hidden one.

“Experience designer” Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez leads guests along a trail to the Signal Room.
‘Experience designer’ Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez leads guests along a trail to the Signal Room. (Mona Caron)

“This place seems so uniquely special,” he says. “Could you put a little museum up here? Could you put a little exhibition space for public art, street art, sculpture?”

Recently, Ashton-Gonzalez assembled a team of architects and began a quiet lobbying effort to save the building.

“It’s sublime in the truest sense,” says Bruce Tomb, a San Francisco-based architect who helped transform a former Army outpost in Marin County into the Headlands Center for the Arts.

“The view is priceless. And to have an artifact in that location is an opportunity to talk about our heritage.”

Ashton-Gonzalez says he brought city officials to the tower but he declined to identify them.

“They were pretty much to a man and woman quite impressed,” he says, but “a little curious about the bureaucratic jumps and hoops that would be required” to save the tower.

The band Rupa & The April Fishes performs at the Signal Room.
The band Rupa & the April Fishes performs at the Signal Room. (Jason LeCras/San Francisco Magazine)

Officials from the Treasure Island Development Authority confirmed that the tower is slated for demolition in May as part of a plan to bring hotels and luxury condos to the twin islands. With that in mind, Ashton-Gonzalez is stepping into the spotlight, knowing that more publicity could bring an end to his secret gatherings.

But he doesn’t care. He says it’s time for all of San Francisco to share the story of the Signal Room.

Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez is a transmedia storytelling artist and director of Eat My Heart Out [eatmyheartout.org] , a private storytelling dinner party for KWMR community radio in West Marin.

Welcome to the Signal Room, Secret Venue for San Francisco’s Arts Underground 18 March,2016Victoria Mauleon

  • Edward

    This overly-contrived fake “secrecy” got old a while ago. Why don’t you just build a neato tree house somewhere and play Cowboys and Indians or something. Bring your Big Wheels.

    • Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez

      Thanks for your response Edward! I was more of a Dungeons & Dragons kind of kid, but being a cowpoke in a historic old radio tower isn’t so bad – incidentally, the tower sits on top of an actual Native American gravesite, so you’re actually quite prescient! This is a real opportunity to lasso a wild stallion of Bay Area heritage. Bring your popcorn.

  • Chris Montano

    Great work Eugene! I hope you are successful. I know the tower that you speak of and often walked by it on my forays around YBI when I lived there. For the 55-75 people that rented condos on Yerba Buena Island that have been evicted due to the new homes being built there, the views and experience were like coming home to your speakeasy everyday. It was a living experience that I shall always treasure and miss. The residents did not receive any support from the city to continue to live there since the city sold the island to a cadre of developers at an 80% discount (apparently the San Francisco way…) I don’t know the fate of the current main building on the artificial island, but it also has very important historical dimensions to it as well and wonder if you might seek to tie the fate of the 2 buildings together? I cannot imagine even Lerner turning the main building into a strip mall so think it may hold promise in your efforts. Good luck!

    • Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez

      Thanks for your support, Chris! I regret not being able to share this project sooner with the good folks who formed the Save YBI facebook group – https://www.facebook.com/saveybi

      • TeeToeJackson

        What’s the plan for actually saving the tower?

  • Ben Daddyb Lee

    sounds snobbish and excluding to me. no thanks

    • Chris Montano

      I appreciate your perspective Ben. I can see how it might seem exclusive. Some important facts might help see another side to the Signal Tower. There was nothing exclusive about YBI when residents lived there, and as far as I saw in the building plans, there will be nothing exclusive in the new condos built. It was (and will be) as public as any other public street in San Francisco. As for the tower, it had undetermined seismic status after Loma Prieta and no funds or owner to ensure its seismic stability. So it was boarded up. (FYI- there are a bunch of empty apartments and housing there as well and SFPD occasionally practiced SWAT training in the empty buildings.) Eugene has found it, and at his own expense and no small effort, demonstrated its worth as a public facility and is making a thoughtful case that rather than being exclusive, it belongs to us, the citizens of San Francisco and is part of our historic legacy. And since the entire infrastructure of YBI is being built anew, it would be a convenient time and great contribution to remember the historicity of this amazing, small island by preserving this iconic structure with amazing views for all of us to share- not just those fortunate enough to purchase the new condos built.

