The Gilmores and the Poole-Bell House

One of a series of articles about the Poole-Bell House in Fairmount Heights, San Francisco.

The Poole-Bell House once sat alone on a massive lot on the hillside above Laidley Street, overlooking the city—a large elegant home built in 1887 by attorney John P Poole. It was subsequently owned by Teresa Bell, the widow of nineteenth-century financier Thomas Bell. But many other people have lived there since she left in 1918. In the 1930s, it was subdivided into three flats, and later into four units.

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The sensational and now rather tired legends about the house are due for retirement; there are better stories to tell about this local landmark. In 1967, it was acquired by another widow, Polly Gilmore. She and her adult son Read Gilmore lived there for twenty years; they had a big impact on the life of this historic house, and on the life of the city.

In the 1960s, Fairmount was about to enter a new phase, when it began to outgrow its working-class character. The Bay Area suburbs had been luring many away from the city’s traditional working-class districts since the 1950s; San Francisco’s population would reach its nadir in 1980. Fairmount was one of the numerous neighborhoods in the city that became bastions of the bohemian, the artistic, the countercultural, in the two decades or so after the Summer of Love and before the full weight of the AIDS Crisis permanently altered the city’s social and political world. The social conservatism that marked the midcentury years in the city gave way to a hedonistic magnetism that drew people from all over the US and the world. This energized the arts scene in a city that had previously had a backwater reputation. San Francisco blossomed as a mecca of intense and affirming community for gay men and lesbians. New interest in the unique beauty of the city’s Victorian houses brought restoration and historical accounting.

The lives of Polly Gilmore and Read Gilmore reflected and embraced these momentous changes in the city, and both of them contributed to its character and richness during these years. Read was notable, in that in the 1980s he owned three prominent gay restaurant and bar hot spots, bringing consistent excellence and aspiration to their ambiance and cuisine, and joy and pleasure to many thousands of patrons. He also served as the Wardrobe Master for SF Ballet from 1972 to 1982. But like so many who prospered in the rich tolerance of San Francisco in the 1980s, Read fell victim to the plague that decimated the community. He died of AIDS in 1992, after he and Polly had left the Laidley Street house, at the age of 45.

Polly dealt in real estate, especially Victorian houses. They were both active members of the fledgling Victorian Alliance. They belonged to All Saints Episcopal Church on Waller Street. They were avid patrons and benefactors of the opera, the ballet, and the theater.

That they loved the Poole-Bell House is clear. They renovated and restored the building, and it was the center of their social lives and the site for their frequent parties. Despite Polly’s predilection for sensationalizing the legends surrounding it, she brought energy to the matter of publicizing its history, and graciously opened the house on numerous occasions to the public. She did original research on the house in the Holdredge Collection at the San Francisco History Center, although she lacked discernment and historical rigor.[1] She may also have been influential in the authors of an architectural guide to the city choosing the name “Poole-Bell” for the house in 1982.[2]

Polly and Read embraced what they knew of the house’s history, and found meaning for themselves in it. “Teresa Bell was happy here,” Read would tell his friends.[3]

Polly lived on the top floor, 97 Miguel, and Read lived on the middle floor, 196 Laidley. They rented out the downstairs flats. Many of Read’s associates and friends found a home there, including well-known dancers with SF Ballet, actors, and musicians.

Before Fairmount

Polly was born Pauline Felver in 1920 in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Her father was Paul Felver, an actor in musical theater who went into his father’s confectionery business when he got married.[4] Her mother Caroline Stanley Felver, was involved in a women’s drama group that put on all-female productions; Caroline did the makeup.[5] Theater work was a family tradition.

During the war, in 1943, Polly came to San Francisco to work in insurance industry.[6] There she met her husband, John Robert Gilmore, who was from Upstate New York and had served in the US Navy from 1943-1945. He also went into insurance, so presumably the two met in the course of their work. They were married in April 1946, and promptly went off to Guam to work on post-war insurance claims.[7]

Read Paul Gilmore was born to Polly and John on 12 June 1947. By the mid-1950s the family lived in the freshly built house at 118 Midcrest Drive, in Midtown Terrace, on the south slope of Twin Peaks. It had big windows on the back giving a view due east over Noe Valley. In 1963, they moved to another just-built home, at 130 Cresta Vista, one of the numerous boxy houses filling out Mount Davidson’s south slope then. This time the big widows on the back gave a view due south to the San Bruno Mountains. The family was clearly prosperous, and liked a good view.

But they were destined for a house with much greater architectural and historical interest, and a better view, than these midcentury, middle-of-the-road boxes.

Young Read: Child Actor and Singer

Later in life, Read mentioned his career as a child actor. Although his interest in theater likely began earlier, the first mention of his work in the newspapers was 1959, when eleven-year-old Read was acknowledged with a special certificate of merit for his work with the San Francisco Children’s Opera Association.

SF Examiner, 25 May 1959.
SF Examiner, 25 May 1959.

In October of that year, he performed in their production of ‘”Cinderella”; in November he was in “Sinbad the Sailor.” In a photo at the end of that important year, we get a glimpse of the Read that is to come: the highly social manager of props and people, even at age twelve—the “great motivator” that one friend would call him at his memorial later.

SF Examiner, 5 Dec 1959.
Read Gilmore on far left. SF Examiner, 5 Dec 1959.

