Throwback to a bohemian past

The Center SF is a sanctuary for artists and healers in the former Sacred Heart rectory.

The Center SF is a sanctuary for artists and healers in the former Sacred Heart rectory.


Visible from several points across the city, the former Sacred Heart parish at 548 Fillmore near Fell Street today provides another type of spiritual guidance.

Instead of bingo, signs promote the Church of 8 Wheels, a weekly roller-skating party and yoga classes. A membership gets you all the tea you can drink in the subterranean teahouse that will celebrate its one-year anniversary this month.

If the idea seems like a throwback to a bohemian past, that’s because it is.

In a real estate market that has become surreal, artists, healers and makers are seeking ways to continue living and working in the city. Tucked into the former parish rectory, The Center SF represents one option.

As one of the few remaining arts collectives in San Francisco, The Center SF has by necessity been imaginative in providing a home to a new generation of creative souls. For comparatively reasonable monthly rates, a trio of business models co-exist: a live-work space houses around 30 artists on the upper floors; holistic medicine practitioners on the ground level; and a tea house, yoga shala and performance space on the lower level. Movement memberships, available for $130 per month, and tea memberships, at $49 monthly, come with discounts to workshops, events and priority bookings for nonresidents who enroll.

The Center SF is more than a clever reuse of a storied space that once hosted not only an active Catholic parish, but also the Black Panthers, Vietnam War protestors and a hospice at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It is the latest co-living space brought to life by artistic entrepreneur Michael Latronica.

Two decades ago, when Latronica moved to San Francisco for art school, he met with the harsh realities of the real estate market during the first dot-com boom: There was virtually no space an artist could afford.

The Center SF was brought to life by artistic entrepreneur Michael Latronica.

The Center SF was brought to life by artistic entrepreneur Michael Latronica.

“Artists always want to belong to a community of their own,” says Latronica. “But back then, aside from Theatre Artaud and Cell Space, there were few options for this sort of thing.”

The Center SF is not Latronica’s first live-work project, but it is his most ambitious. In 2010, given three weeks to fill the old Sacred Heart rectory space, he leapt at the chance.

Latronica relies on a democratic system to manage the residences. To ensure things run as smoothly as possible, The Center SF requires each new prospect to submit to a trial run. “We want people who are a fit, and we know that takes time to sort out,” Latronica says.

That means not just being a good housemate and artist, but also a conscious human being who will invest in the community. “Not only do we want people to do their ‘sacred duty’ as we call it, but also to provide their vision for the space,” he says.

With a diverse resident mix that includes a French chef, an opera singer and an acro-yoga instructor, The Center SF offers an eclectic calendar of events — from comedy sketches to Shakti dance and meditation retreats.

Da-Gang Wang, whose Traditional Chinese Medicine practice, Wang Wellness, occupies a handsome space on the ground level, describes The Center SF as “energy resonant” — something akin to Zen meets Burning Man.

Wang originally had a space in Presidio Heights, but its rules didn’t accommodate his practice. For example, his former building managers would not allow him to burn moxa, an essential element of Traditional Chinese Medicine marked by its earthy smell. He began to sublet space from another practitioner on The Center’s ground floor, and eventually took over the lease.

Da-Gang Wang's Wang Wellness is on the ground level of The Center SF.

Da-Gang Wang’s Wang Wellness is on the ground level of The Center SF.

“I moved here because it allows me to practice without compromise,” he says. “To do what we love in this space is just remarkable.”

The community is a huge support for his business, too. Da-Gang considers it an honor and validation when the residents seek his advice or refer new clients. For him, being a part of The Center SF is a calling.

“You have to hear the summons to answer,” says Da-Gang. “Part of the joy of being here is uncovering the ability to see things a little differently. Everyone here chose this building because it has an old San Francisco vibe. I feel like Anna Madrigal. We give each other much warmth and support.”

How long The Center SF can continue in its present form is an open question. While the church, school, rectory and convent were sold into private ownership in 2010, plans to redevelop the structure have come and gone since then. A plan that would transform the church into condos and commercial space is currently pending before the Planning Commission.