The debauched story of San Francisco’s most rock ‘n’ roll house

The 3-mile stretch of Fulton Street on the northern edge of Golden Gate Park has some odd historical landmarks – the tiny red chalet that was once the center of the city’s liveliest neighborhood, the Dutch windmill overlooking Ocean Beach, the little hidden statue the park’s statue-hating founder.

But a 17-bedroom home in the park’s northeast corner, flanked by four monumental Greek-style columns, may have the most storied rock ‘n’ roll history of any spot in the neighborhood. The mansion’s history includes its time housing an opera singer during an earthquake, a martial arts teacher for drug dealers in the basement, and perhaps the most drug- and sex-driven band in the history of San Francisco’s psychedelic scene.

The four-story neoclassical mansion at 2400 Fulton was built in 1904 by a Eureka lumber magnate named RA Vance. At the time, the area north of the park that would become the Richmond District was little more than sand dunes. Vance, who had made a fortune in lumber and banking up north, spared no expense in building his lavish San Francisco home.

According to the Western Neighborhoods Project, behind the stately Greek columned facade, the interior featured Indian mahogany fittings, a grand staircase, stained glass windows, eight fireplaces, and a master bedroom fresco of reclining, half-naked women.

Perhaps it was this classic European excess that attracted the Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso. The apocryphal story has it that the world-renowned tenor was staying at the Palace Hotel on the morning of the 1906 earthquake while he was performing a series of shows around the city. To escape the destruction, Caruso headed west to stay with his friend Vance at his lavish home. It was there that he hid when the quake and subsequent fire destroyed the eastern half of the city, including the Palace Hotel. Caruso then left San Francisco, vowing never to return.

Whether Caruso actually took shelter with his friend that day or not, the manor remained in the Vance family for generations as the Richmond District built up around it. The family eventually sold it in 1968 when it entered its most famous era in the city’s history books.

In 1968 Jefferson Airplane was as famous as Caruso was in the early 20th century. The seminal San Francisco psychedelic rock band, formed by Marty Balin and Paul Kantner and fronted by era icon Grace Slick, had two previous Top 10 hits, “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love.” After the band lived in various apartments around the city, the band decided to invest their newfound money in what would be the closest thing San Francisco had to its own Graceland.

Members of Jefferson Airplane smile for a photo on the steps of 2400 Fulton St. in San Francisco, circa 1970.

Members of Jefferson Airplane smile for a photo on the steps of 2400 Fulton St. in San Francisco, circa 1970.

Michael Och’s archive

As luck would have it, after 64 years in the family, the home was put on the market by Vance’s remaining relatives in May of this year. The band and their management bought it for $70,000, with each band member’s name on the certificate. The band moved in and promptly painted the white exterior black and gold. The mansion became the hub of the plane where they lived, did business, rehearsed and partied.

“It was like a cultural center for Haight-Ashbury,” says Joel Selvin, a veteran music writer from San Francisco. “There have been some very famous parties. I think the 1968 Thanksgiving party was one where Owsley got an advance copy of ‘Hey Jude,’ wired the house, and played it over and over in every room.”

Augustus Owsley Stanley III was another icon of the era, a recording engineer who was as famous for being the first to synthesize his own LSD as he was for creating the Grateful Dead’s “wall of sound.”

Selvin himself has visited the house many times and has some offbeat stories from within its walls. It’s worth noting that almost all of the stories told at 2400 Fulton over the years from the late ’60s and early ’70s are cloudy. Almost all involve a fair amount of drugs and plenty of celebrities, groupies and eccentrics walking through the tall glass doors.

An unnamed character, described by Jefferson Airplanes Slick only as a “carpenter, martial arts instructor, and drug dealer,” reportedly moved into the basement around the time the band bought the house, where he set up a series of nitrous oxide tanks.

“The members of the band used to go there from time to time and sit on the floor in a circle around the big blue metal totems,” Slick recalled in her 1998 memoir, “while our road manager, John Scheer, held the six taps at the top, the allowed a group of people to get high at the same time.”

Slick also recalls pointing a gun at David Crosby inside the house, thinking he was an intruder. “Since I didn’t fire the gun, Crosby is still there,” Slick wrote. (Crosby died this year.)

