Save The Signal Room
On November 27th, 1886, one thousand school children took a ferry-boat field trip and assembled at the top of Yerba Buena Island in the center of San Francisco Bay to hear the poet Joaquin Miller & General Vallejo inaugurate California’s first arbor day. The plan was for the children to plant trees in the shape of a Greek cross aligned to the poles of the compass over the apex of the island where this abandoned naval signal tower now stands.
In a letter published in the San Francisco Call, Miller envisioned the project as a community effort:
“… from time to time others will, perhaps, add to the points of the cross as they stretch down toward the water, and thus a very few trees will assume the appearance of a forest, to some extent, and will have quite enough body to break the force of the densest fog…[the trees will be] laid on the apex of Yerba Buena Island by myself and some others writing for the press, and left to grow and do good like ‘the still small rain.’” — from The Legend of Yerba Buena Island by Marcia Edward Boyes, 1936.
Some of those trees Miller and the children planted are still on the island, along with that historic signal tower. Over the last year I built and operated The Signal Room, a rogue museum and cabaret inside the top floor of the tower and ferried over 1000 guests up the island’s twisting goat trails to appreciate a lost jewel of San Francisco that will be torn down in June 2016. This is the story of how I pulled it off.
In January of 2015 my associate, Immelmann, and I sat on the concrete drain box of the signal tower, splitting the last of her American Spirits. After about forty minutes taking turns with the crank shaft, we found a way inside.
Walking up the tower’s last staircase, Immelmann and I found the remains of The Tower Club, a naval officer’s club that the enlisted men had nicknamed “The Lair.” A pint of gingerberry kombucha sat fermenting on the flaking window sill, overlooking the entire Bay Area.
“Looking down made something go easier in Danny. When he first came to
New York, he and his friends tried to find a name for the relationship they craved between themselves and the universe. But the English language came up short: perspective, vision, knowledge, wisdom-those words were all too heavy or too light. So Danny and his friends made up a name: alto. True alto worked two ways: you saw but also you could be seen, you knew and were known. Two-way recognition. Standing on the castle wall, Danny felt alto-the word was still with him after all these years, even though the friends were long gone. Grown up, probably.”
- Jennifer Egan, The Keep, 1996
Immelmann emailed me this passage while we were trying to describe the experience of emerging on the tower’s roof , encircled by our homeland. We were not the first to discover it, but the alto of this place grants its audience fresh eyes for San Francisco and for each other.
We struck an accord to transform the tower into a reliquary of antiquated information that had mashed itself up and lodged to the walls of the building. The signs and signifers of our world blended into one another, so why shouldn’t our art? We raided our parents’ basements for our materials, spending hours cutting and shredding headlines from dog-eared copies of the Chronicle & Examiner published between the Great Quake of 1906 and the Kennedy assassination. “PLENTY OF WATER IN THE UNBURNT DISTRICT THIS WEEK.” “TIMED INFERNAL MACHINE WRECKS HAVOC WITH CROWD” . “MAN DIES TRYING TO SAVE PIGGY BANK.” The way we went at it with the scissors you’d have thought we were on deadline. Turns out we were. The tower is being demolished in June 2016 as part of the Treasure Island Development Authority’s (TIDA) redevelopment plan for Yerba Buena Island.
That didn’t stop us. The tower seemed like the perfect spot to make a stand against what we saw was draining our city of its vitality and creative spirit. The rogue museum’s collections grew as we sought new objet to empower our vision. A bottle of classic Moxie soda from a star-crossed lover behind the bar. Immelmann’s expired MUNI passes from high school. Mid-century SFPD vice maps of old Chinatown we found in David Rumsey’s collection with help from the Prelinger Archives. A card-carrying communist’s walking stick. A brass Trystero. Dried lavender. The XXXL black fedora of my recently deceased mentor, the porn star Damien Cashmere.
It had dawned on us just how illegal this plan was cooking up to be and, yes, we were scared. For good luck, I carried my great-grandfather‘s navy dog tags on my belt loop, complete with his chemically etched right index finger print. I wanted to believe it might come in handy if we ever got in too deep with the fuzz. The Coast Guard came and went from their Vessel Transit Service (VTS) station next door, unaware they had a museum brewing up in the tower. We blended in too well with the dozens of tourists who also ignored the ‘No Trespassing’ signs and drove in and out of the parking lot below every day of the week to snap pics of the Bay Bridge and the signal tower itself.
