When you zip south on US 101 alongside Bernal Heights, it’s hard to miss the giant Apple iPad billboard perched alongside the freeway just beyond the Cortland Avenue overpass.
But what you may not have noticed is that there’s also a house hidden behind that big billboard, and considering the odd location, it actually looks rather charming:
UPDATE: Bernalwood contributor David Gallagher pointed us to this superb 1955 photo that clearly shows this same house (at bottom, center) … as well as the fact that it has been hidden behind a billboard for many decades:
Other fun things to notice in the detail: Peralta Street is still unpaved. That warehouse in the background is now the (quite good) San Francisco Antique and Design Mall, which was originally built as the headquarters for the American Seating Company.
This is a tale of The Beatles, a house on Precita Avenue, a mural, an artsy kid, domestic terrorists, classic punk rock, and a lost moment of Bernal Heights bohemia…
For almost two decades, the former “Beatles House,” at 191 Precita was covered by a colorful mural of the Fab Four. The mural became a local landmark and tourist attraction; so much so that the Beatles House was used to represent a rehearsal studio in the film “Living on Tokyo Time,” while also garnering mentions on local TV, CNN, and in local newspapers.
Today, the mural is gone… vanished without a trace.
I live down the street from the former Beatles House, so the neighborhood lore about the mural piqued my curiosity about it. Eventually, I found an old black-and-white picture of the house from 1978:
The posting triggered a lively discussion in the photo comments that attracted both past and present residents of the property, and soon the woman who actually created the mural chimed in to tell her tale.
The Beatles mural was first painted in 1974 by Jane Weems, a young woman who lived in the house during the 1970s and 1980s.
In high school, Jane was the drummer/songwriter for a punk band called The Maggots. The band had a local underground hit with their song “Let’s Get Tammy Wynette.” Stereo Sanctity explains:
Formed around the nucleus of drummer Jane Weems and bassist Robert Mostert in ’78, it seems The Maggots proceeded to get through a veritable bus-load of additional members in their short existence, all arriving and departing from within SF’s high school-age punk milieu, raising merry hell in some parental basement and swiftly developing into the kind of band just as concerned with pasting together fake biographies and press releases for themselves and developing their own brand of icky goofball humour as they were with finding shows to play or recording songs.
You can listen to some vintage Maggots here. (Good stuff!) Jane still looked the part in 1982, and apparently she had a favorite Beatle:
And here’s Jane, hard at work repainting the Beatles House, also in 1982:
So what inspired the Beatles House? In an email to me, Jane explained:
“I painted the house in 1974, when I was still in junior high school…. I had painted the walls of my bedroom inside the house, first with yellow submarine, then, I did the Elton John “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album cover really big on one wall, and other paintings of the Beatles & Elton John on my walls… they were pretty much covered… so, I asked if I could paint a mural on the house, and my parents said yes… so, I started to draw out what I wanted to paint, with a pencil, all freehand, in the low parts that I could reach… after painting that, my mom rented a scaffold, so I could go up higher to get the whole front done… in the middle of this, I had to go to school every day, so progress was slow.
The S.L.A. ‘s Emily Harris [of Patty Hearst kidnapping fame] lived secretly in a safe house down the street, and used to come by to “watch me paint” and talk to me about the Beatles.
It was fun, both times I painted it… lots of people would stop & watch, or talk to me when I was up there… when I was finished, for years folks would come by, take pix, ring the bell and see what kind of folks lived inside… : ) the SF Bay Guardian gave me a blue ribbon award once for being voted “The best SF remnant of the psychdelic 60′s” even though it was painted in ’74…
Basically, I was just an artistic kid who ran out of room inside, and started on the outside.
