Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jefferson Airplane House, 2400 Fulton Street, San Francisco, CA

The Colonial Revival style home at 2400 Fulton Street was like no other in that part of San Francisco, perhaps in all of the city. Directly across the street from the northern border of Golden Gate Park, near Stanyan Street at the eastern end of the park and within walking distance of the Haight, it was designed and built circa 1904 by R.A. Vance, whose family owned the large Vance Lumber Company of Eureka, California.

A three-story building, it boldly declared its preeminence through its Ionic columns with heavily ornamented bargeboard and a balustrade above. To drive the point of its grandeur home, it further featured simulated Doric columns embedded in the front wall, slanted bays at the side and decorated cornices.

Inside were materials from all over the world. From India came mahogany wood paneling, and the wooden furniture was from Santo Domingo. The 17-room mansion had crystal chandeliers, lace curtains, exquisite carpeting, a stained glass window at the second floor landing, as well as tapestry wallpaper, ornate scrollwork and eight fireplaces. On the octagonally-shaped third floor were five oddly-shaped bedrooms, and a fresco on the ceiling of the second story master bedroom depicted reclining, semi-nude women. The basement was huge and behind the house were three separate gardens.

In April 1906, when the earthquake hit, it spared the new building and, for many years, it has been believed that Enrico Caruso, the great operatic tenor, sought shelter that night inside its walls. 

That claim, however intriguing within the context of the building's history, may be only so much myth. While some accounts of Caruso's journey after leaving the Palace Hotel do have him wandering westward in a daze toward Golden Gate Park, Caruso's own diary entry regarding that fateful evening placed him nowhere near 2400 Fulton. Caruso himself claimed that he remained in the eastern part of San Francisco, doing all he could to escape the destruction and the fires, finally paying a ferryman a small fortune to take him across the Bay to Oakland, never to return to San Francisco. Nevertheless, the story has resonance.

Enrico Caruso & the 1906 Earthquake

Enrico Caruso 
Italian opera star Enrico Caruso (1873-1921), considered by many to be the greatest operatic tenor of all time, was in San Francisco performing, the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera Company’s San Francisco engagement, the role of Don José in Bizet’s opera Carmen on the evening before the earthquake struck. His account of the experience first appeared in The Sketch, published in London, with illustrations drawn by Caruso. It was reprinted in the July 1906 edition of The Theatre magazine.

Caruso's Reactions & Observations

I was stopping at the [Palace] Hotel, where many of my fellow-artists were staying, and very comfortable it was. I had a room on the fifth floor, and on Tuesday evening, the night before the great catastrophe, I went to bed feeling very contented. I had sung in “Carmen” that night … .
But what an awakening! … on the Wednesday morning early I wake up about 5 o’clock, feeling my bed rocking as though I am in a ship on the ocean, and for a moment I think I am dreaming… Then, as the rocking continues, I get up and go to the window, raise the shade and look out. And what I see makes me tremble with fear. I see the buildings toppling over, big pieces of masonry falling, and from the street below I hear the cries and screams of men and women and children ….
I remain speechless, thinking I am in some dreadful nightmare, and for something like forty seconds I stand there, while the buildings fall and my room still rocks like a boat on the sea. And during that forty seconds I think of forty thousand different things. All that I have ever done in my life passes before me… .
Then I gather my faculties together and call for my valet. He comes rushing in quite cool, and, without any tremor in his voice, says: "It is nothing." But all the same he advises me to dress quickly and go into the open, lest the hotel fall and crush us to powder. By this time the plaster on the ceiling has fallen in a great shower, covering the bed and the carpet and the furniture, and I, too, begin to think it is time to "get busy."
… I make my way to Union Square, where… my valet succeeds in getting a man with a cart, who says he will take us to the Oakland Ferry for a certain sum, and we agree to his terms. We pile the luggage into the cart and climb in after it, and the man whips up his horse and we start. We pass terrible scenes on the way: buildings in ruins, and everywhere there seems to be smoke and dust.

The Palace Hotel, where Caruso and many others in the company were staying, would collapse by late afternoon, but not before all of its guests managed to escape safely.

The St. Francis Hotel stayed open and served what it could to anyone who came through its doors for free until the food ran out (including Enrico Caruso with a fur coat over his pajamas, smoking a cigarette and muttering, " 'Ell of a place! 'Ell of a place!" reported survivor and famous photographer, Arnold Genthe). 

