Noe Valley Voice March 2013

Long Wait for Rebirth of Bliss

Both Bar and Building Severely Damaged by Fire

By Tim Innes


A fire at Bliss Bar on Feb. 4 gutted the ground floor and caused extensive damage to the building at 4026 24th St. Though no one was injured, seven workers lost their jobs, and several residents upstairs were forced to find new homes.    Photo by Corrie M. Anders

“We expect to be back.” 

For Bliss Bar regulars, that pledge from owner Pierre Letheule, who saw his popular club go up in flames Feb. 4, is music to their ears. But it could take a while before patrons can again enjoy cocktails, watch classic films, and listen to jazz at the bar, at 4026 24th St.

“We have to wait for the city and insurance company to complete their inspections,” said Letheule, 59, who purchased Bliss 12 years ago with his wife, Katina Letheule. “Then we can start planning to rebuild. It could take a year.”

Although the party room in the back of Bliss was relatively unscathed, the bar itself was a total loss. The blaze, reported at 1:12 p.m. by a neighbor who smelled smoke, was quickly contained. Firefighters from Stations 24 on Hoffman Avenue and Station 11 on 26th Street remained on the scene until 5 p.m., piling charred contents at the curb.

Firefighters were called again that evening when smoldering embers in a false ceiling burst into flame. After extinguishing them, firefighters used power saws to clear out the long, narrow space. The cause was believed to be electrical, according to San Francisco Fire Department spokeswoman Mindy Talmadge.

$225,000 in Damage

Among the lost contents were many items precious to Letheule: his collection of modern art, and furniture and lamps he crafted himself.

“I’m still in shock,” said Letheule, who bought Bliss from founders John Ferguson and Jim Kopp in 2001. In previous incarnations, the bar was known as the Rover’s Inn and the First Ining.

The fire also left seven employees jobless and several upstairs tenants homeless. They were put up in hotels for three nights by the Red Cross before being relocated to temporary housing.

As of late February, damage estimates were still being tallied by insurers. The Fire Department’s preliminary estimate of damage to the structure and contents was $225,000. Besides the bar, the three-story building that housed it sustained significant structural damage, Letheule said.

The blaze was the second to hit the busy block between Castro and Noe streets in 17 months. A two-alarm blaze on Sept. 10, 2011, at 4049-51 24th St., caused $950,000 in damage, displaced seven residents, and forced the Radio Shack store to close. Although tenants were able to return late last summer, the store didn’t reopen until two months ago.

Firefighters from two local stations doused the flames that engulfed Bliss Bar the afternoon of Feb. 4. They returned that evening to put out smoldering embers.    Photo by Jack Tipple

Cloud of Black Smoke

Letheule said he was returning from errands when he saw fire trucks in the street and thick black smoke pouring from the bar, which had not yet opened for the day. As firefighters worked, pedestrians gathered to watch their progress and offer assistance to the building’s residents and neighbors.

Letheule was soon joined by bartender Kerri Stimson, who wasn’t scheduled to start work until 4 p.m., but came from her home in the Lower Haight as soon as she heard about the fire.

“It’s a real loss,” said Stimson, 32, who tended bar at Bliss for three years. “Bliss Bar was the only honest-to-goodness cocktail lounge in Noe Valley. It was quiet, comfortable. It catered to a different crowd than the neighborhood’s other, more sports-oriented bars. It was the kind of place to take a date.”

Emblematic of that, she said, was the mellow crowd that turned out on Super Bowl Sunday—the day before the fire—to cheer the 49ers while sipping martinis on the bar’s plush sofas.

The bar’s Blue Room was a popular venue for private parties. Although Bliss did not have a kitchen, patrons could order snacks or meals from the nearby Pasta Pomodoro.

Letheule, who studied flute, painting, and sculpture in his native France, said the art hanging in the Blue Room was covered with a grimy layer of soot but could be restored.

Bartender Kerri Stimson, standing on 24th Street the night of the fire, was hopeful Bliss could reopen—not only so she could reunite with her work family but because the bar is “the only honest-to-goodness cocktail lounge in Noe Valley.”    Photo by Sally Smith

Live Music Venue Lost

Stimson said that while Pierre Letheule ran the bar, Katina Letheule handled the finances and booked the musical acts, with the help of local artists and agents.

“It was a great venue for jazz,” Stimson said. “We’d get the same people who played at Yoshi’s. Hopefully, we’ll be able to bring it back.”

In addition to the Sunday afternoon jazz performances, which ranged from vocalists like Sandra Aran to pianists like Larry Vuckovich, Bliss presented blues artists on the second, third and fourth Wednesdays of the month.

On 24th Street last month, music fans and cocktail customers seemed equally distressed about the loss of the lounge.

Charles Elleman, a 20th Street resident and Bliss regular who was nearby when the fire broke out, said the bar’s closure would leave a big void in the neighborhood. “Without Bliss, we [the after-work crowd] can always go to the Peaks, the Valley Tavern, or Noe’s Bar, but where are all the pretty people going to go?”

Stimson, who, like most of the other workers, had a second job—she also teaches yoga—said she hoped Bliss would reopen. “Pierre’s a great guy to work for,” she said.

Both Stimson and Letheule, who lives in Alameda, thanked local residents and merchants for providing words of encouragement and complimentary coffee and meals in the days after the fire. “People have been so nice,” Letheule said. “It’s a great community.”