Tee time: a peek inside Urban Putt, the Mission’s indoor mini-golf course

Pub date January 30, 2014
SectionPixel Vision

On the back wall of the main room of the old Victorian building at 1096 S. Van Ness is a sculpture of two creepy angels. One holds the other in its arms, their wings keeping them up. These angels are part of the original construction of the building, back when it functioned as a mortuary. Perhaps due to the haunting angels, perhaps due to the thought of a dead body storage center, the building has sat empty on the corner of South Van Ness and 22nd Streets for 15 years.

Today, the angels are still there and the building’s new owner has no intention of taking them down. “We will preserve as much as we can from this old look,” says Steve Fox, the man behind San Francisco’s first indoor mini-golf course, Urban Putt, set to open in April. The “high-concept” course will feature a restaurant with “eclectic California comfort cuisine” upstairs and two bars with a “creative bar program,” according to Urban Putt’s most recent press release. 

Urban Putt is not your traditional mini-golf course. The fantastical, technologically advanced, steampunk-y 14-hole course (four short of the customary 18 due to space constraints) will be composed of high-tech gadgets, countless buttons and nobs, and a few obligatory tongue-in-cheek twists (see: the “TransAmerica Windmill”) contained within its homages to San Francisco landmarks. 

A replica of the Painted Ladies shakes in a simulated earthquake at the first hole. At the “Musical” hole, the golf ball is catapulted toward the ceiling before bouncing delicately on drums and a cymbal. A two-hole underwater area pays homage to Jules Verne: an intricate submarine embellished with control panels and levers — although the 150 motion-sensor LED floorboards (imitating the lights of phytoplankton) are exceptionally post-Verne. Next to those wistful angels, the “Day of the Dead” hole honors the building’s previous tenants.

With a name like Urban Putt and its kitschy concept, it’s tempting to call out the spot as yet another example of gentrification in the Mission. Can’t you just see the hordes of trendy techies lining up to play putt-putt before hitting up the Make-Out Room on a Saturday night? (Because you know they will…)

Fox, a longtime mini-golf fanatic, was prepared for the criticism. “The very first note we got was like ‘the nerve of these people.’ It was written up on the Chron that we were doing this,” he says about the initial backlash. “We had signed the lease two days before.”

So Fox put up his phone number outside the building to encourage any and all complaints about Urban Putt. He also set out to connect with the neighborhood, reaching out to the community when he started hiring. “I think they realized that I had every intention of not being some sort of carpet bagger,” says Fox.

For Fox, Urban Putt is a longtime dream. A lousy golf player himself, the former editorial director of PCWorld and editor in chief of InfoWorld is an avid putt putt player. Since the 1990’s Fox and his wife have been hosting mini golf parties at their house. So what happens when you grow old and have a lot of money? Make your dream come true.

“My theory in all of this, having spent years and years running organizations — albeit editorial organizations, not mini golf — is if you don’t have expertise, go out and find the best people you can and have them do it,” says Fox. 

With experience that spans Burning Man, Maker Faire, the Exploratorium, and even MythBusters, the members of the design and construction team have an expansive background in creativity and innovation. “We have a group of people with real expertise in these areas. You can get that in San Francisco. There’s a lot of places you couldn’t find that. There’s that kind of wonderful talent base,” says Fox. At their disposal: the $17,000 3D printing ShopBot. Claiming it as one of their competitive advantages, Fox explains that the in-house printer will help his team can easily innovate, make changes, and repair the course over time.

Despite UrbanPutt’s extravagance, Fox maintains that the wonderland will be accessible to both children and adults, as well as both techy transplants and long-established local residents. His mission to keep games affordable ($8 for kids, $12 for adults) and to retain the vibrant local culture demonstrates his dedication to the city. Much of the building’s original construction will remain the same: the historical exterior, the metal front gate, the Victorian sconces, and the two angels at the back wall.

“People get that I am really of this neighborhood,” says Fox. “I think they’re responding well to that.”