In the spring of 1965, Read Gilmore graduated from Lowell High School, with plenty of theater and social-event work under his belt.

Lowell High School yearbook, 1965. Ancestry.com.
Lowell High School yearbook, 1965. Ancestry.com.

Later that year, his father John Gilmore died.

Remembering John Gilmore with Color and Light

At All Saints Church, Polly and Read sponsored a stained glass window of Saint Elmo, in honor of John Gilmore.[8] Saint Elmo is the patron saint of sailors, and John had served in the US Navy.

Saint Elmo window. All Saints Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA. allsaintssf.org
Saint Elmo window. All Saints Episcopal Church, San Francisco. allsaintssf.org

Lg. Flats W/Classic Vict. Facade

Polly worked in insurance and real estate after her husband’s death, buying the Poole-Bell House in 1967. The twenty years that she and Read lived there encompassed most of her career in real estate and Read’s most important years as an entrepreneur and patron of the arts in the city.

Polly Gilmore’s career as a real estate agent was established by the mid-1970s. She sold properties here and in Marin County, with special attention to restored Victorians in the Mission and surrounding areas. She worked for Paul Langley & Company, and then later for Eureka Realty.[9] Ads from SF Examiner, 1974-1978.

Read: Entrepreneur, Arts Benefactor, Restaurateur

Read Gilmore’s abilities and interests ranged wide and deep—across the arts, theater, music, gourmet food, and hospitality. He lived intensely and died young. He was born in a city that suited his talents and desires; he gave much, and was appreciated in his time for what he created.

Read was on the board of directors of Lamplighters Music Theatre for seventeen years, the Bay Area’s Gilbert and Sullivan company, founded in 1953. His involvement with the company may have begun while he was still in school. He was makeup artist for their 1972 production of “The Mikado” at the Palo Alto Community Theater.[10] When they reprised it the next year, the reviewer for the San Mateo Times said their production of the play would “take your head off.” The makeup was done that year by Read’s friend William Hetz, a painter who lived at the Laidley Street house from that year until 1976.[11] (The Lamplighters reprised “The Mikado” in 2012.)

Visions of Sugarplums and Pimp Wolves

While Read served as Wardrobe Master for the San Francisco Ballet, he dressed the dancers during some of the company’s most tumultuous years; it suffered a reorganization in 1973 and a financial crisis in 1974. This was followed by the strong years of the late 1970s, when the company produced many works by Michael Smuin and Lew Christensen, and had a revival of Balanchine in 1979. A particularly well-reviewed season of sensations was the summer of 1977, with Jerome Robbins’ silent ballet “Moves,” Tomm Ruud’s “Mobile,” and two works by Smuin, “Medea” and “Harp Pas de Deux”—along with a racy “Peter and the Wolf” which the Chronicle critic Heuwell Tircuit renamed “Peter and the Pimp.”[12]

One important SFB production during these years was Michael Smuin’s “Romeo and Juliet” in 1978, which was broadcast nationwide on PBS-TV, a first for the company. Romeo was played by Read’s friend, principal dancer Jim Sohm, with Diane Weber as Juliette.

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Sohm would later live in one of the units at the Laidley Street house.[13] He danced for many years with SF Ballet, and is currently still with the company as Research Manager and sometime performer; he played the aged eponymous hero in the January 2019 production of “Don Quixote” in January 2019.

In early December 1980, Read gave a preview talk sponsored by the Junior League, entitled “The Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ and its New Look for the 80s.” A newspaper photo that year shows some very well-padded mice, while the principal dancers in other photos appear to be wearing quite conventional costumes.

SF Examiner, 12 Dec 1980.
SF Examiner, 12 Dec 1980. I love the period typeface.

Corps de Ballet dancer Michael Hazinski was another friend of Read’s who lived at the house, during the years 1981-1985. To accommodate the dancers’ needs at the house, Polly installed a wall of mirrors in her top-floor flat.[14] Hazinski joined SF Ballet in 1979 at age 27—a bit late in the life of a dancer. He was interviewed with other new dancers in 1980, saying he accepted that there was an unofficial hierarchy within the company, “But it doesn’t seem to bother him. ‘I know I won’t get stuck either in principal roles or corps work.’” He related the too-typical story of how his family greeted his decision to become a dancer: “Are you crazy? What are you going to do for a living?”[15]

SF Examiner, 7 Dec 1980.
Michael Hazinski at center. SF Examiner, 7 Dec 1980.

Good Food, Good Wine, Good Company

Read owned the Brasserie Castle Grand from 1979 to 1986, the Fickle Fox from 1981 to 1986, and was a part owner of the Edinburgh Castle from 1987 to 1990. He also ran the dining room at the Atherton Hotel beginning in December 1983, but I could not find out how long this project lasted. In two interviews he referred to a restaurant background in his family, by which he may have meant the bakery business that his grandfather and great-grandfather ran in Allentown, Pennsylvania.[16]

That the restaurant business was Read’s true calling is apparent from the exacting intensity of his attention to his food enterprises and the success and praise they received. Read cared deeply about every aspect of hospitality, and it showed in his restaurant ventures and in his many parties at the Poole-Bell House.

