The Beginning of the Basque Cultural Center
My Best Recollection and Involvement
by Jean Gorostiague
In 1961, I became a member of the newly-founded San Francisco Basque Club. During that time, there was much talk among the Basque Club members about building a traditional pelota handball court. During the 1950s and 1960s, many young Basque men immigrated to the United States, especially to the San Francisco Bay Area. Many of these men enjoyed playing pelota, but, unfortunately, the Bay Area did not have a handball court to play on. Some of the players went as far as Stockton on Sundays to play. In around 1965, we found a building at the Helen Wills playground located on the corner of Broadway and Larkin Street in San Francisco. The owner gave us permission to play against the wall, but only when there were no children playing at the park. Because the wall was too low for handball, we obtained a building permit to increase it to the right dimensions. For many years, we played against that wall, but it was not ideal and we felt it was only temporary.
During this same period, Dominque Erdozaincy and myself, along with many other members of the Basque Club, were looking to find a vacant piece of land to build a pelota court. We had many meetings with the officials of the city of San Francisco, especially with Mayor Alioto, who liked the Basque community and was trying hard to locate a city property for us. However, in the end, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors denied our request. Other attempts were made in other locations such as Los Gatos and Marin County, with no success. At this time, many of the Basque Club members were opposed of the idea since there was already a place to play at Helen Wills Playground. However in late 1978, the owner of the building sold the property. In that same building, there was a bowling alley where the Basque Club held many bowling tournaments on Friday nights. On one of these nights, we found out the building was going to be demolished. That night, I mentioned to Francois Bidarretta and Jose Miura that we should buy a piece of property and build a court. They liked the idea. Jacques Unhassobiscay heard of the idea and called me a few days later. I explained to him that we should gather ten to fifteen handball players and build a private pelota court. He was interested in pursuing the idea. However, since some of the Basque Club members (not being handball players) were against building a pelota court, Jacques Unhassobiscay thought it would be a good idea to create a new Basque Club in order to build one. I agreed and he encouraged me to move forward with the idea and take charge.
A week later, a meeting was held at the bowling alley meeting room with a group of handball players. It was decided that we should elect three people to look for a vacant property large enough to build a pelota court. Jacques Unhassobiscay was in charge of looking in the San Francisco area, and Jean-Leon Ocafrain and myself in the Peninsula Bay Area. I had a real estate license and called a few realtors that I knew. I explained to them the purpose of the property and one of the realtors had three listings. One was three acres with a 66-year lease to the State on the waterfront in Burlingame. Another was a small lot in Millbrae very close to Highway 101, and the last one was 1.5 acres in South San Francisco. After seeing each of these properties. I went to the Burlingame Planning Department to investigate the possibility of building a pelota court. My request was denied since their intention was to see hotels and restaurants built in that particular location. They were successful as the Marriott was built there. I then went to the Millbrae Planning Department where unfortunately, I had a similar experience. As a last resort, I went back to the South San Francisco property. It was a very depressing piece of land that looked like a dump yard with a canal going through it, but the price was reasonable. Jacques Unhassobiscay and Jean-Leon Ocafrain could not find anything better available.
When I saw the large size of the property, I began thinking that more than a handball court could be built. I started thinking about a Basque ”cultural center”. I went to the South San Francisco Planning department and inquired the possibility of building a cultural center which included a pelota court, a banquet room and some meeting rooms. They gave me a little encouragement, stating there was a fifty percent chance they would allow a cultural center under the Use Permit.
A notice was sent out to the Basque community to see if there was interest in being part of the creation of a cultural center. On March 27, 1979, a meeting was held at the hall at the Notre Dame des Victories Church. Seventy-three people showed up, and after long discussions, everyone was very motivated. A temporary Board was selected to evaluate the possibilities of building this type of cultural center. I was nominated and elected President, Jose Miura as Vice President, Leon Sorondo as Secretary, Leon Franchisteguy as Treasurer, and Felix Berrueta, Ray Caballero, and Jean Jauretche as Directors. We held weekly meetings at Leon Franchisteguy’s house. Thereafter, the meetings were held at the Elu's Restaurant on Monday nights until early hours of the morning.
