The Tip (on 15), currently the private penthouse lounge of the advertising/design/interactive firm Duncan/Channon, has a colorful history, surprisingly, yet inextricably, interwoven with the colorful history of San Francisco and of social movements in the United States. This account is based on an authoritative exploration originally prepared as a graduate thesis at Princeton University.
By one name or another, the Tip has been an establishment “licenced to purvey Strong Drinke” (as its original charter had it) nearly continuously since 1786. The building that would become the first of this long line of drinking establishments was constructed in 1777 as the private residence of Captain Frederick Plumpot-Brambley and his second wife Maria Montero-Sanchez. Plumpot-Brambley had been a well-known pirate in the Gulf of Mexico who, by a judicious change of name (in his pirate days he was known as Furious Freddy Towser), a generous distribution of some ill-gained booty and a politically shrewd marriage (Maria was the illegitimate daughter of California’s first Spanish Governor), was able to acquire a waterfront land grant in San Francisco and, in modern parlance, “go legit.”
His efforts to re-join polite society would not last long. Within 18 months, just as he was setting in motion a plot to have his second wife killed by a blacksmith, Plumpot-Brambley was arrested by troops of the Governor for the murder of his first wife, Nelly Suggins, whom he had apparently poisoned in order to marry up. Three days later he was hanged from an oak tree on Hangman — now Potrero — Hill, and Maria fled to the nunnery at Mission Dolores, where you can see her grave today.
Curiously, it was the would-be assassin who immediately assumed ownership of the Plumpot-Brambley residence, at the intersection of San Ignacio di la Sangre Alley and San Somme Street, suggesting that it was the blacksmith himself who tipped the Governor to the plot against his bastard daughter. In any case, the lucky smithy, a Russian by the name of Leonid Davidovich Ivanovich, turned the residence into a rooming house, restaurant and publick house, which he dubbed the Dom Pribaltiskaya, but which instantly became known among local wags as “La Punta.”
Or “The Typ.”
Three times over the next 21 years the Pribaltiskaya burned down — twice as a result of the carelessness of Ivanovich, who, when the pub business didn’t quite take off financially, had installed his blacksmithing business in an adjoining wooden shed. The third conflagration, which consumed the Russian himself, occurred during the “Panick of 1807,” when citizen vigilantes, armed with torches, decided that Ivanovich’s now-infamous rooming house, a known place of prostitution, was responsible for the spread of the Black Plague.
The Black Plague of San Francisco, of course, turned out to be a tragic misdiagnosis, a mass hysteria entirely a function of the poor hygiene of 19th century residents, who failed to understand that the dark, greasy spots that arose on their exposed arms and faces were actually deposits of carbonized animal fat settling over their community from the smoke-belching tanneries of Castro Street (then known as “Leathertowne”). Mistaking these for symptoms of Plague — while, conveniently enough, nursing a deep-seated suspicion of Russians — the crowd’s attack on Ivanovich was almost pre-ordained.
The ruins of La Punta would sit as mute testimony to the incendiary ignorance of citizen vigilantes for nearly a decade. Around it grew a dense district of publick houses catering to “saylors from the sea” and “scarlet laydies” and soliciting “the trade and custom of rounders and riff-raff.” But nothing was ever built on the site of the fire. Some said it was haunted, that at night a large, loud, Russian-speaking apparition would regularly rise from the ashes and seize the lapels of local tipplers — who would literally tip over in terror. Some said that, with its uninterrupted history of larceny, murder and mayhem, the place was just bad luck.
Enter Lord Langhorne.
It’s unclear if he ever really was a British Lord. Nevertheless he carried himself like a king — a benevolent and beloved eminence of early San Francisco, who always referred to himself in the third person and dispensed good cheer (and, on occasion, bad “cheques”) to all he met. “Lord Lucky,” they called him, because he always seemed to narrowly escape disaster, was the perfect proprietor for the resurrection of the Typ, which in his typically grandiose — and inescapably British — fashion, he re-named The Typpler’s Golden Goblet & Goat.
Where the other waterfront pubs topped out at two stories, the Goat, as people took to calling it, reached five, organized as follows: a tavern with a piano and small stage on the first floor; a restaurant on the second; a rooming house on floors three and four; and, finally, on the tip-top, Lord Lucky’s private lair, the place where he would seduce investors no less than the ladies he had hired to perform downstairs in the tavern (and sometimes upstairs in the rooming house).
The Goat and its owner thrived in San Francisco and were widely seen as introducing a new level of bonhomie to this then gritty city by the bay (in other words, this was the place politicians, generals and railroad barons liked to visit when they wanted to, if you will, let their hair down). Langhorne built a mansion, the very first, atop Nob Hill (later, his heir would sell it to the Central Pacific Railroad’s Leland Stanford). And whenever trouble erupted at the Goat — a knifing or bludgeoning (and there were many) — Lord Lucky’s close relationships with such august figures of authority as Sam Brannan (he of the street and the deeply suspect million-dollar stash) ensured that repercussions rarely ensued.
For 23 years, the Goat was the toast of the town. And then, one day, the munificent Langhorne abruptly disappeared, at the tender age of 52. No note, no body, “no earthly explanation,” according to the San Francisco Call of 13 October 1843.