In time we grew bolder, learning that the sound of car traffic on the Bay Bridge acted like white noise that obscured the bangs of hammers, drills, and the generator necessary for the HEPA-vacuuming we did of the top floor. At night, the sodium vapor street lights washed out the tower’s ceiling, allowing our work by candlelight to go unnoticed by the cameras mounted to the modern radio tower that the Coast Guard uses to monitor the shipping lanes.
Yeah, it was illegal, but it was hard to take those concerns seriously when we were operating from the epicenter of a region that wakes up every morning to a new grey area.
Yerba Buena Island is very old and has gone by many names — Mint Island, Sea Bird Island, Goat Island. I call it by the name the Spanish gave it on their charts of the Bay— “Isla Del Carmen,” the island of song (or poetry). The Spanish renamed it “Isla de las Alcatraces,” which a British cartographer named Beechey mistakenly assigned to a nearby island we now call Alcatraz.
I had an alcatrace (pelican) totem in the tower to memorialize the ‘original’ Alcatraz until it was ripped from its mooring, either by other explorers or the Treasure Island Development Authority’s early attempts to test our spirit for climbing back into the tower’s skybox above the bay.
Ethnohistorical research suggests that the Tuchayune Indians used the island as a sacred burial site. Barnacle Bill was the first to comment, in 1849, on the presence of cremation and burial pits in two locations. One was near the shore in a convenient place to burn bodies. Another was on the apex of the island, on the site where the signal tower now stands. Early excavations on the island during the construction of the Navy’s facilities uncovered unusual remains — the bodies of tall men (over 6'6'’) and one tall woman (6'0'’) buried in a curious seated position, arms wrapped around their legs. In general, its understood that the Costanoan tribes topped out at 5'6'’. Whoever these comparably giant men and women were, they likely held some place of honor, noble or not, and were buried on the island in the epicenter of the bay. The number of burial and cremation sites, coupled with the island’s isolated, yet central location makes me wonder if the Spanish called it ‘Island of Song’ because every time they sailed past, the natives were singing dirges from its peak as they succumbed to European-borne disease.
While our design for the museum contributed to our ability to hide in plain sight, many hardened urban explorers found our luck for evading the authorities uncanny, proclaiming there was “a forcefield” at work. (“We’re leading a tour for the Coast Guard” has a nice ring to it when you’re wearing an old navy jacket and a radio earpiece). But if I have one secret, it is feeding the feral cat that lived in the dumpster outside the tower (I named him Goose) and suggesting that my guests take a moment to say thank you to the dead before we climbed up the stairs. Whenever we took a moment to recognize the place, my guests and I were never caught within the tower’s walls.
Immelmann left the project after a couple months to pursue other important work, but I am to this day fascinated that one of her first ideas for the space was to honor the dead — specifically, the heroes of the Bay Area — both sung and unsung — by lighting ‘saint’ candles for them in The Signal Room. Harvey Milk, Emperor Norton, Lotta Crabtree, Lola Montez, the cultbuster David Sullivan, Bruce Lee, Emitt Watson, James P. Casey & Charles Cora, Patty Hearst, Adolph Sutro, and Phillip K. Dick, are among the saints. The native cemetery remains were removed from the island long ago, but it is hard to deny that a magic circle remains around the signal tower. When we were up on the apex of that island, Immelmann and I felt both felt like the saints were in our corner.
Whether we were on to something or not, we are likely never going to be entirely sure what other secrets are buried up there. What I do know for sure is that my bedroom closet door is still up there with the rest of the back bar. A big thank you to Building REsources for cutting us a deal on the other four. They must have known it was for recycling justice.
