At least that's what most records claim, but with the Westerfeld House of Legends in San Francisco, one can never be too sure. The Westerfeld is widely recognized as a symbol of San Francisco's Victorian architecture. "One of the most picturesque examples of the Stick Italianate Villa is 1198 Fulton Street, the most imposing building in the area…" As an icon of San Francisco Victorian and city heritage, the house has long been a magnate for urban legends and is pointed out daily on bus tours and by tourists, as well as appearing and/or referrenced in multiple tourist publications, books, movies, TV and more...
If San Francisco is a history of booms then the Westerfeld is both the result of and monument to the city’s culture positive ethos. Although it is only one of many treasured Victorian homes located in the city’s iconic Alamo Square Park Historic District, the Westerfeld is unmistakably its most dramatic.
This Stick-style Italianate redwood mansion was built towards the end of the California’s gold rush, by German born architect Heinrich “Henri” Geilfuss (1850-c.1913, active c. 1876-c. 1913) who was one of San Francisco's more prolific 19th-century architects.
Born and trained in Germany, he is known for other San Francisco Landmarks including St. Mark's Lutheran Church, 824 Grove, for packing company buildings like 1050 Battery, many residences such as 1367 Oak, 821, 829, 1040, 1048 and 1056 Fulton.
The Westerfeld House is probably the largest and most ornate residence he ever designed.
The house is named for the owner who commissioned its construction and was, with his family, its first resident. William Westerfeld (c.1843-1895), a baker and confectioner, had owned his business, in partnership or alone, since 1875.
He was born in Bremen, Germany, and belonged to several of San Francisco's German organizations. He had come to California at the age of 15 and had learned his trade from an uncle who had arrived earlier. He was well respected in the community. The house at Fulton and Scott may have been the first one he owned, as his address had previously been changing every 2-3 years. The elaborateness of the house may represent both Westerfeld's prosperity at the time of construction and the traditional elaborateness of his major product, wedding cakes and other confectionery.
Construction of the house was announced in The California Architect and Building News in March 1889, at a cost of $9,985, which was double or triple the cost of an ordinary speculative house at the time. The building’s eclectic mix of architecture including its asian pagoda like tower, Italianate Stick-style facade, tall bay windows, plus Greek, German and British influences, mirrored and even celebrated San Francisco’s growing cultural populations. The interior is even more elaborate, with heavily paneled and carved wooden wainscot, mantel pieces, built-in cabinets and other typical ornament.
After Westerfeld’s death in 1895, the home was sold to Irish-born contractor Jonathan J. Mahoney (c. 1843-1918), significant half of the Mahoney Brothers (Jeremiah and John J.), who were major San Francisco building contractors from about 1875 to about 1909. Mahoney Brothers played an important role in San Francisco’s immense reconstruction effort following the great 1906 earthquake and fire. Among other landmarks, the Mahoney Brothers were responsible for rebuilding the Palace Hotel, the St. Francis Hotel and Berkeley Greek Theater.
Mahoney was a reportedly gregarious man who enjoyed entertaining celebrities of the day in the home’s 28 rooms, once allegedly hosting Italian wireless radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi, who supposedly used the tower to demonstrate early radio signals on the west coast. Even famed escape artist and paranormal researcher Harry Houdini is linked to the house for having conducted telepathic experiments for guests of Mr. Mahoney’s dinner party. After his death in 1918, his descendants kept the house approximately the same for another decade.
In the following decades, the Westerfeld has witnessed massive cultural and socioeconomic changes play out over San Francisco’s landscape. The house itself would continue to attract or at least flirt with a number of the city’s most colorful characters. In 1928, a group of Czarist Russian immigrants purchased the home and used it as a speakeasy and private social club. This is where the house earned its most enduring nickname as the “Russian Embassy” though it was never in fact was. In the house’s only tale of murder, an alleged incident occurred involving two Russian Colonels fighting over a women, ending in one of the two men shot to death in a fit of rage and passion.
In post-world war years, jazz musicians John Handy, Art Lewis and Jimmy Lovelace would come to be associated as residents during the building’s years as a converted boarding house. There’s one problem. Although reported through out the internet and other sources as having been a resident at 1198 Fulton, jazz saxophonist John Handy Sr. claims that he never lived there, instead living in his gorgeous Victorian around the corner on Page street. His musician friends however did live there with one city socialite Heidi McGurrin who led legendary after-hours parties at the Westerfeld when the clubs let out on Fillmore.