“I need to create magic,” he once told a friend.[17]

A Grand Castle

Read’s restaurant ventures began in late 1979 with the restaurant at the corner of Folsom and 12th Streets. This spot had been founded two years before as the Brasserie by Alexis Muir (who started life as Richard Conroy). In 1966 Muir was founder of the iconic Folsom bar, The Arena (which became The Stud).[18] “When I found this little brasserie struggling along, I bought it,” Read said later.[19] He added “Castle Grand” to the name.[20]

The décor was exacting: Tables were marble topped with delicate wrought iron legs, each with a single fresh rose as ornament. Walls were painted a mottled luggage brown. There was banquette seating along the walls upholstered in dark green and nicely finished woodwork. Various antiques, such as a large sideboard that held utensils, glasses, and desserts, completed the look, which hovered between Victorian and Old World French. The blackboard with specials chalked on it underlined the French accent. There was a mounted deer head with glassy eyes on one wall.[21]

In August 1980, Bea Pixa reviewed it in the Examiner, although she gave it a just passing grade.[22] Pixa liked her companion’s seafood crepes—“opulently stuffed with an extravagant mix of shrimp, chunks of fresh salmon, scallops and halibut, covered with an exquisite cream sauce that complemented the fish flavors beautiful”—but panned “Le Hamburger Français” which arrived charred although nicely sauced. The Salade Niçoise was no more than “an adequate tuna salad.” Pixa loved the desserts, however, particularly noting that the cheesecake “flecked with orange rind is among the best in town,” which is saying something in that golden era of cheesecake. She finished her assessment by complaining of the selections and volume of the pianist. “A few adjustments should be made to even out the quality.”

The Castle Grand always had music. Maggie Page played piano and sang there for most of the years that Read ran the restaurant, “serving up a memorable Noel Coward tune, an obscure Stephen Sondheim lyric, or an Irving Berlin masterpiece,” five days a week until one in the morning.[23] Pianist Dave Hurlbert performed at the restaurant in the early 1980s and recalled that patrons tipped in cocktails, which would be lined up on the piano at the end of his shift—although there were also cash tips.[24] George Johnson and Daryl Wagner also played regularly.

At the Castle Grand. Napa Valley Register, 6 Dec 1980.
At the Castle Grand. Napa Valley Register, 6 Dec 1980.

Read’s two senior waiters, Geoffrey Stout and Robert Skotnicki, were called “the house ‘blond bookends’.” They weren’t hired just for their looks, however, as they also gave first class service.[25] Naturally, for Read the wardrobe master, they were perfectly dressed for the part. “At the Castle Grand our look is the classic French look, black bow tie, black vests,” Read told an interviewer in 1984.[26]

In September 1985, Bea Pixa returned and gave the Castle Grand a glowing review and an extra star, and included it in her top forty picks for that year.[27] The piano music had been lowered to a discreet volume. She noted that sweetbreads were on the menu daily in one form or another, and praised the version she was served, Ris de Veau Meniere. The wine list was unusually large and good for a restaurant of that size. The desserts came from Trifles at that time.[28]

A photo of the façade accompanied the review, the only one I could find from those years. Manora’s Thai restaurant now occupies the space.

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The best review I read for the Castle Grand wasn’t a proper review at all. In 1980, author Ruth Reichl wrote a very short piece of fiction for New West magazine. It is a kind of coming-out story, from a parent’s point of view, while also serving to review the food and atmosphere. It has a touching aspect to it, as a brave mother rises to challenge that a stranger’s pity piques in her.[29]

New West magazine, 25 Feb 1980. Used with permission of the author.
New West magazine, 25 Feb 1980. Used with permission of the author. View larger 

Thespian and Terpsichorean Favorite

In October 1985, Read dedicated a particular table at the Castle Grand to Charles Pierce, the famous female impersonator who had performed in the city since the 1960s, and who was a frequent patron of the restaurant and an old friend of Read’s.

“He always insists on the same table, so we decided to make it his,” said Read. Columnist Rob Morse quipped, “You can be sure that when Pierce is at the Castle Grand he never rolls his Bette Davis eyes and says ‘What a dump!’”[30]

Other arts workers and patrons were often seen dining there as well. Read “turned Castle Grand into a rendezvous for ballet and theater performers, who happily mingle with the gays, artists and office workers frequenting the neighborhood, along with the well-heeled suburban types on their way to the opera. ‘I don’t care who comes here,’ Gilmore proclaims, ‘as long as they behave.’”[31] Dancers Anita Paciotti, Jim Sohm, and Diane Weber were regular patrons, as well as Kyra Nijinsky, daughter of famed Vaslav Nijinsky.[32]

“Castle Grand was a place where the conversation was significantly elevated compared to your basic bar,” recalled a frequent patron.[33]

Hell of a Good Time

In an extensive interview in the Sentinel in 1984, Read talked about many aspects of running his restaurant businesses, and about how things had changed in recent years. [34]

SF Sentinel, 12 April 1984. Courtesy of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.
SF Sentinel, 12 April 1984. Courtesy of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

“As far as our approach, stylistically, each restaurant is entirely different….At the Castle Grand, we have always featured a French menu going from haute cuisine to nouvelle cuisine….I suppose by some people’s standards the Castle Grand is pretty pricey, but…the food we do [has] terribly expensive ingredients, for instance every vegetable is sautéed and then flamed in brandy as it goes on the plate….When you look at the price of similar French restaurants, we tend to run about 20 percent lower than others.”