      • Ben Daddyb Lee

        i am speaking of the tower being exclusive because you have to be invitation only. not the whole island. of course the island is not exclusive, i have friends that lives there and lived there and got evicted and myself got married at the navel chapel there. strictly talking about the tower being secretive and by invitation to only certain people. what’s the good of telling people there is this cool place but hey the rest of you can’t go but just look at it from the outside when you drive by. that’s exclusive and snobbish.

        • TeeToeJackson

          Bro, anyone can go up there whenever they want. I went up there myself a couple days ago. It’s just Eugene’s community’s gatherings that are by invitation only. That community probably didn’t talk about it openly until it became time to raise the profile of the spot in order to save it. The reason why you don’t tell the whole world about a cool place like that is because someone will eventually come by and do something boneheaded, thereby ruining it for everyone else.

          So to say, “what’s the good of telling people there is this cool place but hey the rest of you can’t go” is pretty inaccurate.

          • Ben Daddyb Lee

            your right! i was mislead. it is inaccurate after all but by the article there was some info left out. either i read it wrong or info was left out, either way i appreciate the correction. i don’t want to judge people with lack of info or bad info. from the article it sounded like you needed to be invited to go up there like a club.

      • Chris

        Historocity. Okay. How much will a one-bedroom condo in the “new condos built” be going for?

  • Wendy

    What does the City’s planning department record for the demolition say about the historic value of the tower? What was the result of the City’s consultation with the State Historic Preservation Officer as required by the National Historic Preservation Act? That should be part of the California Environmental Quality Act analysis that supports the City’s decision to demolish the tower and any associated structures.
    I hope a structure this wonderful doesn’t get razed without giving due consideration to its values. I’d love to go there! The view is spectacular.
    Jane Kim is the Supervisor for District 6 that includes Yerba Buena. I wonder if she or her staff could help you out.

    • Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez

      Thanks for your question, Wendy! The CEQA act analysis was performed circa 2010 as part of the Environmental Impact Report of the development project and is on file at the public library. You can read my rough analysis of that report here, along with photos of the relevant pages of the report! https://www.patreon.com/posts/4865972

  • Jason Smart

    Hey Eugene! I think it’s great what you did and even greater that you’re willing to put the story out there. It shows that you care more about the cause than the exclusivity. Also no one can blame you for making it exclusive…..knowing San Francisco, there would be a line going across the bridge to get in and it would cost a fortune!

    Can you provide more details on who’s singing? Around the 5-6 minute mark? It sounded like the producer of the piece said Alicia Lang out of Oakland but I can’t find any information on her. It’s a beautiful song and I’d love to hear more!

    Really interesting story and a good listen.

  • Mario Grillo

    Just what we need, more luxury housing.:-(Since the Presidio got blown, how about this site for affordability?

  • TeeToeJackson

    I managed to find The Signal Room. It’s not that hard if you use the article as a guide. On the ground there were fresh human feces, a semi-strong urine smell on the south-east side of the tower, and someone is leaving food/water for a cat on the north-east side. Soooooo someone is definitely squatting in the tower or nearby, because I doubt the artists would do that. If you choose to visit, pay attention to the sign in the top room,

    “…If you came to party, you are endangering a year of work by SF and East Bay artists.”

    Please be sure to secure the secret entrance when you leave. The authorities will just reinforce the place if it becomes obvious that the current entrances are easily penetrated. You have ~1 month to check it out before it’s demolished.

    • Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez

      That cat who lives in the dumpster is named Goose! I am attaching a photo of the tower and Goose, he’s the white speck in the lower right. He and other stray cats who were displaced by the redevelopment project have had to make do with what housing they can find! A very kind member of the police department still feeds the cats on occasion.

      I’m sorry to hear that the space is not being respected. It would be in the best interest of supporting the campaign to save the tower to not do further harm to it!

  • TeeToeJackson

    What’s the plan for saving the tower? And where can we track progress / help?