Caruso—or, rather, his unbelievably devoted valet—even managed to remove the bulk of his luggage, which included 54 steamer trunks containing, among other things, some 50 self-portraits. "My valet, brave fellow that he is, goes back and bundles all my things into trunks and drags them down six flights of stairs and out into the open one by one." That same valet would eventually find a horse and cart to carry the great Caruso and his many belongings to the waterfront Ferry Building—no mean accomplishment on a day when tens of thousands were attempting to escape the fires ravaging the city.
"We pass terrible scenes on the way: buildings in ruins, and everywhere there seems to be smoke and dust. The driver seems in no hurry, which makes me impatient at times, for I am longing to return to New York, where I know I shall find a ship to take me to my beautiful Italy and my wife and my little boys." By nightfall, Caruso was across the bay in Oakland and boarding a train headed east—news that reached anxious New Yorkers the following day.
Caruso was signed for a lucrative recording contract with the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in 1902 for ten arias at £10 per take. In May the same year he debuted at the Covent Garden in Rigoletto, and his Met debut came in November 1903. He sang with the company the next 18 seasons, appearing on 607 occasions in 37 different operas. "His name was to become synonymous with greatness, a household word, and his movements were followed fastidiously by public and media alike" [Roland Vernon].

At the height of his career he fell ill with bronchial pneumonia which later developed into chronic pleurisy. After several misfortunate attempts of surgery, he died in his native Napoli on August 2nd 1921, 48 years of age.

In the 1930s, Vance sold the house to his niece, Mrs. T.E. Connolly, and it remained in the Connolly family until the late spring or early summer of 1968, when it was sold by its then-present owner, a gentleman in his eighties or nineties, to a local rock group called Jefferson Airplane.
They moved all of their personal, musical, business, and pharmaceutical possessions into the building and promptly painted the exterior black. The mansion soon became the epicenter of the hippie scene with Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, and Marty Balin holding court over the whole crazy circus. But times change and so do bands, the Age of Aquarius turned into the age of the Me Generation, Jefferson Airplane turned into Jefferson Starship, and the band put the mansion up for sale in the mid- 80s.
The group quickly customized the interior, installing a 4-track recording studio in the basement, putting in ping-pong and pool tables, strewing electronic gadgets everywhere, throwing posters on the walls, taking in stray cats.

Immediately the house, henceforth known in rock lore simply as 2400 Fulton, or the Airplane House, became a magnet for all manner of visiting fans, musicians, groupies, dope dealers, snake oil salesmen, oddballs and those simply curious about what the house and its occupants might offer them.

And the parties became legendary.
Barbara Langer: I remember one banquet when there was a big fat joint on every plate. And a roasted suckling pig with an apple in its mouth. It was incredibly lavish and extravagant. Ridiculous at certain points.
Shortly before purchasing the mansion, Bill Thompson had hired Jacky Watts, the young English woman who had seen Marty perform solo years earlier on her first night in San Francisco, to serve as his and the group's clerical assistant. Her job duties were to include creating itineraries, banking, handling the phones, the bookings–whatever was needed to keep the band's affairs running as tidily as possible, and to give Thompson a break from the day-to-day tedium of paperwork and other managerial drudgery.
Jacky Sarti: Thompson actually sent his girlfriend Judy over to see if I was hip enough. Was I really straight? And then he gave me a typing test! I passed the hipness test. I had a great little house, I had black light posters all over the place, I had a kitty cat, I was wearing paisley. I got the job. He and Judy lived in this little apartment in San Francisco and I used to have to go over there. I had a little dinky table, with a purple typewriter, and a telephone, and that was it. It was in their dining room, and I used to have to go in and usually they would still be in bed when I got there. But that's how I started.

Bill Thompson: When I hired Jacky, she came to my house on Rivoli Street, and we would work out of there. I didn't like it. So I thought, we've got to find another place. We were looking at office space and Jacky, I think, went to a real estate agent. I remember that we went to 2400 Fulton Street, and we met this lecherous old guy who lived there. He liked her right away. So he sold it to us for $70,000. And it was the greatest investment we ever made. We had $20,000 in cash, which I put as a down payment, and I think the payments were like $358 a month. We used it to rehearse in the basement. We had our offices there. We had parties there. Just about everybody lived there. But I got a lot of shit from the band when I first bought it. "What are you doing, buying a house? What are you, crazy?" But it was such a great house. Everybody went through that house.

<a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=ngvt9tPROzc#at=22" target="_new"Have You Seen The Saucers (Early Flight 1974)</a>

Jerry performed here


  1. Love it. Thanks.

  2. I can understand 'taking in stray cats' but why did they paint it black ???

    1. So i could have a JOB LOL it was great free T-shirts ,free tickets to all the shows ,lots of fun with great people ,played pool on wednesdays with PAPA John ,never ending job

  3. The black color has, too many of us die-hards, been a symbol of the 'punk' or 'ironic' streak in many of the Airplane's members. In an age known for swirling, day-glow colors and positive 'vibes,' what would be more of a contrast than taking an historic building and painting it in black?

  4. Really interesting. I was running a game with the Airplane as characters at UKGamesExpo and this was invaluable social history. Thanks!