Flyer for Castle Grand Brasserie, San Francisco LGBT Business Ephemera Collection. Courtesy of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.
Flyer for Castle Grand Brasserie, San Francisco LGBT Business Ephemera Collection. Courtesy of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

When asked how he keeps his venues going when so many other restaurants were folding, Read said, “We watch every penny….It is a high risk business because you are dealing with a perishable inventory…and a huge staff to serve your public properly….My business partner, Cecilia McLaren [of the SF Opera Chorus], is an incredible business woman who is good with computers. We keep constant track on where money is being spent and how….It is an endless battle.”

About staff issues and unionization, he said “During my theatrical career I was a union member and my union never did a damn thing for me. In our houses we pay our staff well. We have a health plan, a dental plan, and a life insurance plan….I am in this business for the love of it. I enjoy doing this business and making it go with happy results….We seldom have a turnover of an employee.”

About his chefs, he said: “We work very closely with the kitchen staff. Two of our chefs at Castle Grand are people we trained….We have been singularly blessed that people who have come to us, who learn with us, who work with us, stay.”

Read spoke about his love of good wine. “The wine lists are my great pride and joy. Currently at the Castle Grand we have 42 wines on that list….I work with a broad spectrum of people in this area [rather than a single dealer].”

On the issue of the changing climate for gay restaurants in the city in the 1980s: “There was an era when gay restaurants had an easier time because when gay persons went out to dinner they specifically went to a gay restaurant as opposed to a straight place. That is not so anymore because gay persons are not afraid to be seen out and around. Also the competition has gotten stronger in the restaurant business.”

He told of an incident that amused and irked him, about a straight couple complaining of the prices at the Castle Grand, thinking that since they “were going to lower themselves to come to a gay restaurant,” they should pay less.

He said the tradition of having gay restaurants should be kept, as the Fickle Fox was, as places where straight people could come, but “knowing that this is our world they are coming into.”

“One of the reasons I’ve always loved the Fox is that it always has been a wonderful kind of hide-away. One was able to go in and have dinner, go into the bar, and see a free cabaret show, and have a hell of a good time.”[35]

French Gem on a Bed of Leather

Mention of the rough South of Market neighborhood where the Castle Grand was located was part of most reviews; the leather district was generally well known by that time. Its decline was even noted in a 1986 review—twenty years after the first leather bars were established on the strip. (Who then could have known it would become a veritable annual leather disneyland?)

Read befriended the denizens of the famous leather bar, The Eagle, located a block away at Harrison and 12th Streets. That bar was popular, but late onto the scene, having been founded in late 1981 by JC Corbett.[36] In 1983-1984, Read Gilmore was mentioned many times by Bay Area Reporter columnists Karl Stewart (“My Knight in Leather”) and T. Rogers (“Rivets”). Read served food and drink for many local events.

Of course Read’s romantic interests were lightly commented on in these gossipy columns, but there isn’t much to take away, except to hear the affection that the writers had for him. Also, that whatever pleasure he took in the company of local leathermen, Read wasn’t much into the leather scene.

Karl Stewart wrote: “Fred Skau, the Castle Grand’s faithful day bartender, has left for grander castles. Owner Read Gilmore threw a very festive ‘Farewell and Fuck You’ party for Fred last Wednesday[at the Fickle Fox]. He [Fred] was surprised to find the bar jammed with all his buddies and customers after his shift, as he ascended from Read’s basement dungeon.

“Can you see Gilmore with a cigarette in one hand and a riding crop in the other, with Daryl spread-eagled on the crossbeams? Well, perhaps not. Speaking of impossibilities. Was that Read hosting last Monday’s Labor Day Brunch? Between the Constantines [Motorcycle Club] in one corner and the rowdies in the bar, one could only wonder whether Read was up so early because someone removed his box of ‘native soil’ out from under his bed.”

Perhaps Read was known for rising late, like Dracula. A photo of Read with the Constantines at the Eagle accompanied the article.[37] Below is the actual menu from the brunch mentioned in the article.

Bay Area Reporter, 8 Sep 1983.
Read is in white t-shirt. Constantines Motorcycle Club. Bay Area Reporter, 8 Sep 1983.
Flyer for Fickle Fox, San Francisco LGBT Business Ephemera Collection. Courtesy of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.
Flyer for Fickle Fox, San Francisco LGBT Business Ephemera Collection. Courtesy of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

The Iconic Fox

Simultaneous with managing the Castle Grand, Read also had the Fickle Fox on Valencia Street. In 1981, he had bought it from Don Cavallo, who had founded the legendary restaurant and event venue in 1965. Cavallo had a long string of venues in the city that welcomed gay men, beginning in 1957 with Coffee Don’s on Pine Street.[38]

The Fox always had music and singing, including the Fickle Fox Chorus, a tradition which continued into Read’s tenure.

The Fickle Fox, 1971. Photo: Henry Leleu. Courtesy of Gay Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.
The Fickle Fox, 1971. Photo: Henry Leleu. Courtesy of Gay Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society.

Read boosted the standard of cuisine at the Fox, but kept the right tone for the ambiance and expectations of the customers. “The Fickle Fox is the longest running gay restaurant under one name and at the same location in San Francisco….A wonderfully casual and eclectic sort of place…We will be going into traditional and the new American cooking there. Our approach in service is equally precise, but our look is there is more casual….At the Fickle Fox we are one of the few restaurants in town that is still serving soup AND salad with dinners.”[39]

Here are some items of ephemera from the early 1980s from the archives of the GLBT Historical Society, including a little slip to fill out and turn into the bartender, so you could stay in the loop with the Fickle Fox newsletter. Read had a feel for community-making and publicity. There was even a sticker, perhaps for your car window.

