Tenderloin Museum

One San Francisco resident sets out to immortalize the colorful history of one of the city’s most eclectic and culturally significant districts.

If a city’s best trait is its complexity, there is no better part of San Francisco than the Tenderloin.  This neighborhood, one of the densest in San Francisco, goes so much deeper than its outer layer. Yes, poverty and drug use aren’t hard to find. But there is also a wealth of spirit. I am proud that the displacement occurring in other San Francisco neighborhoods has not touched this place

America once had many Tenderloins, in many big cities. Such areas were named because the bribery there allowed police officers to afford the best cut of beef. This Tenderloin is the last of its kind. I was immediately captivated by the place when I started law school here in 1979. Three years later, after graduating, I took over the directorship of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Straight away, I worked to expose what became known as the heatless hotel scandal. Thousands of tenants in single room occupancy hotels were living without heat or hot water, even in winter, and the landlords were getting away with it semi-legally. I worked with the city to enact legislation ensuring that those residents would never again go cold

The Museum tells the evolving cultural story of this neighborhood…. Before coming through our doors, many people don’t realize the cultural impact of revolutions that started right here.

I still lead the Tenderloin Housing Clinic. Through our work, over 33% of the neighborhood’s housing stock is now subsidized and off the speculative market. 

So I’ve helped to write some of the Tenderloin’s story, and now there is a Tenderloin Museum to tell it. The space realizes a long-held dream for our community. Design and construction lasted several years, and Perkins+Will was our partner from day one, in a pro-bono contribution that went far beyond the dollar value of architectural services.

The exterior of the Cadillac Hotel, prior to the Tenderloin Museum's opening.

We’re at the street level of the Cadillac Hotel, a supportive-housing facility at the corner of Leavenworth and Eddy Streets. After the catastrophic 1906 earthquake, San Francisco’s leaders announced a set of building projects to show the city’s resilience, and the Cadillac was one of them. It was founded as one of the nation’s first non-profit supportive-housing facilities, even though that term didn’t exist then. A boxing gym took over the dining room in 1924; eventually, Muhammad Ali trained there. So did George Foreman and even Miles Davis, who would drop in before he played shows nearby. Later, many of the original architectural details were lopped off in the spirit of renovation.   

At 3,200 square feet, ours is a small space with a lot of uses—exhibits, retail, public events. And our budget is even smaller than you’d imagine, so every area had to maximize its value. The space has been leased to us for 30 years, and I expect it to remain well past then. The Museum tells the evolving cultural story of this neighborhood, starting with the 1906 earthquake. Before coming through our doors, many people don’t realize the cultural impact of revolutions that started right here. The movement for LGBTQ rights fought some of its earliest struggles around the corner. Neighborhood sex workers formed a union back in 1917. Musicians like Thelonius Monk, Carlos Santana, the Grateful Dead recorded albums nearby. 

The new Tenderloin Museum welcomes in the community.

Even in the most rapidly developing real-estate market on earth, the Tenderloin has been a beacon for artists, working families, and the poor. Our programming shows how that resistance looks, feels, and sounds. We are a community hub, offering rental space to anyone who needs it. We host film screenings, lectures, photography exhibitions, and live music. Beyond these walls, we operate walking tours of nearby murals and architecture. The wealth of architectural gems immediately outside is profound. Just look up to see what I’m talking about! 

My career has been based on transformations, and this is one of the most immediately visible transformations I’ve ever been a part of. I am continually reminded that neighborhoods, no matter how tough, are worth the devotion. 

-Interview with Randy Shaw, as told to Perkins+Will, condensed for clarity.


Tenderloin Museum


San Francisco, California


To capture and share the history of San Francisco’s Tenderloin District.


July 2015


2,500 unique visitors in the first year


Interview with Randy Shaw, Board Member, Uptown Tenderloin, Inc., as told to Perkins+Will.