History Stop - 540 Clement
This story stop is part of a self-guided history walk of Clement Street made available by Western Neighborhoods Project (WNP), a 501(c)(3) community history nonprofit founded in 1999 that preserves, interprets, and shares the diverse history and culture of San Francisco’s west side. Unless otherwise indicated, photographs used on this walk are from WNP’s OpenSFHistory Program, launched in 2014 to digitize and make accessible online thousands of historical images from throughout San Francisco.
Posters were laid out by Drew Moss and designed and printed by John Lindsey at The Great Highway gallery. Histories were modified by Nicole Meldahl, Drew Moss, and Chelsea Sellin, from WNP’s Clement Street Pub Crawl held in April 2023. They’ve been installed to celebrate new banners designed by artist Risa Culbertson and sponsored by the Clement Street Merchants Association (CSMA) in August 2023, thanks to funding from Avenue Greenlight.
Looking west on Clement Street near 6th Avenue, circa 1940. (Jack Tillmany Collection; courtesy of a Private Collector / wnp67.0291)
If you’re thinking that the facade of 540 Rogues doesn’t quite match your typical bar exterior, that’s because this building began as a bank.
Constructed in 1929, 540 Clement Street opened as the Park-Presidio office of the Pacific States Savings and Loan Company one month after the stock market crash in 1929. Pacific States was originally incorporated as a building and loan association in 1889 and it initially weathered the crash and early stages of the Great Depression on solid financial ground, but soon the winds began to change.
According to an article in the San Francisco Examiner on December 23, 1932, Pacific States locations on Clement and Market Streets were simultaneously robbed! Thieves struck just after 1pm and made off with a combined $363 in cash after “menacing” customers and employees. The company’s large portfolio began to falter in 1933, coincidentally the last year we see advertisements in local newspapers for a branch in the Richmond District.
By 1936, neighborhood residents William H. Greely and his wife, Ella, were serving beer from this address. Although the Greelys transferred ownership of the business to George W. Oberg and L.J. Galbraith in 1942, their legacy continues; 540 Clement has continually served as a community watering home ever since. George and L.J. began calling the bar Five-Forty Club and within a couple years, L.J. left George to run the bar with his wife, Norma. They brought in James Armbruster and Emil Cranert around 1945. When George died at the Oberg’s 163 10th Avenue home after a long illness in June of 1947, his obituary remembered him as a past president of the Clement Street Merchants Association. Norma was still associated with the bar for at least a year after his death.
As a striking aside, 540 Club also sponsored a sports team. Dating back as early as 1941, 540 Club’s bowling team is mentioned in city newspapers with Armbruster and Cranert cited as co-sponsors in a 1947 San Francisco Examiner article. A harrowing, heartwarming story connected to a 540 Club bowler named Mike Chiechi highlights how neighborhood bars are great meeting places.
Mike’s story starts far away from the Richmond District in Los Gatos’s Lexington Reservoir on a summer day in 1954. 27-year-old Mike was out water-skiing with his wife, Barbara, when he fell down and struck his head on an underwater object. Thanks to the life vest Mike was wearing, his unconscious body stayed afloat, but was face down. When Barbara tried to turn the boat around to save her husband, the motor no longer worked and she was unable to reach him. Another boater nearby, Harlan Johnson, came to the rescue and pulled Mike’s body out of the water.
Once he was brought ashore, Mike was initially pronounced dead by an ambulance crew. Two younger off-duty officers from Burlingame tried to resuscitate him using CPR, a new technique for them in 1954. After a long while, Mike sprang back to life and the two officers left the scene and went about their day. Mike spent the next 12 years wondering who these men were who saved his life on that summer day. Then, one November day in 1966, when Mike was working as a bartender at the 540 Club, he overheard one patron telling another this exact story, but from the police officer's perspective. Mike excitedly said “Say that again!” The patron was the officer who had saved him. Just like that, Mike Chiechi and one of the men who saved his life were reunited at 540 Club. Now, getting back to the bar…
James Armbruster is listed as the sole owner of 540 Clement until 1960. By 1962 it picked up the unfortunate name of Touchables 540 Club, and was co-operated by a new face: Herbert Hakala. Originally from Wisconsin, Herbert served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and thereafter enlisted in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1968. He married Haru “Spring” Nozawa of Yokohama, Japan on October 9, 1953, and the couple lived for a time in Salinas, California while Herbert was stationed at Fort Ord in Monterey, before settling in San Francisco.
Touchables 540 Club was listed in city directories through 1966. However, the bowling team associated with the bar maintained the name 540 Club through the 1960’s. Armbruster appears to have stepped back in 1965, and by 1968 it seems that just Mike Chiechi operated the business. In 1969, Herbert Hakala properly stepped in after retiring from the army the year prior, and brought some changes to the bar.
The name was formally changed to Hak’s cocktail lounge (short for Hakala), thank goodness, by 1972. Legend goes that Hak removed the old bank vault, piece-by-piece, where recent regulars will remember playing pool. Hak’s is listed in city directories until 1978.
The modern era of 540 Club’s history has been confused over the years – the inevitable result of stories passed down and retold. For example, old bartenders have told reporters that the structure was built in 1909 by the Bank of Italy. Which you now know is untrue! But we do know that in 1980, the bar was no longer called Hak’s and instead was called Max’s 540 Club.
You can get a feel for the place from the people who frequented the bar during that decade. In a July 1984 San Francisco Examiner article, a reporter asked bar patrons what they thought of the Democratic national convention. “For rock-bottom cynicism, Max’s 540 Club offered this from a merchant seaman: ‘My TV’s broken, and I haven’t bothered to get it fixed. Conventions are a bunch of bad news. You elect these people and they don’t do what they say anyway.’” In February 1989, a regular named Hatfield told San Francisco Examiner writer Edvin Beitiks, “This is a real bar. The top’s not Formica, the top’s not tile, the top’s not where they just have glue up this high. This bar is real.” In the same article, bartender Karen Ziesmer said, “This is the only bar in town where the customer’s never right.”
Max’s 540 Club, November 28, 1992. (Robert Durden Color Slide Collection; SF History Center, SF Public Library / AAZ-0093)
The bar remained largely unchanged as the neighborhood began to ease into the 1990s. The 1989 article referenced above refers to the bar’s location as the “heart of upscale, high-rent Clement.” The O’Rourke family took it over in the 1990s and, even though the sign still said (and still says today) Max’s, it was simply called O’Rourke’s or O’Rourke’s Bar until 2002. That year, Jamie Brown became the new owner. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, former bartenders including Clarke Dorsey, Kevin Hansen, Leejay Victor, and an anonymous fourth partner paid Jamie’s back rent, acquired a new liquor license, and brought the bar into its current iteration as Rogues 540.
Like history itself, this research is ongoing and always evolving. If you have something to add to this story, we would love to learn it! Please contact Chelsea Sellin, our Director of Programs: email@example.com.