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A Well-Financed Closet

By the mid-1980s AIDS was impacting every aspect of the gay community in San Francisco and elsewhere. Read made a marriage of convenience with a female friend in 1985. Not everyone was able to muster the courage to march openly as an AIDS warrior; Read wished to prevent some of the impact that an irrational fear of contagion among patrons might have had on the Castle Grand.

More significantly, however, was the fact that the woman he married (whom I’ll call Marie) was a well-paid professional in the business world who freely and generously supported both Read and Polly for a couple of years. She found in Read a sympathetic ear for her vexing family troubles and a quick wit to lift her spirits, dashed as they were by the trials of searching for worthy boyfriends. “My boyfriend had just dumped me for my secretary,” she told me. “I spent a huge amount of money on Read.”[40]

The wedding took place at All Saints Episcopal Church in November 1985. One attendee recalled of Marie, “She was enchanted with him. Read told me they depended on her money,” adding that he was quite offended by the sham wedding.[41]

It was an awkward and ultimately insupportable arrangement. Read continued to bring his conquests home to the Laidley Street house, contrary to his promise not to, causing Marie distress and bringing chaos to the household at times. Marie paid a price at work as well, where she was now thought to be a lesbian closeting herself by the marriage; other women there then avoided her.

Read and Marie separated after a year or so, and the marriage was annulled in 1987.

Two Down: Castle and Fox Both Close

In late 1986, Read closed both his restaurant projects. The Gilmores’ financial situation had become difficult, something that would also lead to Polly selling the Poole-Bell House the following year.

When the Castle Grand shuttered, restaurant review author Arthur Bloomfield wrote:

“A black day it was in late ’86 when a realtor friend told me the Brasserie Castle Grand had shut the lid on its delightful operation. Isn’t there a lawsuit against this? When again will I savor the ruminations of that Sophie Tucker at the keys, bathe in the litany of specials so unctuously announced by a Yale-ie maître d’, taste those sweetbreads so deftly topped with crumbs.”[42]

Ex-patriots and Ex-parrots

After Read sold both restaurants, he and several other investors bought into the Edinburgh Castle on Geary Street in the Polk Gulch district. Bars mean good profits, but no one would ever praise the food or ambiance here the way they had done for his previous venues.

That pub had been founded in 1959 as an outpost for footloose ex-patriots from Britain and Ireland. In 1964, a reviewer noted the self-consciously Scottish décor, and that all the tunes on the jukebox were also Scottish. “Yet for all its Highland provincialism, it seems to be one of the few place in the Empire upon which the Scots, Irish and English agree.” He went on to state that all the crews of the visiting British liners or warships stop in here.[43] The Welsh Society met there that year for poetry. By 1981 the pub had a little shop in front selling Scottish imports. “You’ll see men in kilts,” said a reviewer then.[44]

Through the years, the tradition of playing host to those from the British Isles persisted. One ex-patriot, who came from the UK in 1991, recalls the bar as one of the handful of places his group of Irish and British friends would always consider when selecting their destination for that evening’s pints—although Mad Dog in the Fog on Haight often won out, as they paid for expensive satellite broadcasts in an age when it was otherwise impossible to see live football—that is, soccer.[45]

When Read took over managing the bar, he carried on its previously established traditions, such as an annual caroling event around Christmas.[46] The decades-long accretion of objects on the walls that passed for ambiance went untouched. But he intensified the publicity, making sure to get mentions in the newspapers. No one had thought before to advertise the holiday caroling, but Read got the Examiner’s columnist on pubs, Edvins Beitiks, to write up a feature in 1988:

“Edinburgh Castle is smothered in the sound of Christmas. Not the canned, all-mall-holy sound of suburban America, but the sound of people singing at the top of their lungs. Throwing their heads into the music because they want to sing, to be a part of the season with other people.”[47]

In 1990, the last year that Read was an owner of the bar, the ancient parrot named Winston—or as he was called by Examiner columnist Dick Nolan in 1959, “Sir Winston”—passed away at the age of 38.[48]

“He was the last of the original employees,” Read was quoted as saying at the bird’s funeral wake. “Winston should have stayed on his diet of vitamin-laced water.” Winston always preferred martinis and chips—‘chips’ being the French fries that came with the fish and chips that the pub routinely brought in for customers from the nearby takeout on Polk Street.

Winston owed his leave to remain at the pub—in violation of city code prohibiting animals in bars—to an exemption granted by Dianne Feinstein years before. Unfortunately, after her pardon, he was required to live in a cage. Prior to that, “he would fly around the bar, swooping down to steal quarters,” Read told the reporter.[49]

After Read’s death, the bar went up for sale, but was soon bought again. It went on to even greater renown in the 1990s and 2000s, when LitQuake was hatched over pints upstairs, and Irving Welsh read from Trainspotting.[50] Today the pub lives on, and its latest Yelp review had five stars.

To return to the Poole-Bell House…

Restoring Victorian Glory

During their ownership of the Poole-Bell House, the Gilmores did many things to restore and improve it. Permits reveal they installed two new windows; rebuilt the front stairs; shortened upper balcony; and removed two walls in the top flat, among other things.

