Canessa Gallery, located at 708 Montgomery St. in Jackson Square, isn't only a place to admire art: it's arguably a work of art in and of itself.
Though it's a stop on the North Beach First Fridays art walk and well-known to the Telegraph Hill Dwellers, which hosts art and cultural events in the space, the gallery isn't widely advertised and is easy to miss. It's tucked away on a block of Montgomery, with just a doorway and a steep, rickety staircase to beckon to visitors. But art and architecture lovers should drop in during First Fridays or regular business hours and take a gander, because it's a sight to behold.
"Canessa is located in what was the original heart of San Francisco, and it’s on a block that was the center of a lot of activity San Francisco became known for," said Jon Golinger, a North Beach environmental attorney, author and preservationist who rents office space in the building.
Golinger describes the building as "pre-1906 earthquake historic building that’s been saved and preserved as an art gallery with creative offices wrapped around it." It has its original brick walls and wood floors; the mezzanine and skylight were added shortly after the earthquake damaged it.
"My favorite detail about it is that the balcony was made by shipbuilders, which is why there are no columns blocking your view," said North Beach artist Julie Jaycox, a botanical photographer who has helped organize many exhibits at the Canessa. "The balcony is hung, just like on a ship. It’s suspended; it’s not supported.”
The building features a history room, where visitors can view photos and articles about its past. The first building to reside on the site was actually a wooden ship, whose hull was eventually incorporated into the building. By 1856, a brick structure was on the lot, and by 1893, the Canessa Printing Company had been established at the address.
After the 1906 quake, Italian-American architect Luigi Mastropasqua rehabilitated the building, incorporating Asian-inspired designs such as round windows. Mastropasqua was also behind a few other local landmarks and buildings, including the ornate Julius' Castle on Telegraph Hill.
The Jackson Square neighborhood continued its pre-quake status as a hub for artists, with a new generation moving in. Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, William Gerstle, Ralph Stackpole, Caroline Martin and Ruth Cravath were just a few of the sculptors and painters who had studios in the area. Nearby was the Montgomery Block building, affectionately called the "Monkey Block," which had a long, rich history as an artists' enclave. It was torn down in 1959, and the Transamerica Building was erected on the site.
Downstairs, where Bocadillos now serves up Basque cuisine, was the Black Cat Cafe, an artists' retreat and the city's first openly gay bar after World War II. (Interestingly, its owner, Sol Stouman, was not gay.) It occupied the ground floor from the 1930s to 1963.
As the decades passed, Canessa Printing Company continued to operate. Jaycox said on warm days when the sun comes through the skylight, oil from the presses still seeps up from the floor. The printer finally closed up shop in 1965, and Canessa Gallery, a nonprofit, was founded in 1966. Its proprietor wishes to remain anonymous.
For nearly 50 years, the gallery has provided space for more than 600 artists and creatives to showcase their work. Jaycox said many exhibits focus on nature-related art, and that the scope of the gallery has always been closely tied to with environmentalism and ecology. But the gallery's scope isn't limited to environmental art; the walls currently display a show called "Time" by photographer Ali Assareh, which includes quirky and personal shots of "moments."
Canessa is also something of a precursor to the current era of coworking spaces. Various creative types rent desk space or nooks and crannies. "In the center of it has always been a rotating art gallery, which to me, makes it more fun to show up every day that I’m there," Golinger said. "There’s something different to look at on the walls, rather than some cookie-cutter art from a poster shop."
Jaycox also said people say there's a calm energy to the space—a sense of time and place. "What I like about Canessa is there’s so much history in it," she said, "Even if you think you're creating something new, you’re not.”
Canessa Gallery is open on Wednesdays from 12-3 pm, and at other times by appointment. The gallery also opens to the public on the first Friday of each month for North Beach First Fridays, from 6-9pm.
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