And finally, the Where Are They Now? Today, Jane lives in the Midwest, and Beatles House looks like this:
IMAGES: Vintage photos courtesy of Jane Weems
Here’s a special celebrity guest post by Vicky Walker of the excellent Bernal History Project. Vicky shares a charming tale about a charming house that sat on Elsie Street, alongside the College Hill Reservoir, for 100 years. As a special bonus, she also brings the Interweb premiere of a home movie that shows the sad day in 1971 when the cottage was torn down. Take it away, Vicky…
The College Hill Reservoir was built on the edge of Holly Park in 1870 by the Spring Valley Water Company; the reservoir-keeper’s cottage at 336 Elsie Street was built next to it in 1871. It is described in Here Today thus: “This simple farmhouse, set in a well-maintained garden, looks as if it really belongs on the San Mateo coast. From its lot next to a reservoir, the home commands a fine view of Twin Peaks.”
It was one of only four Bernal Heights buildings considered to be architecturally significant by the Junior League of San Francisco in 1968 (the others are 450 Murray Street, 34 Prospect Avenue, and 3340 Folsom Street) and the only one of the four that no longer survives.
Peter B. Quinlan (1813-1903) was a longtime employee of the Spring Valley Water Company who rose from the position of plumber to superintendent, registrar, and then financial adjuster. While he never lived in Bernal Heights, Peter Quinlan may have helped a relative find work with the company: one Thomas Quinlan is listed as the reservoir keeper from 1880, and was still living there in 1915.
The reservoir’s expanse of open water seems to have beckoned many Bernal residents. An April 1892 Chronicle story tells of how Thomas’s wife, Caroline (described in the headline as “An Old Woman” – she was 53!), accidentally or deliberately fell in and drowned. “He and his wife frequently wandered around the edge of the basin,” the article reports. “About 4 o’clock the old man missed his wife from the house and went to the pond. To his horror he saw her body floating in the water a short distance from the shore.”
One morning in December 1877, Mrs. Peter Brickley of Cherubusco Street strolled naked (except for a wand tipped with several brightly colored ribbons) up to the reservoir. Once there, she took a leisurely bath first in a water trough and then in the reservoir itself. The reservoir-keeper’s aged father “shut his eyes tight and tried to fight her off with a garden rake,” but she managed to evade him. Finally, one young man jumped in to nab her; she was pulled to shore and wrapped in an assortment of clothing provided by the women of the neighborhood. The article concludes, “Mrs. Brickley was conveyed to the City Prison and thence to the House of the Inebriate, and her neighbors are using well water for a few days.”
In January 1916, the determinedly suicidal Agnes Graham of 24 Heyman Avenue was spotted by Holly Park Station relief firefighter Edward Ford, “who, noticing something queer in her actions as she hurried toward the reservoir,” jumped into the water after her and wrestled her to shore. She survived; he sustained severe bruises.
The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission decided to demolish 336 Elsie after it fell into disrepair; there were attempts to turn the building into a teenage dancehall before it was destroyed. This two-minute home video was shot by sisters Betty Mikulas Kancler and Janet Mikulas Thompson from their home on the other side of Elsie Street, sometime in 1971. It didn’t take long to reduce the century-old building to a pile of timber and rubble, as you can see in this silent home movie filmed on the day the cottage was demolished:
PHOTO: Top, 1891 photo from Bernal hill shows the houses at 418 and 412 Eugenia in the foreground. The keeper’s house is beside the uncovered reservoir, all by itself on Elsie Street. Courtesy of Andrea Cochran. Clean version of the photo here.
Reader Ned sent us this photo of an unusual house on Ellsworth, just short of Cortland. Is it a remodel in progress?
I’m hoping not. I’m hoping it’s some amazingly, magical hermit, who will grant you access to his house by letting down a golden ladder of Bernal baby hair.
There you go. THAT is Bernalwood thinking in action.
Although most people associate Bernal Heights with quaint old houses and former earthquake shacks, there are a few Dwell-esque contemporary homes in the ‘hood –including this tidy collection along Ripley Street.
Photo: Telstar Logistics
Amid all the predictable (if tedious) gnashing-of-teeth one hears about the transformation of Bernal Heights from the working class enclave it was a few decades ago to the middle class oasis it is today, it’s nice to find some pockets of downmarket freakishness that are still rough-around-the-edges, despite the passage of time.
Here’s a good example: The Skull House, midway up the hill on Folsom, on Bernal’s north slope.
Images by Telstar Logistics