Information was sent to Basques in the Bay Area, giving updates on the status. All of the correspondences were sent in English with translation in Basque by Auguste Indart.
In March 1979, we were negotiating the purchase of the South San Francisco property at 599 Railroad Avenue. The final price came to $235,000 with the condition that the South San Francisco Planning Department would approve our project. The next step was to hire an architect. As a General Contractor, I knew a few of them in the area, but I chose George Rescalvo, who was born in Argentina, because he was very familiar with the Basques in Argentina and the Basque Centers located there. I explained to him our plan to build a cultural center. He made the preliminary floor plans, which I presented to the temporary Board of Directors. They agreed with the plans and so we held a general meeting at the hall in Notre Dame des Victoires. The members were very satisfied with the plans.
Marcel Biscay, being a lawyer and well known with the Basque community, volunteered to form a corporation, which was established on June 5, 1979. It was at this time the Basque Cultural Center was founded. The first bylaws were adopted on June 21, 1979, and the officers and a full Board of fifteen Directors were nominated and elected/appointed as follows:
• President- Jean Gorostiague
• Vice President- Jose Muria
• Secretary- Leon Sorondo
• Treasurer- Leon Franchisteguy
• Directors: Felix Berrueta, Marcel Biscay, Ray Caballero, Johnny Curutchet, Marcel Durquet, Louis Elu, Gratien Goyhenetche, Auguste Indart, Jean Jauretche, Jean-Baptiste Saparat, and Jacques Unhassobiscay.
The first official meeting of the Basque Cultural Center was held on June 24, 1979 at the Notre Dame des Victoires, where the preliminary plans and the purchase of the property at 599 Railroad Avenue were presented. We explained the use of membership certificates to raise money to secure loans to buy the property. In August 1979, a general meeting was called where the real estate agent explained the transaction of the property and the architect presented the preliminary plans. The members present were very excited and motivated, and asked for a preliminary cost estimate for the project. The Board of Directors was working hard recruiting new members and raising money, while I was very busy working with the architect, engineers, and building department to have the plans ready for the permit application.
In early October 1979, we submitted the plans to the South San Francisco Planning Department. These plans had been drawn according to their building guidelines. A date was scheduled for an Architectural Review Board meeting, where Bill Etchegoin, Jean Jauretche, Joe Castenchoa, George Rescalvo and myself were present. After spending four hours with the Design Review Board, consisting of seven members, the plan was denied. We left the room very discouraged and my group was ready to give up. I was not ready to give in. I took it upon myself to call the city director, Lou De Angela, and told him that we were very disappointed with the Architectural Review Board’s decision since we did everything the Planning Department had asked us to do. I asked him if there was any chance for our plans to be approved. Otherwise, we would have to look into another city. After hearing my bluff, he asked me to give him a couple of hours and he would call me back. As I did not think he would respond so quickly, I was out of my office when he called. It turned out he was looking everywhere for me. Upon my return to the office, I had several messages to call him back as soon as possible. He told me that he wanted to keep the project in South San Francisco and asked me if I could go see him with my architect, George Rescalvo, and bring the plans.
The biggest issue that the Architectural Review Board had was the handball court. They disliked the large concrete wall and the round windows. The next day, George Rescalvo and I met with the city director, Lou De Angela. At the meeting with the director, we discussed the plan and the purpose of having the pelota court. We came to an agreement that the proposed round windows would be replaced with rectangular ones. We originally designed round windows as it was meant to symbolize a pelota. In addition, we agreed to modify the right wall of the pelota court so it did not look bulky from the outside. From that meeting on, things went more smoothly with the Planning Department.
Finally, after extensive negotiations with the Planning Department, the permits were approved in March 1981 and we had a groundbreaking ceremony on March 20, 1981. The project aggressively started soon after. Many Basque members worked hard. To name a few, Jean Jauretche was the job superintendent and Jean Curutchet and Auguste Indart were in charge of recruiting workers. They were on the phone every night encouraging people to participate. Jean Saparat was in charge of painting and Bill Etchegoin was in charge of paving and the cancha bleachers. Francois Bidaureta and Jose Miura were in charge of the landscaping. Much of the materials were donated or sold at discounted prices. This was a big job and it required many dedicated Basque workers to volunteer countless hours to make it happen.