A Noe Valley Voice feature in 1985 stated that they had remodeled much of the interior, including removing false ceilings that had lowered the ceiling height to a level “eight feet” below the tops of the original windows. The stripping of the original features was done “in the 1940s by a little Italian man who owned the house,” according to Polly, “[who] didn’t care for Victoriana [and who] had many of the fixtures and detailing carted off to the dump.” She had worked to restore original features of the house.[51]

The Gilmores’ interest in the beauty of Victorian houses was the motivating force behind their involvement with the Victorian Alliance. The group was founded in 1973 by Mission District residents concerned about preserving iconic houses there, and afterward their scope spread to other areas of the city.

Fantastic Histories

Polly loved the house’s history, but she was not rigorous about establishing historical facts; if she had the ear of an interested person, she got carried away with a series of sensational stories. She left a trail of murder, mayhem, and miscarriages of truth behind her—in print, that is.

In 1980, Polly held a fundraiser for the Victorian Alliance, opening the house to visitors, an event covered by columnist Margot Patterson Doss in the Examiner. The visitors were feted with good food and drink, as well as regaled with many of Polly’s sensationally enhanced stories about the house.[52] She repeated the published, but erroneous, facts about the house, including the wrong date of construction (1872) and wrong name of the builder (Cecil Poole). She also told Doss that Bell bought the house of the advice of Mary Ellen Pleasant. This was impossible, as Pleasant had been dead for a while by the time Bell decided to buy it.

Polly added a story about Bell having a trap door in a closet, down which she would drop her unwanted guests to a hard landing in the basement. Polly may have picked up this little tidbit from her ad hoc research; the SF History Center has some records of hearsay stories recorded in interviews collected about Bell in the 1950s.[53]

Even one of the Gilmores’ garage sales was staged as “Mammy Pleasant’s Flea Market” in 1972. Everything could be made richer and more interesting with the decorative addition of an aura of history.

SF Examiner, 16 Jan 1972.
SF Examiner, 16 Jan 1972.

In 1986, an unnamed reporter from the Glen Park News was treated to more of Polly’s tales, now with added frisson of multiple murders. The occasion was a party held at the house. In the article, we hear that Bell actually used her tricky closet to murder one of her partners by dropping him down the hole.[54] As none of Bell’s financial associates disappeared during her time in the house, I find nothing credible in this; the press was always hungry for stories about the Bell family, and would not have missed such a juicy opportunity, had anyone gone missing. Besides, if Bell wanted to get rid of a partner, she would surely have used one of her matching pair of pistols.[55]

We also learn from Polly that someone named “Colomba” found the remains of “at least a dozen bodies” in the old well in the 1920s. (No one with that name ever owned or lived in the house.) Polly misnamed the builder again as Cecil Poole, and now adds that he murdered his wife and fled to South America.[56] (Nope.)

The cocktails always flowed freely at Gilmore gatherings, and this was surely no exception.

(I will cover the true story of Teresa Bell’s time in the Poole-Bell House in a future post.)

Read as Neighborhood Historian

Read Gilmore was president of the Victorian Alliance in 1990. In this booklet for the North of the Panhandle Tour of 1990, he wrote the introductory letter.

Cover of booklet for house tour. Victorian Alliance, 14 Oct 1990. Archive.org.
Cover of booklet for house tour. Victorian Alliance, 14 Oct 1990. Archive.org.

What is remarkable is the level of granular detail that Read included in his letter to tour participants. He quotes period newspapers and other data, and refers to old maps. In describing one of the items on the history walk, the San Souci Roadhouse, Read wrote:

“San Francisco’s ‘San Souci’ was a famous roadhouse, mentioned in deeds as early as 1851….Newspaper columnist Edward Morphy described San Souci as: ‘A great resort for gentlemen who appreciated pleasant dinners and other comforts of that kind. Game abounded all about. Quail and ducks were plentiful in season; delicious broiled chickens were always available, and the cellars were amply stocked.’

“San Souci was a sizable establishment. An 1856 inventory mentions a 10-room house, stable, hen house, dovecote, coach shed, flower garden, greenhouse, ox shed, swing, and bowling alley. It belonged to the Dutch merchant William Fell, for whom Fell Street was named.”[57]

Either he had taken up doing historical research like his mother, or he was well-supplied with details by her or other members of the Alliance. As always, for Read it was all about the customer—fitting the mood to the expectations.

No Better Place to Be

Polly and Read were by all accounts very close, sharing many interests and activities over the years. The Poole-Bell House suited them down to its bedrock foundation: touched by high style, history, and legend, with beautiful rooms in which to entertain and a better view than the middling boxes they had previously lived in, and plenty of living space for Read’s many friends and companions in the apartments on the first floor. It was everything they could have asked for.

However, the mortgage and the upkeep were a financial drain on them.[58] By late 1985, Polly began the process of selling the house, putting the price at $850,000 initially (a paltry $2m now).[59] The house sold finally in July 1987, and Polly and Read moved to a smaller two-unit Eastlake/Stick house in the Mission District.

Here is a photo taken after they moved to that house, on the occasion of a gathering of people who knew each other from their work with San Francisco Ballet, hosted by the Gilmores.

1988c. Photo: Francisco Gutierrez. Courtesy Roger Heffner.
1988c. Photo: Francisco Gutierrez. Courtesy Roger Heffner. Read is on far right, Polly to the left of him in white.

