Elixir Saloon. Photo by Jonathan Fong

When you grab a drink at Elixir on 16th and Guerrero streets, you might not know you’re inside the city’s second-oldest saloon, running since 1858. On Saturday, boozehound historians of the E Clampus Vitus association will reveal a historic plaque at Elixir denoting its venerated status.

Mission Local talked with owner H. Joseph Ehrmann, the 11th (or perhaps 12th, given recent discoveries) proprietor of the bar about its history.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Mission Local:First, could you explain to me the distinction between a saloon and any other bar?

Joseph Ehrmann: Saloons evolved out of taverns, the tavern evolved out of the pub. Bars on the East Coast during Colonial days were mostly called taverns or pubs. As westward expansion happened, they usually began with a tent saloon. As people developed an area, a new town or campsite, one of the first things an entrepreneur would want to do is sell a drink.

They would build what’s called a barrel-and-plank bar – two whiskey barrels and a piece of wood that connects them. We do those as one of the offerings for our catering businesses. We have a lot of whiskey barrels and people love the aesthetic.

So those tent saloons could be as simple as selling some kind of beer and some whiskey, there wasn’t a lot of supply for a lot of things. As the town evolved. especially along the train routes, they eventually would turn into something a little more elaborate.

And of course there were, as there are today, bars to meet every economic level of society. But they were all called, on the western front, saloons. And there were all kind of saloons: There were barber saloons, a barbershop with a bar. Grocery saloons, grocery in the front and bar in the back. There were hotel saloons and most hotels had a saloon tied to them.

ML: Elixir has been around since 1858, with 11 owners. That makes next year your 160th. How has it survived all these years?

HJE: It’s the location that’s been nothing but a saloon since 1858. The building it is in now is from 1907. The original saloon had burned down in 1906. This guy, Patrick McGuinness, he was the longest running proprietor, he owned the bar for 14 years.

It’s a long string of luck that each owner built on the previous business or changed it. Especially having survived prohibition, that was the biggest thing that destroyed a good number of historic saloons in San Francisco. The business survived under the auspices of a soda fountain. That was something that a lot of saloons converted to during prohibition, but a lot of other ones just closed.

The effect of the end of the Prohibition Era, and women’s suffrage, was that women were now allowed in bars. The design of most saloons was that there was a women’s entrance on the side. Elixir has a women’s entrance door on the side. What was originally a stock room was converted to a women’s bathroom in 1933 – so if you go into the women’s room you can see all the plumbing’s exterior, they didn’t even put it into the walls.

In the 60s it was a merchant marine bar called Swede’s. Swede himself was a retired merchant marine. We still have a merchant marine that comes in from time to time, the younger ones, all the tugboat captains that work on all of the merchant boats in the Bay.

When Swede retired he sold it to a gay Latino man. It became a gay Latino bar called La Corona Club from 1985 to 1989, when he died of AIDS. I’ve heard some crazy stories about that time, but there are some people around today that knew him that come here.

In ‘89 the bar was sold out of court and a guy named Bill Carlson bought it and named it Jack’s Elixir Bar. He owned what is now the boom boom room. This is hearsay, but he bought a number of bars over the city. Every time he bought a bar he called it Jack’s. Jack’s Elixir was just one of them in his collection.

Jack’s Elixir Bar right after purchase. Photo courtesy Elixir’s current owner, H. Joseph Ehrmann

ML: Tell me some wild west stories of San Francisco that played out at Elixir. Did cowboys roam the Mission?

HJE: The city really evolved in two locations, along the waterfront where all the shipping was, and out here in the Mission which had the connection to the Camino Real and all of the land transit down California.

Here in the Mission we were farmers, it was all farmland, and Catholics. Everything was around the Church and the farmland. We’ve always had a more working class quality here in the Mission a family quality lots of families and a lot of homes. The rowdy nature of the Barbary Coast everything, that was happening down in North Beach and the Barbary Coast.

ML: How’s the interior restoration going? Find any gems or scars of history?

HJE:  I’m the first owner since it was built in ‘07 to put any TLC into it. I peeled off four layers of flooring and then I had to put flooring on top of that. The wainscoting, I stripped nine coats of paint off of it to bring back the original wood grain. The plaster walls had to be fixed because they had survived so many shakes and quakes but were in very bad shape. I took down all of the shitty fluorescent lighting and put in period chandeliers and period lighting on the wall sconces.

Apparently when it was Jack’s Elixir in the 90s it was really popular – there were lines out the door. That was the first craft beer craze. At its peak, according to the sign, there were 62 taps. When I bought the place there were still 23 left. Those first three nights, I just invited all of my friends in to drink that beer. We had three nights of parties that were pretty fun.

When you walk in, right above your head is a dropped ceiling. When I first bought it, I didn’t know what it was. On the facade, you’ll see up high that there’s a bunch of leaded glass windows. Those were covered since probably the 40s. I knew they were there because I have the original architect drawings.

So at one point I just took a Sawzall and went in there. I saw and confirmed my thought that that ceiling was installed after prohibition. On the wall was a San Francisco Chronicle from 1933. It had stories of submarine movements of the Nordic sea by Nazis, a sports page story about Joe Lewis boxing. All of the ads were all Depression-era ads – “spend a dollar, make a job,” articles about the economy and depression.

And then under the bar there’s a three-foot crawlspace. I literally went under there with jumpsuit and gas mask and removed 100 years of bar sludge. But underneath what’s now the women’s room I found a pile of growler bottles as well as whiskey and spirit bottles, cleaned them up, and those line the top of the back bar now.

I have a little display case in the back of the bar with a lot of historic drinking things from San Francisco. One of them is what’s called a pumpkin seed bottle, a round whiskey flask, hand blown, from about the 1900s, maybe 1910s. It says on the label, “McGuinness Whiskey, blended by Patrick J McGuinness, 16th and Guerrero, San Francisco, California.” So it’s an original house whiskey bottle from the  early 20th century made by Pat McGuinness. A friend of mine found it on eBay and said, hey look at this, it’s your saloon! It ties our whiskey heritage of the bar back to early 20th century.

We did just uncover a little more history just this past week. We didn’t have any record of ownership in 1860s but the historian I’ve worked with, the most knowledgeable guy of San Francisco saloon history, Jim Jarvis, he’s the one who’s done really the bulk of the history research. In the 1860s it was called Westphalia house with a diff name [for the owner], Kepler If  I’m not mistaken. It adds another proprietorship – I’ve always said I’m the 11th proprietor, but it looks like I’m the 12th.

The site of what’s now Elixir, when it was The Hunt In Club. Photo via SF Open History

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