In 1981, while the building was in progress, I started to worry about the rise in building costs and how all the individuals who made loans were to be paid back, especially the generous amount of $200,000 that Jean Elissondo loaned which was needed to complete the project. Concerned, I approached the Board with an idea that would produce income to help pay the bills. This included making the lounge area into a dining room open to the public. The Board of Directors agreed with the concept and decided it would be necessary to have a liquor license. In October 1981, we found a license for sale for $66,000. With the agreement to be paid back, eleven members generously loaned $6,000 each to obtain the license.
Our Grand Opening Ceremony was on February 14, 1982, Valentine’s Day. The inaugural was on March 27, 1982. The Board of Directors, as well as many other members, worked hard for the Basque dream to come true.
Once we decided to open the restaurant to the public, we were in need of a full time manager, a chef, and other employees. The Board of Directors decided to approach Agna and Ganix Iriarborde, prior owners of Des Alps, a Basque restaurant in San Francisco for many years, to take the management position. They accepted the proposal with the condition that they were only going to be there for six months. They were excellent managers. Gabriel Elicetche, an exceptional chef with many years of restaurant experience, took charge to put the kitchen in place to open it for its members and the public. The Basque Center is now a highly recognized dining and entertainment spot in the SF Bay Area.
In May 1983, I suggested to the Board of Directors that we explore purchasing additional land from the South Pacific Railroad Company in the frontage of our property (10,000 sq. ft.). Six years later, after numerous meetings, Pacific Railroad Company agreed to sell their property for $75,000. However, when we did a title search on the property, we found the property did not belong to them it belonged to Utah Construction Company, State of Delaware. I researched the company and located the Utah Construction Company’s lawyer. Representing the Basque Cultural Center, I, along with the BBC Secretary, Mayi Etcheverry, made an appointment to see the lawyer, Richard Curotto in hopes to acquire the property. It turned out, after showing him the title report and map, the Company was unaware that they owned the strip of property. I explained how we were interested in purchasing the property for a fair price and how we did not have much money. After a long conversation, he decided to deed the property to the Basque Cultural Center at no cost. Fortunately, he knew about the Basque Cultural Center as he and his mother would eat at the restaurant there, and he knew and liked many of the Basque people.
By 1990, the facilities and parking lot became crowded due to an on-going increase in membership and to the popularity of the restaurant and hall. In 1991, I suggested to the Board that we negotiate the Magnolia strip (19,500 sq. ft) with the city of South San Francisco. The Board agreed and gave me the authority to explore the possibility to buy the City property. The City proposed the amount of $200,000. However, once again, when we did a title search on the property, we found that the City did not own it. Apparently, the City would own the property if they built out the street. However, since they did not build out the street, the property went back to the original owner, Utah Construction. I went back to Mr. Curotto and explained the situation and he kindly deeded the property to us at no cost. However, when I called the City Attorney and explained to him the actual ownership of the property, he was not pleased and told me that I was mistaken and he would protest the finding. Regardless, we closed the deal with the Utah Corporation and never heard back from the City.
With the additional property, we extended the kitchen in 1993 and extended the parking lot, landscaped, fenced, and created a new driveway in 1994. In 1996, the dining room was extended and a small banquet room and two handicap bathrooms were added. I personally financed much of the improvements with a $160,000 loan, which was paid back in eight years.
Recently, in 1998, I requested the City to lease a strip (320 sq. ft.) from their corporate yard property to be used for a barbeque area. The request was granted and the strip is currently being leased for $1.00/year. Subsequently, we built an outdoor covered barbeque area, important for the Basque festivals held periodically at the Basque Cultural Center.
The aforementioned summarizes my most significant involvements with the Basque Cultural Center. In addition to being President of the Basque Cultural Center from 1979 to 1982 and one of its founders, and the General Contractor for the build-out and subsequent improvements, I continue to participate actively as a Board Member since 1979, Chairman of Building and Grounds Committee since 1982 and the Director of the Catering Board since 1987 .