Hearts and Souls

Read died of AIDS-related illness on 15 Dec 1992. His ashes were scattered at Bonita Point in Marin. A memorial service was held at All Saints’ Episcopal Church.

One attendee of the service said, “People from the various parts of his life all agree: He was a great motivator. He found the best in people, and he himself worked very hard at everything. He gave his heart and soul.”[60]

Polly died in 1997, on the very day of the fifth anniversary of her son’s passing. She also had a memorial service at All Saints. Her obituary said she died at home after a long illness, in the loving care of family and friends. She was “known for her compassion, generosity, and cheerful spirit.”[61]

2019-Poole-Bell-House-front-ss-Gayle-Laird
The Poole-Bell House. Photo courtesy Gayle Laird.

I extend my thanks to the people who contributed their knowledge, assistance, photos, and/or memories to this article: Diane LoPresti Christensen, Isaac Fellman of the GLBT Historical Society, Roger Heffner, Dave Hurlbert, Gayle Laird, Ruth Reichl, Beth Ross, Laura Trupin, and “Marie.”


ENDNOTES

  1. I say this because Polly mentioned particular details in her interviews that are contained in the Helen Holdredge Collection at the SF History Center, but are not published in Holdredge’s books on Mary Ellen Pleasant or the Bell family.
  2. Sally Woodbridge and John Woodbridge, AIA, Architecture San Francisco: The Guide, 1982. This supposedly authoritative book unfortunately got everything else wrong about the house, such as its date of construction, the name of the owner who built it, the date Teresa Bell bought it, and the false story that Mary Ellen Pleasant lived in the house. However, the act of naming it the “Poole-Bell House” was cogent. This is all that should be taken away from this misguided guide.
  3. Phone conversation, Dave Hurlbert, 23 Jan 2020. This notion about Bell’s state of mind while living in the house is something that only someone who has read Bell’s diaries at the SF History Center would know, as it is not covered in Holdredge’s books. Which is why I believe Polly did some original research. However, Polly also publicized a fantastic story about a trap-door in the house that Bell would drop her unwanted guests down, which is mentioned as the hearsay tale in an interview in the Holdredge Collection. So Polly is not entirely discerning in her research.
  4. As per genealogical info on Ancestry.com. Also obituary for Pauline’s grandfather William Felver, Morning Call (Allentown PA), 14 Sep 1925.
  5. “Women’s Drama Group has Series of Plays,” Morning Call, (Allentown PA), 23 Mar 1930, p3.
  6. As per her obituary, SF Examiner, 29 Dec 1997.
  7. “Easton Girl Married, Will Sail to Guam,” Morning Call (Allentown PA), 1 Apr 1946.
  8. As recorded in the text of the booklet Victorian Alliance Annual House Tour October 16 1994 Cole Valley House Tour, accessed at Archive.org. https://archive.org/details/victorianallianc1694unse/page/n35 Also in 1998: https://archive.org/details/buenavistaneighb00unse/page/16
  9. As per her obituary, SF Examiner, 29 Dec 1997.
  10. San Mateo Times, 16 May 1972, p24.
  11. “Read Paul Gilmore,” SF Examiner, 23 Dec 1992; San Mateo Times, 16 May 1972; “A Mikado to Take Your Head Off,” San Mateo Times, 9 Oct 1973; SF Examiner, 16 Nov 1969, a notice for an exhibit of paintings by William Hetz. at Christie Gallery in Berkeley; as per San Francisco Directories, reverse listings, 1973-1976.
  12. “A Glorious, Balanced Night at the Ballet,” SF Chronicle, 23 July 1977, p34.
  13. As per San Francisco Directory listing for those years. The directories end in 1982, so his tenure at the Laidley Street house could have been quite a bit longer, and I would have no way to tell, given the gap in digitized directory listing between 1982 and 1993.
  14. Conversation with Gayle Laird and other current residents of the house, October 2019.
  15. Allan Ulrich, “Why they joined the SF Ballet,” SF Examiner, 7 Dec 1980.
  16. As per census records for the Felver family in Allentown. The interviews were: Jacqueline Killen, “SoMa Fare,” San Francisco Focus Magazine, June 1986, p102; and WE Beardemphl, “Good Food & Wine—Gilmore Style,” San Francisco Sentinel, 12 Apr 1984, p8.
  17. Phone conversation, Dave Hurlbert, 23 Jan 2020. Hurlbert was a longtime friend of Read’s, having met him while Dave was a pianist with SF Ballet, afterward playing at the Castle Grand, and being a housemate in the late 1980s.
  18. RB Read, “Subcultural Wonder,” SF Examiner, 28 Oct 1977, p21; and “Eagle Lands for the 13th Time,” Bay Area Reporter, 28 Apr 1994, p44; accessed at Archive.org.
  19. Jacqueline Killen, “SoMa Fare,” San Francisco Focus Magazine, June 1986, p102.
