[Keeping up with changing times] We sat down with Guy Carson at the Swedish American Hall in San Francisco for a little talk.
The Swedish American Hall was originally located in San Francisco’s financial district, in what used to be a small Swedish enclave. It was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1906 but was rebuilt in only 7 months, an impressive feat at the time, and [once again] stood ready in 1907 – this time in the area around Market and 14th Streets.
The Swedish American Hall is currently owned by The Swedish Society of San Francisco, and Guy Carson is the principle tenant. Under his supervision the Swedish American Hall has been turned into a cultural arts and events center which also hosts private events such as weddings.
Apart from Carson, the San Francisco chapter of SWEA - the Swedish Women’s Educational Association - hosts their library in the building where members are welcome to join in book circles, meet other members, or just relax.
Inside the four story building’s Swedish American Hall you also find Café Du Nord – a night club and restaurant run by Carson, which has become a popular venue for performing arts: mainly music, but also theater. Over time Café Du Nord has come to specialize in “intimate evenings” where different artists choose to perform for small crowds, often specially invited guests, sometimes in order to explore new material or on other occasions as a “fluke,” a simple warm-up act for a larger tour ahead.
Carson, 55, describes himself as “a regular guy – a family man, a community man, and a business man. Someone who loves what the living arts make people do and feel like.” Originally from Chicago, Carson used to live in Texas where sometimes, under favorable weather conditions, he could tune in radio signals from San Francisco. The music he heard made him realize that “something was happening in San Francisco.” An elderly relative of his used to say that “the nation is on a tilt and all the loose screws and nuts roll to California.” Indeed. So off he went.
Q: How did you get involved with the Swedish American Hall?
A: It all started about 12 years ago when the Swedish Society rescued the Swedish American Hall from its earlier state of neglect. The Swedish Society was looking to change that – they wanted to bring the Swedish American Hall into the 21st century. We are still in the process of extensive remodeling; adding an Internet café and installing an elevator. The goal is to restore the Swedish American Hall to its former glory. Six years ago I bought Café Du Nord and signed a deal with the Swedish Society. I have a long history of working with old historical buildings, such as Great American Music Hall and Hotel Utah. For me it’s more than just business – it’s my love for San Francisco and what the Swedish American Hall stands for that makes me do this. This love for old buildings is something that I have felt my whole life. Through the events I host I promote the building and bring in the money needed to pay the rent, which in turn keeps the building alive. My intention is to expand and host more events, more one-of-a-kind events, beyond Swedish cultural events – that’s why the renovations are being done. The Swedish American Hall has turned out to become a favorite spot for dot-com companies to hold events, for example, and the more events we host, the more cost efficient it gets. The man who has spearheaded this transition is Mr. Ernst Jensen – he had the courage and initiative to do it and it takes a lot to motivate a volunteer board of directors to take on such a huge project. My relation with the Swedish community has been developing the past 5 years, and over time I also realized that I and Ernst Jensen share a lot of common values: We both appreciate the legacy of a building and oppose the current trend to modernize. I’ve grown very fond of the Swedish community and I’ve made lots of friends among the local Swedes over the years.
Q: Has the Swedish American Hall been as successful as you expected it to be?
A: Yes, I think we are successful. Even though we still have a long way to go we are heading in the right direction and we have managed to successfully rejuvenate the Swedish American Hall. I think that maybe in 5 years we will have reached our goal – to create awareness of the Swedish American Hall in the city and allow it to host all kinds of events.
Q: What kind of businesses do you host under the roof of the Swedish American Hall?
A: It’s primarily Café Du Nord, but soon we will open an Internet café as well. Then we also rent the Swedish American Hall for private events.
Q: Why should organizers choose the Swedish American Hall for event hosting?
A: I think it’s the beauty of the building; it’s hard to find a more venerable building in San Francisco. People appreciate the unique architecture and the good will of the building. Then of course the quality of service we provide is much appreciated.
Q: Which role do you prefer – the landlord or the promoter?
A: Basically I’m a promoter and that’s what I love – to produce successful events. To my big frustration that’s something I get to do less and less because of the tedious bureaucracy I’m constantly facing. There are lots of challenges you have to face in order to keep a business alive, especially in the current economic environment. There’s a momentum to turn San Francisco into the Manhattan of the West Coast – this drives up costs and makes it harder to operate a business here. It also creates pressure to tear down old buildings and create a new environment, that’s why so many buildings resembling the Swedish American Hall have disappeared over time. The area in which the Swedish American Hall is currently located is about to be remodeled. I think our well kept building is good for business though, and the community sees the Swedish American Hall as an important part of the neighborhood, a symbol.
Q: So what are your visions for the future?
A: My only vision right now is to survive!
The Swedish American Hall has been a meeting point for the local Swedish community for over a hundred years, and with the help of Guy Carson and the Swedish community it’s our hope that it will still stand there another hundred years from now – tall and proud with yet another century of history surrounding it.