By way of lamenting Langhorne’s presumed passing, the Call went on to describe his one and only heir: “Where the (apparently) late Lord Langhorne was robust of appetite and rotund of figure, his son, Nigel, 21, is pale of visage and gaunt of corpus and given to utterances far too easily swallowed by a quiet room, which is precisely where the lad resides, in the gloaming of his subterranean apartments in the depths of his pater’s magnificent manse. One would be forgiven to presume Langhorne fils to be consumptive, but alas the condition may be far more complex.”
Apparently, not long after, Nigel snapped out of it, transforming his inheritance, The Typpler’s Golden Goblet & Goat, into The Tip [sic], San Francisco’s first known gay bar — evidently that complex condition the reporter ascribed to him serving as a period euphemism for the love that dare not speak its name.
Turns out this pale acorn did not actually fall so far from the tree. Indeed, Nigel Langhorne would become as celebrated — and as seminal — in his circles as Lord Lucky was in his. And as related in his diary (enshrined at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library), it was surprising even to Nigel how those circles turned out to overlap (some of his dad’s bigshot buddies, it seems, returned to the reconfigured scene with a renewed gusto).
The Tip expanded into adjacent buildings until it had become a vast, multi-level phantasmagoria of drag queens, proto-leather boys, pitchers, switchers, catchers and all manner of men and manly practices that would ultimately enliven an entire downtown city block. And not long after a prospector discovered glittering yellow flecks in his pan at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, the Tip would explode with newly enriched miners prospecting for hot comfort from the Sierra’s solitary cold.
In San Francisco, thanks to Nigel Langhorne, the Gay Nineties started four decades early — not to mention the gay ‘70s, ’80s and beyond.
And not statehood, which arrived in ’49 and brought with it the complications of new police and new politicians (though enough with the same old appetites), nor Civil War just over ten years later, nor Nigel’s slide into neglectful sloth and ultimately senescence, could deter the Tip from becoming engorged nightly with eager guests, guests from up and down California, from Oregon, Nevada, Colorado and Wyoming — one even from as far away as Illinois. The Tip’s hotel registry, impeccably preserved in Princeton’s Hartman Collection, actually records a visit from an “A. Lincoln of Springfield,” seeming to confirm recent speculation that when the then-Senator talks in his letters about sleeping with male friends, he isn’t just talking about trying to stay warm.
Whatever the case with President Lincoln, at the height of its late-nineteenth-century glory, the Tip had become the inescapable place to go for the nocturnal San Franciscan, gay, straight or otherwise, with more than a passing interest in laughter, liquor or loose morals. At the height of its glory, the Tip was the irrefutable tip-top of nightlife in the City by the Bay, if not in the entire 32 states.
No, what toppled the Tip was the trolley.
Truth is, Lord Langhorne or Nigel in his heyday could have deftly pulled the civic levers to ensure the new Embarcadero trolley circumvented the Tip. But younger, hungrier businessmen — rapacious real estate sharpies, to be precise — had been eyeing the choice waterfront location for months, ever since it was rumored that an aging, addled heir allowed his chihuahua — the selfsame who would go on to be the heir’s heir — to “sign” all the Tip’s official documents with a blue-inked paw.
For the speculators, dethroning Nigel and seizing the Tip was like, as one of them recounted years later, “taking confectionaries from a baby.” And so, by order of the City and County of San Francisco, the Tip was condemned.
It may have seemed to some like the demise of gay life in San Francisco. In the end, of course, it was only a pause. And as the tanneries of Castro Street started to shut down or move to Pleasanton, enterprising gay and lesbian entrepreneurs seized an opportunity to migrate out of downtown, to begin building an entire gay-friendly neighborhood, of homes and taverns, theaters and shops, far from the censorious gaze of the “reform” politicians just then beginning to infest a once-pliable city government.
It wasn’t long before Nigel departed this mortal coil. And while it would be poetic to say his passing was occasioned by a broken heart caused by the loss of his beloved Tip, it was really occasioned by a reckless and unquenchably persistent appetite for opium and absinthe.
But what happened to the Tip after the Tip’s demise is most curious of all.
With the chihuahua (named Spanky) as Nigel’s sole heir and Nigel’s most practiced drinking buddy as executor of his will, the estate of Langhorne the Younger was perhaps not as well-tended to as it might have been.
Besides, in San Francisco, in 1888, who had ever heard of intellectual property?
Even the most cursory perusal of the era’s newspapers shows a proliferation of advertisements for pubs, taverns, bars, cabarets, restaurants and rooming houses that went, at least in part, by the name the Tip. There was “The Original Tip” on Jones Street, “The New Original Tip” on Sutter. There was “The One and Only Original Tip” on Hyde, directly across the street, as it turns out, from “The New Tip Tavern,” which was just around the corner from “The New Tip Club for Discriminating Gentlemen.” There was even one that called itself “The True Historical Tip (& Netherworld Muzeum)” and that showcased daguerrotypes of the actual original place on its walls and, beneath a gaslight by the front door, displayed a small glass casket containing what it claimed were the remains of Spanky, “world-famus chiwawa dog and last canine proprietor of the world’s most notorius saloon.”
Dozens of opportunistic Tips popped up in the city within five years of the Tip’s obliteration. But against all odds — and logic — it turns out that one of them was real.