  20. Restaurant listing first appears with the new name in the 1980 San Francisco Directory. It was called both “Castle Grand Brasserie” and “Brasserie Castle Grand” in print, and Read, I think, was fine with both versions.
  21. Descriptions given in: Bea Pixa, “A South of Market Surprise,” SF Examiner, 21 Aug 1980, p58; Bea Pixa, “Tres Bon,” SF Examiner, 29 Sep 1985, p110; and L. Pierce Carson, “The ‘Manhattanization’ of San Francisco,” Napa Valley Register, 6 Dec 1980. All accessed through Newspapers.com
  22. Bea Pixa, “A South of Market Surprise,” SF Examiner, 21 Aug 1980, p58.
  23. L. Pierce Carson, “The ‘Manhattanization’ of San Francisco,” Napa Valley Register, 6 Dec 1980.
  24. Phone conversation, Dave Hurlbert, 23 Jan 2020.
  25. L. Pierce Carson, “The ‘Manhattanization’ of San Francisco,” Napa Valley Register, 6 Dec 1980.
  26. WE Beardemphl, “Good Food & Wine—Gilmore Style,” San Francisco Sentinel, 12 Apr 1984, p8.
  27. Bea Pixa, “Tres Bon,” SF Examiner, 29 Sep 1985, p110; and Bea Pixa, “Top 40 Eateries in the Bay Area,” SF Examiner, 29 Dec 1985, p82.
  28. Bea Pixa, “Tres Bon,” SF Examiner, 29 Sep 1985, p110.
  29. Ruth Reichl, “A Little Romance,” New West Magazine, 25 Feb 1980. San Francisco Public Library. Used with permission from the author. It was one of her personally favorite pieces.
  30. Rob Morse, SF Examiner, 8 Oct 1985, p37.
  31. Jacqueline Killen, “SoMa Fare,” San Francisco Focus Magazine, June 1986, p102.
  32. Phone conversation, Dave Hurlbert, 23 Jan 2020.
  33. Phone conversation, with “Marie”, 16 Jan 2020.
  34. WE Beardemphl, “Good Food & Wine—Gilmore Style,” San Francisco Sentinel, 12 Apr 1984, p8. My gratitude to Beth Ross for locating this.
  35. All quotes from Read Gilmore from: WE Beardemphl, “Good Food & Wine—Gilmore Style,” San Francisco Sentinel, 12 Apr 1984, p8.
  36. “Eagle Lands for the 13th Time,” Bay Area Reporter, 28 Apr 1994, p44. Accessed at Archive.org.
  37. Karl Stewart, “My Knights in Leather,” Bay Area Reporter, 8 Sep 1983, p28. https://archive.org/details/BAR_19830908/page/n27
  38. More about Cavallo in online Bay Area Reporter (April 2019) here. https://www.ebar.com/bartab/bars/274702
  39. WE Beardemphl, “Good Food & Wine—Gilmore Style,” San Francisco Sentinel, 12 Apr 1984, p8.
  40. Phone conversation, with “Marie”, 16 Jan 2020.
  41. Phone conversation, Dave Hurlbert, 23 Jan 2020.
  42. Quoted in Karen Evans, “Scrutiny on the Bounty,” SF Examiner, 19 Aug 1987, pZZ4 or 73.
  43. Rick Setlowe, “The Rise of the Bay Area Pub,” SF Examiner, 12 Jan 1964, p193.
  44. Mickey Friedman, “Going Abroad without Leaving Town,” SF Examiner, 20 Sep 1981, p126.
  45. Conversation, Andrew Sherman, 13 Dec 2019.
  46. Edvins Beitiks, “A Caroler’s Home is Edinburgh Castle,” SF Examiner, 23 Dec 1988.
  47. Edvins Beitiks, “A Caroler’s Home is Edinburgh Castle,” SF Examiner, 23 Dec 1988.
  48. Dick Nolan “The City,” SF Examiner, 31 July 1959, p19; and Stephen Schwartz, “Friends Flock to SF Pub to Remember Feathered Drinking Buddy,” SF Chronicle, 20 Jun 1990, pA20.
  49. Stephen Schwartz, “Friends Flock to SF Pub to Remember Feathered Drinking Buddy,” SF Chronicle, 20 Jun 1990, pA20.
  50. See https://www.sfchronicle.com/realestate/article/San-Francisco-s-Edinburgh-Castle-bar-is-up-for-13723177.php
  51. Noe Valley Voice, September 1985, p9. There were four different Italian-American men who owned or lived in the house before Gilmore did. Like many of her stories, there is likely to be truth in there somewhere, but the details are weak.
  52. “San Francisco at Your Feet: A Hillside of Surprises,” SF Examiner, 11 May 1980.
  53. The Holdredge Collection, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. Helen Holdredge left a large number of items she collected while researching Mary Ellen Pleasant. Many of the interviews are little more than hearsay gossip of neighbors decades after Bell’s death.
  54. Glen Park News, February-March 1986, p3-4. Accessed through Archive.org.
  55. Bell describes buying two matching pistols from a visitor to the Laidley Street house in her diary in 1907. Holdredge Collection, San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library. She wasn’t much one for sneaky revenge, preferring the plain-spoken sort.
  56. Glen Park News, February-March 1986, p3-4. Accessed through Archive.org.
  57. Victorian Alliance, “North of the Panhandle 1990 House Tour” (booklet), accessed at Archive.org. https://archive.org/details/northofpanhandle00unse/page/n1/mode/2up
  58. Phone conversation, “Marie”, 16 Jan 2020.
  59. Noe Valley Voice, September 1985, p9.
  60. Vikki Powers, of the Victorian Alliance, quoted in “Faces of AIDS,” SF Examiner, 28 Mar 1993.
  61. “Gilmore, Pauline E (Polly)” SF Chronicle, 23 Dec 1992.

 

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