It was Good Friday evening on the top of Yerba Buena Island when San Francisco artist Paul Hayes shot me a text. It wasn’t easy news. He had just put the finishing touches on the third floor’s installation when the fuzz finally caught up to us. Paul was led out by the Concord-based private eyes hired by TIDA to wait outside The Signal Room on his haunches for “the client” to arrive with SFPD in tow. And who should come gunning his little butternut squash hard-top up around the saltwater cistern but none other than Treasure Island’s deputy director of real estate, Richard “Rich” Rovetti, a man whose mother deserves a hug for giving him the best name of any villain in a story of a multi-million dollar townhouse condo salesman trying to shutter a rogue museum. If Deputy Rovetti had been born in the 80s, he’d realize that a locative art project started by two cyberpunk shamans summoning the spirits of the dead to save a piece of heritage architecture would only add to the property value.
I had spied Deputy Rich driving up to the tower lot to inspect my car in the weeks prior. I’d been parking up there so long the guys at VTS had, seemingly, stopped worrying about it. USCG Sector 11 is, in my experience, full of honest, trustworthy types who not only have my back but the back of the entire Bay Area, protecting our waterways from real pirates and carrying on the legacy of the signal tower itself by guiding vessels safely in and out of the bay. Semper Paratus, fellas. Whatever happens to the tower, it should enhance your mojo.
The Deputy proceeded to cuss out Paul out for making him drive over to deal with rogue artists ‘On a Friday,’ but truly outdid himself by insisting the cops write Paul a ticket for misdemeanor trespassing. As the Deputy went for his drill and bits to seal up The Signal Room’s clandestine trap door once and for all, the cop almost shed a tear on the citation. “This is not the biggest crime in the world, ” the cop mused, “it’s interesting that with all this attention on this building, the developers don’t think it doesn’t add any value at all to the condos. How do you think they got a piano up there?” Paul played it cool and shrugged. “Elbow grease?”
My heart goes out to Deputy Rovetti and the sixteen Phillips-head screws he sealed the tower shut with that evening— I counted them when I was taking them out a few hours later. In his defense, he was probably thinking: “this close to the demolition work, sixteen screws and a misdemeanor citation would be just the ticket.” Reader, I probably don’t strike you as the kind of guy who spends every Sunday in church, but I’m confident no good ever comes to anyone pushing paper on Good Friday.
In point of fact: On my way back down the island that night I discovered that I’d locked my keys in my car again. Oh well. My “connection” near the gatehouse on Treasure Island chuckled as he handed me a wire coat hanger for the second time to make into a slim jim so that I could break into my own car. But I was sleepy. Forty-five minutes later, a cop who had seen my vain attempts to snag the latch earlier sauntered up and offered assistance. We snapped off a a branch from the shrubbery lining the parking lot in front of TIDA’s administration building and were able to roll the window down so I could drive home and get some shut-eye just as midnight struck. The Deputy’s interference had almost endangered The Signal Room’s grand opening as a rogue museum in earnest —three seatings were planned over the Easter weekend. Rovetti probably won’t be be happy to hear how well it went.
At 6pm on Holy Saturday I was on the north end of the island getting into costume when channel 1 crackled to life with an S.O.S. that had me scrambling for a clear transmission. My corpswoman McKee was on the tower’s roof, two-way radio at her shoulder, keeping us informed of the whereabouts of The Deputy’s agents from the proper alto. She had spotted three bogies in the tower’s parking lot who were prying open the front door of the museum and disturbing The Signal Room’s volunteer navy:
I relayed a message to the photographers to use the museum’s trap door like gentlemen, which they are. Turns out the Treasure Island Development Authority had given them permission to break in — they were photographers sent to inventory the building to see if it was worth saving. Shocker that they chose Easter weekend to send them. Maybe they thought the artists would be napping. Whether TIDA is catching my drift or building a lawsuit, I thank them for tipping their hand that they are taking this idea as seriously as I do, now that a story has created value where they did not think to look for it. As we brought the first batch of guests in, I crossed paths with them in the shadows. One of them shook my hand — “You must be the legendary Eugene. Good to meet you.”
Upstairs, our visitors were treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets over the Golden Gate that I have seen in the year I’ve been going up there. But, realizing I’d forgotten the privacy curtain for the bathroom, I zipped back downstairs, only to come face to face with what I had been expecting since day one.
An officer — let’s call him ‘Jésus’ — was standing immediately outside and saw me drop out of the trap door like a rabbit coming out of his hole. I ducked out from under the tower annex and introduced myself.