According to Selvin, an epic party took place the night after the band returned from a European tour with the Doors. Long tables with white tablecloths were set throughout the house as a festive banquet and housewarming of sorts. Guitarist Kantner was photographed with his head on the table holding a champagne bottle – a photo later used on the cover of the band’s live album, Bless Its Pointed Little Head.

"bless his little pointy head," Jefferson plane, 1969.

“Bless His Little Pointy Head”, Jefferson Airplane, 1969.

RCA Victor

Selvin says teenage girls would hang out on the wall next to Golden Gate Park and look over the mansion: “The Apple Scruffs just sitting around the wall across the street.” Some of these groupies later reportedly went on to work as secretaries and PR -Jobs for the band in the house.

The house’s most famous party took place in the final days of its infamy, on New Year’s Eve 1978, the night the Grateful Dead closed the Winterland venue forever, and played all night at the legendary venue’s final show.

“The Blues Brothers were the opening act for The Dead,” Selvin recalls. “And they retired to the Airplane house after their performance with the biggest hit I’ve ever seen in my life.”

The basement and the three upper floors of the house had a kind of hierarchy during these nightly parties, with the third floor being the most exclusive. “There were layers of security,” says Selvin. “There was a door upstairs and when you got past that door there was a table just covered in cocaine. You would have thought it would be a pile of flour.”

Despite all the lore of parties and drugs and house mayhem, one of the most ornate houses in town took center stage. “It had this extraordinary grand staircase leading down to the foyer. It was a magnificent house,” Selvin recalls. “And that incredible view from the top floor.”

Grace Slick backstage at The Family Dog, San Francisco, June 1969.

Grace Slick backstage at The Family Dog, San Francisco, June 1969.

Robert Altman/Getty Images

Slick’s memoir described the mansion’s upstairs as a “fancy turn-of-the-century house with a bad reputation” with numerous beds for “quickies,” adding that she slept with all the members of the band at one time or another, except Balin.

Part of the mythology surrounding the goings-on around 2400 Fulton stems from the fact that the counterculture scene of the late ’60s – which later spawned countless books and films and would be remembered as one of the greatest societal changes in American history – almost was completely overlooked by the San Francisco media of the time.

“The Chronicle, outside of [critic and Rolling Stones co-founder] Ralph Gleason completely ignored the rock scene,” says Selvin. “There are no photos, no coverage of anything. It was kids, you know, underground radio. It meant nothing to the mainstream media.”

The only time news from this creepy psychedelic world was printed was when things were going bad: The Dead got arrested for weed. Slick crashed her car on Doyle Drive while speeding bandmate Jorma Kaukonen through the rain at 100mph. Or the Altamont disaster, where airplane founder Balin was knocked unconscious by a Hells Angel before things took an even darker turn.

The lack of press coverage at the time is evidenced by the fact that only two or three publicly available photos of the black-and-gold mansion remain, one of which is the back cover of the band’s eponymous 1987 “Best of” compilation album made address “2400 Fulton Street”.

2400 Fulton Street, San Francisco, circa 1970.

2400 Fulton Street, San Francisco, circa 1970.

Image via RCA; Illustration by SFGATE

When the drug of choice reportedly switched from LSD to cocaine, the band members switched from Haight to Sausalito, “Airplane” became “Starship” and things began to fall apart.

After the band acrimoniously split into two entities, Starship and Hot Tuna, the house was sold in 1986 and the mansion was repainted white.

“So many people, so many parties,” the band’s road manager Bill Thompson lamented when it was released. “It’s kind of a sad feeling. But the times have changed. Most of Starship now live in Marin.”

For a time, legendary music promoter Bill Graham toyed with the idea of ​​turning the house into San Francisco’s own Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, an idea that never materialized.

Today the house is privately owned again. Four tall royal palms reach the third floor balcony, matching the white columns on Fulton. Behind the nondescript stone wall at the edge of Golden Gate Park now lies a dog park where teenage girls once sat and waited for their chance to get into the famous house across the street.

2400 Fulton St.

2400 Fulton St.

Andrew Chamings / SFGATE

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