By The Summer of Love, like many of San Francisco's grand but derelict old mansions, its roof leaked, and it was home to a commune. Wolfe described the building as the home (1965-1967) of the Calliope Company, led by Bill Tara, an actor and later raw food pioneer who brought in his friend activist/environmentalist and CORE (Congress Of Racial Equality) worker Paul Hawken, plus Michael Laton, Jack the Fluke, and others who appear in Wolfe’s now seminal work of“new journalism”. By that time the house was referred to as "The Russian Embassy,"doubtless a reflection of its former Russian club. In 1967 Tara's commune was evicted by a hopeful new owner, named Charles Fracchia, who replaced them with Kenneth Anger.
Members of Chet Helm's visually iconic Family Dog artist collective hovered often around the "Russian Embassy". One member was non other then liquid projection pioneer Bill Ham, whos early liquid light experiments helped forged whats would become a staple of psychedelic light show performances for years to come.
These were the shows that would come to be synonomis with the Avalon Ballroom performances. The Avalon Ballroom was a music venue at 1244 Sutter Street. Bands were frequently booked to perform at the Avalon on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Extraordinary posters advertising each event were produced by psychedelic artists, including Rick Griffin, Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley and Victor Moscoso.
In the 1960s, at the Avalon, two bands typically performed two sets during the evening beginning at about nine o'clock. Many local bands, such as Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Steve Miller Band, served as backup bands, as did the early Moby Grape and headliners such as The Doors, the 13th Floor Elevators, the Butterfield Blues Band and Big Brother and the Holding Company, which Helms organized around singer and performer Janis Joplin in spring 1966. The Grateful Dead played at the Avalon 29 times from 1966 through 1969, and recorded two live albums, entitled Vintage Dead and Historic Dead, in the autumn of 1966. 2 tracks of their famous "Live/Dead" album were also recorded there in early 1969, The Eleven and Turn On Your Love Light. On January 29, 1967, it hosted the Mantra-Rock Dance musical event, organized by the local Hare Krishna temple, which featured Hare Krishna founder Bhaktivedanta Swami, along with Allen Ginsberg, The Grateful Dead, Moby Grape and Big Brother and the Holding Company, with Janis Joplin.
By the end of the psychedelic 60’s the effects were being to show. Renowned underground filmmaker Kenneth Anger briefly resided there while filming parts of what is his now infamous cult classics Lucifer Rising 1972 and Invocation Of My Demon Brother 1969 with an entourage that included actor and musician Bobby Beausoleil, who later mingled with Charles Manson’s cult and is now serving a life sentence in prison for first-degree murder.
Just past the middle of the 20th century, the neighborhood was in decay throughout the Fillmore and Western edition up to Alamo Square park. Urban redevelopment projects were beginning to demolish homes looking to cash in on vacant properties to build condos and apartments. Many hundreds of old victorians in disrepair were either torn down or completely stripped of their ornamentation in order to give of a modern appearance. The city itself went so far as to use incentives to encourage home owners to remove all existing craftwork on houses. The house was left standing despite an urban renewal project, which claimed 6,000 Victorian-era buildings over a 60-block area in the Western Addition.
After much need repairs and restorations the Westerfeld was sold in 1969 to gay coupleDaniel Ducos and William von Weiland, who would be its next owners from 1969-1983. Weiland and Ducos made many changes at this time reconstructing the exterior stairs, adding an inconspicuous drop ceilings on the top floors and building a new iron railing on top of the sidewalk bulkhead. The pair would later, after having sold the mansion, achieved local notoriety for collaborating to steal millions of dollars from an elderly millionaire, through a coerced marriage contract with a women some 40 years his senior. The family pressed charges and the fraudulent tag-team served time in prison.
In the late 70’s the Russian Embassy was purchased again, and by 1983, restyled as the “Warner Embassy” Bed & Breakfast by its owner Dianne Warner who was quickly forced to shut down and sell the building by 1986.
Current owner, restorer and keeper James Siegle has spent nearly half of his life restoring and painting the iconic Victorian. As a Victorian preservationist for over 30 years, having restored nearly 30 structures in as many years, Siegel is an expert in the field of period restoration. His passion has drawn over the years from his days as an acid selling hippy in the confused wasteland of 70’s haight street. He cleaned up his act and gathered enough money to open his head shop called Distraction on Haight in 1980. He would go on to become one the city’s more prolific Victorian preservationists having restored or revolt Victorian properties from San Francisco to Russian River. Siegel is also responsible for keeping or restoring many ornamental elements and/or remnants of past tenants as he says he “wants to preserve
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