“Hello Officer, I’m Eugene.”
He did a double take. “Oh — I’ve read articles about you. Good to meet you. You aren’t planning on throwing any more parties up there, are you?”
I’m still not sure whether he was fishing for an invitation. He leaned in at one point to whisper that some of his friends were pretty damn impressed with us and wondered whether they could make anonymous donations to the cause. [By all means, I would be grateful for any support from friends and family, since I do not make a practice of doing business in buildings that I haven’t properly leased.]
If you’re curious to see how I danced the Lindy-Hop with my ethics while executing The Signal Room, here’s the project statement, borrowed from an article from the San Francisco Newsletter, a 1925 magazine that is long out of print:
There’s pure gold in this banana stand. I think Steve Jobs may have expressed a similar sentiment in pithier terms:
I could see it visibly pained the officer to deliver the bad news: As much as he believed in the mission, The Signal Room’s continued operation had put him in a tight spot. Unaware that the museum’s curator, Valerie Leavy, was holding court over the thirty tastemakers partying strong in that magic cockpit above us, he escorted me from the island. On the way, I apologized for causing him trouble, admitting that a fisherman from Oakland had once told me I was of a kind that asks for forgiveness before he asks for permission. He chuckled at the stories of my great-grandmother entertaining at Quarters 1 down the hill and I showed him my great-grandfather’s dog tag, just to see what would happen.
“Sounds like you’ve got a rich history” he said.
He hesitated. Then, with a touch of class, “Not ‘rich’ as in snobby, but ‘rich’ as in…substantial.”
As I shook Jésus’s hand, he told me his real name and I said a silent prayer for The Deputy. I understand that you don’t get an Easter miracle like that twice, which is why that night I chose to stop operating The Signal Room. But if you’re wondering whether the rogue museum finished out the rest of the seatings that weekend, you can bet your sweet ass it did ;).
By Easter Sunday, somebody had scrawled this on the tower’s annex:
If I’ve learned one thing from this project, it is that in an information economy, trust is its own currency. The team and community that participated in the gratitude practice to covertly convey the power and story of this place have been a joy to work with. And if you trust that this story is what San Francisco needs more of, I encourage you to add your frequency (or algorithm) to ours, share this puppy, and keep the transmission lines open. The top of Yerba Buena won’t be the same if it’s just a picnic area called ‘Hilltop Park’ where those who can afford the townhouses going in on the slopes below will walk their dogs. That hilltop needs a San Francisco story like Joaquin Miller’s ‘still small rain’ — only now that story can travel by fiber to stretch across the Bay Area and beyond “with enough force to break the densest fog.”
What will we put there? I believe the signal tower should be a landmark we can all feel proud of — it symbolizes the kind attention and passion that have historically distinguished our cool grey city of love. From the island’s earliest history as a burial site, I believe the peak is a place of communication & commemoration, which is why a museum or art gallery always seemed like a great idea to me. I recognize that civic planning regulations may not make that possible at this late stage, but regulations don’t always hold up to conspiracies of hope. When the cops broke up a party at the tower on April Fool’s Day, the word from the guests was that one of the officers had whipped out his phone to snap a picture of the view. He wanted to remember the night he busted a real speakeasy in his hometown, too. I hope the Treasure Island Development Authority will join me in comemmorating this story — call me a dreamer, but as my great-great-uncle Sunny Jim Rolph proved to H.L. Mencken, speakeasies have a knack for reaching across the aisle.
I met with the guests from the Fool’s Day caper and we lit a fire on Clipper Cove beach with the branches of a dead tree along the old opium smuggler paths we’d used to climb the island and sang sea shanties late into the night on the shores of the Isla del Carmen. Even if the tower does not survive, I know it will always belong in the museums of memory. Lucky us, who did get to see it.
Thank you for your kind attention — please press play on the video below and have a wonderful day.
This project owes its success to the generosity and mentorship of many San Francisco artists, builders, and storytellers. I’ll thank them all publicly once the wheels go up.
All photography is © Eugene Ashton-Gonzalez unless otherwise captioned — you’re welcome to use them, just please give credit if you intend to pass them on to the next generation.