Unlocking the Lore of the Peacock Lounge

Nov 10, 2011 at 12am
  Icantremember

the first time I saw Peacock Lounge, but I'm willing to bet it was while stumbling from Toronado to Mad Dog in the Fog, and probably after one too many pints. 

In contrast to the lively Lower Haight bars, the Peacock’s exterior wasn't much to see: a closed door, a locked gate, a sign jutting perpendicular to the street showcasing an inscrutable peacock and the words “Peacock Lounge & Gold Room” in jaunty '50s lettering.

But then again, I probably wasn't much of a sight either.

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I didn't really notice the spot until a few months later, when a friend invited what felt like the entire listserv for Arm Tats International to celebrate her boyfriend's 30th birthday. "It's for private events only," she explained in an undertone.

Peacock Lounge abruptly took on an exclusive aura in my imagination – that of a hidden gem in a city that can sometimes feel strip-mined.

I arrived at Peacock Lounge the night of the party to find the door ajar. Walking in, I immediately encountered a curved alcove bar, complete with a mirrored backing veined in gold and festooned with deterrent signage that read: No Smoking, No Checks Accepted, Drinking wine, beer and other alcoholic beverage during pregnancy can cause birth defects. Two no-nonsense black ladies were pouring mixed drinks into plastic cups. No one bothered asking if the place was cash only.

Past the bar, the main room opened up into a large space interrupted by two square pillars, and a black vinyl banquette lined the left side of the room. A few pieces of decidedly retro peacock–related art adorned the walls. In the far corner, a DJ had set up shop and was spinning some appropriately funky throwback hits.

Peacock Lounge was not quite what I had imagined. Still, good friends, good tunes, and a steady stream of liquor soon upped the space’s appeal. A little while after the party had gotten underway, a surprise contingent of large, bearded men arrived on the scene. Turns out Peacock Lounge had double-booked us with a Bear party.  

Luckily, both delegations managed to merge interests and the night turned into what I blearily recall as a bitchin’ good time. The unpretentious vibe and eclectic company made the unexpected a lot more remarkable than your typical night out.

A year or so later, I began helping out with the Lower Haight blog Haighteration. We cover local events and news, but we also investigate and showcase local businesses that need a little – or a lot – of demystifying. "What's the deal with Peacock Lounge?" became a common refrain at our Café du Soleil meetings.

I'd been inside and was therefore the resident expert, but I had more questions than answers. Why was it for private events only? Who ran the place? And just what went on in there when the doors were closed?

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I resolved to get to the bottom of the Peacock Lounge story. First I took the logical steps, calling the Peacock's listed number and leaving a detailed message explaining who I was and what I wanted. Then I waited. And waited. I called back repeatedly, feeling increasingly impotent, but the door remained closed. I could find no one who had any connection to the space. I had no leads and it seemed the investigation might be over before it had even started.

But then, a seeming breakthrough. After two grisly Lower Haight incidents, Haighteration got wind of a neighborhood safety meeting taking place inside Peacock Lounge. I’m not sure anyone has ever been as pumped as I to attend a weeknight see-something-say-something congregation.

That night, the Lounge door was open, and the large room was dotted with chairs and tables resembling a senior center rec room on bingo night. It was there that I met Nate Thomas, the sometime manager of the space.

Nate has a broad, reassuring build. I know this because he is a hugger. Trying to interview him is a trip. He’s always in motion, talking quickly and trailing off sentences. Nate told me that Peacock Lounge had been closed for a while because it was undergoing renovations, most notably to put in a new, wheelchair-accessible women’s restroom.

Nate also shared with me a detail that went a long way toward explaining why Peacock Lounge was such an enigma. He said the space was not, and was never meant to be, a bar or nightlife venue. It was owned and operated by Unity Masonic Hall, located upstairs, and its main use was as a private social hall for the Black Masons.

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The person who really knew the secrets of Peacock Lounge was Cass Peterson, a thirty-third degree Mason who’d founded Unity Hall back in the day. Unfortunately, Nate told me that Cass had passed away in 2009, taking his knowledge with him. But, fast-forward several weeks and dozens of unanswered phone calls, Nate offered to put me in touch with some Eastern Stars (the female counterpart to the Masons) who might know more.

I met Carol during Unity’s Grand Session, an annual gathering where all the members come together to do their mysterious Masonic activities. She met me in the Peacock Lounge doorway, looking starched and regal in all white. But Carol (or Sister Carol, as Brother Nate called her) didn’t have much time, so I offered to call her at home later that week.

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When I caught up with her on the phone, Carol informed me that Unity Mutual Benefit Association filed its articles of incorporation on December 23, 1960. Shortly thereafter, it designated the former drugstore downstairs to serve as its social space.

I couldn’t believe it. That meant that Unity had been around for over 50 years, making it almost certainly the oldest fixture of the Lower Haight hood.

Unity Mutual Benefit Association is a nonprofit whose duty, she said, is to hold and care for Unity’s property and make sure there’s always a place for members to meet. And so Peacock Lounge was born.

I had hoped for a colorful origin story, ideally involving an eponymous real-life peacock or parable of masculine ostentation, but Carol had a different tale to tell. Some Unity wives found the sign somewhere and thriftily repurposed it. No one within the organization even called it Peacock Lounge, she said, sniffing a little. “To us, it’s just ‘The Hall.’”

After what seemed like months of work to get to this point, this revelation was pretty deflating.

I knew that Masons are a “secret” society of sorts, but I didn’t want to offend Sister Carol by prying too much. In answer to my awkwardly bumbling line of questioning, she asked me simply, “Have you ever belonged to a fraternity?” No. “Well, it’s like that.”

There’s an old saying, she told me, that the Masons take good men and make them better. She asked me to think of it not so much as a secret society as a neighborhood organization that works with the community, gives scholarships, and takes care of members and their families.

“It’s not really a secret society. You can go online and find all sorts of information,” Sister Carol said. Perhaps sensing my disappointment, she assured me that there are still certain secrets, signs, and rites that are known only to the Masons.

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Eyefeather

I felt I had gotten to the bottom of Peacock Lounge’s past, but what about its present?

The fact that the Lounge’s main purpose is not to compete as a nightlife destination makes it clear why mixology, ambiance, and marketing are not among its priorities. Yet a quick perusal of the hall’s reviews on Yelp reveals a slew of unsavory anecdotes about the space, from bartending shenanigans to lax security to congenital double bookings.

I won’t speculate on those stories, but I can’t deny that my first night at Peacock Lounge was a little sketchy. However, I get the sense that Peacock Lounge is cleaning up its act. After being closed for months on renovations that, while not groundbreaking, make the space more comfortable and accessible, Peacock Lounge has proven its commitment, not to fancy cocktails and trendsetter credentials, but to the community it’s been part of since Eisenhower was in office. In the past few months, Peacock Lounge has played host to a series of neighborhood meetings and events, most recently a successful fundraiser for the displaced victims of a vicious fire at Fillmore and Haight.

The community-minded focus plays out in a different way with a new system that allows only members of the Unity Mutual Social Club to book Peacock Lounge for events. To become a member, there’s an application and an annual fee, but I’ve been told the group is distinct from those who participate at the Masonic Hall’s activities, and no secret handshakes are required.

Diy

To join the Unity Mutual Social Club and book Peacock Lounge, call Alex at (925) 437-4204. Peacock Lounge provides bartenders and security, but you’ll need to provide your own sound system and decorations. The cost per event is $400.

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