November 3, 2016

The House of Shields in San Francisco

Historic Bars House of Shields San Francisco Interior

photo by: Scott Schiller/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

The House of Shields attracts a wide range of people who all enjoy a no-nonsense cocktail and an inviting interior.

The century-old bar House of Shields is the type of establishment where you get what you came for. And for owner Dennis Leary, that’s what he intended.

“I’m not going to play old-time ragtime music because it doesn’t need it,” he says.

You’ll run into businessmen making deals in the mezzanine, friends grabbing drinks on a Friday night, and essentially everything in between. What you won’t find are TVs or clocks, and you should look elsewhere if you want scientists masquerading as mustachioed-bartenders creating neon-colored concoctions with unpronounceable names.

If you knew anything about its origin as a men’s club, in which no women were allowed until the early 1970s, you may expect to walk beneath the bar’s conspicuous red neon sign and find yourself in a low-key dive bar cloaked by the structure’s heavy masonry walls. That was true, up until 2010, when Leary became the new owner. He cleaned the interior to eradicate the pervading smell of smoke, disassembled the brass chandeliers and statues for an intensive cleaning, and refinished the abundance of wood throughout the interior.

Above tiny mosaic tiles covering the floor looms a great wood bar against a long wall. Textured panels and columns that adorn it provide a reassuring sturdiness that fits the bar’s authenticity. A thick bar rail, flat stools, paneled walls, and dark booths confirm the fact that yes, this is a real, historic bar.

Historic Bars House of Shields San Francisco Neon Sign

photo by: Adam Gulkis/Flickr/CC BY NC 2.0

The House of Shields' iconic neon sign at 39 New Montgomery Street.

Historic Bars House of Shields San Francisco Building Exterior

photo by: Wally Gobetz/Flickr/CC BY NC ND 2.0

The House of Shields is located in an early 20th-century masonry structure that is now a facade for a parking garage.

And as an establishment located in San Francisco’s downtown for over 100 years, it’s not surprising that there are plenty of wild rumors attached to it. Its basement may have been a speakeasy during Prohibition. There may be a yet-undiscovered tunnel connecting the bar to the Palace Hotel across the street. And though the official story is that President Warren Harding died at the hotel from food poisoning, others will whisper confidently that he did, in fact, die at the House of Shields, with a woman who was not his wife.

As intriguing as the bar’s past may be, though, the House of Shields doesn’t rely on it to entice customers or amass greater recognition. It doesn’t promise to recreate the experience of the patrons who drank at the same bar 100 years ago, nor does it intend to add flat screens for people to watch the 49ers out in public rather than on their couches. In an age of mixology and imitation that is all too common in modern bars, it’s nice to know that in San Francisco, you can walk into a bar, order a drink, and forget the time—at least for a little bit.

Location: 39 New Montgomery St. San Francisco, CA 94105

Hours: 2 p.m.-2 a.m., seven days a week.

You’re Having: Something classic, like a Moscow Mule, a Martini, or a Manhattan.

Best Yelp Review: “Fantastic bar in a great location. There's a long bar as well as booth seating on the main floor. The upstairs area makes for a nice private gathering if you have 15-20. Drinks were tasty, especially their Smoke Stack with the orange rind.”—Laura W.

Meghan White is a historic preservationist and an editorial assistant for Preservation magazine. She has a penchant for historic stables, absorbing stories of the past, and one day rehabilitating a Charleston single house.

mwhite@savingplaces.org

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