Historic Haight & Ashbury building set to become 'museum for counterculture'

Historic Haight & Ashbury building set to become 'museum for counterculture'
Photo: Christopher Michel/SF Heritage
By Camden Avery - Published on May 16, 2019.

San Francisco Heritage announced today that one of its properties, the landmark Doolan-Larson residence, has officially been named a national treasure by the National Trust For Historic Preservation

The designation places the Doolan-Larson home on a list of other Northern California notables in need of protection, including the bridges of Yosemite Valley, Monterey's Cooper Molera Adobe and Guerneville's Pond Farm. 

Receiving "national treasure" status will allow the Doolan-Larson residence, which presides over the northwest corner of Haight and Ashbury streets, to begin its evolution into what the National Trust has called "a center for the interpretation and preservation of Haight-Ashbury’s many contributions to America’s countercultural legacy."

It will serve as a museum of hippie-era art and artifacts, preserving the story of San Francisco's counterculture and offering a permanent window into that period of the city's history.

The museum makeover will be part of a renewed effort to preserve the building, which was first constructed in the early 1900s and donated to the city by its owner, fourth-generation San Franciscan Norm Larson, upon his death last year. The National Trust has secured a $150,000 grant, which will be used for new roofing and an exterior restoration.

The Doolan-Larson home, at Haight and Ashbury. | Photo: Camden Avery/Hoodline

Formerly known as "The Evelyn," 557 Ashbury St. is a wood-frame building originally built in 1903 as a family residence. In the wake of the 1906 earthquake, it was lifted off the ground for the construction of a row of ground-floor shops, with the upper levels converted to apartments.

One of those shops was eventually home to Mnasidika, Peggy Caserta's landmark 1960s store specializing in "hippie wear." Caserta, who flew in from New Orleans for yesterday's announcement ceremony, lays claim to being the person who told Levi Strauss to widen its jeans' hems into bell bottoms. 

Larson purchased the building in 1985. Over the following three decades, he meticulously restored it, adding custom wood detailing, frescoes, and Art Deco fixtures, and stripping the walls down to their original plaster, which still bears the cracks of the 1906 earthquake.

The house, which is also on the National Register of Historic Places, is still decorated and laid out as Larson lived in it until his death, from the rug and art collection down to the flowers in their vases and his Christmas stocking hung by the fireplace.

The attic still has Larson's music collection, daybed, Chinese silk screens and Moroccan lanterns staged as he used them, and is equipped with a sound system for the music-listening parties he used to host upstairs.

The attic is where Larson hosted lovers and listening parties, and once, a roller-skating Janis Joplin. | Photo: Camden Avery/Hoodline

According to SF Heritage, the Doolan-Larson home is the only building in San Francisco that's been preserved specifically for its connection to the Haight's countercultural heyday.

While it's early days, SF Heritage's Nancy Gille said its next incarnation would honor both Larson's presence and his loving restoration of the building, while also making it available as a cultural resource to the public. The planned renovation will also incorporate the efforts of the Haight Street Art Center, which preserves the history of the era through its poster art. 

Larson in his living room at 557 Ashbury. | Photo: Christopher Michel/SF Heritage

"As we envision the future of this site, we will be guided by [Larson's] deep commitment to community and ensuring the ideals of the counterculture continue to resonate with future generations," said SF Heritage president Mike Buhler in a statement.

We'll keep you posted on what's next for the building as it undergoes renovations.