1500 Haight St at Asbury, the Doolan-Larson House, was donated to San Francisco Heritage upon the death of its longtime owner, Norm Larson. Norm and his iconic building have witnessed the Summer of Love through the Hippie Movement, and unique stories that continue to be told. This building, at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, continues to preserve the legacy of the the 1960s and ’70s that defined a generation. The Doolan-Larson House is the only National Treasure dedicated to the counter-culture era. Read more from The SF Chronicle:
Illustration by VASF member Kit Haskell
Every day double-deckers come down Haight Street and stop at Ashbury so passengers can jump off and pose for pictures where the Grateful Dead once posed for pictures, in front of the building with the big jewelry store clock, its hands stuck at 4:20.
From this vantage, tourists can absorb the outdoor life of the drifters and smell the medicinal effects of 4/20. But there was no place to get a sense of the indoor life that once filled the rooming houses and communes that made this corner the iconic crossroad of the 1960s.
That all changes Wednesday, May 15, when the corner two-story residence known as the Doolan-Larson Building opens for free public tours. The property, from the sidewalk to the rooftop, will be named a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
“This is the only National Treasure that specifically relates to the counter culture era,” said Brian Turner, senior field officer and land attorney for the National Trust. “The National Trust is acknowledging a movement and a revolution that spread from here, and the best evidence of that is the fact that the corner of Haight and Ashbury is recognized internationally.”
Doolan-Larson is owned by San Francisco Heritage, which was willed the 7,500-square-foot home built of redwood in the Colonial Revival style in 1903. S.F. Heritage is collaborating with the National Trust on an ambitious plan to turn the building into a museum-like focal point for a new city landmark district.
“This will be ground zero for the whole experience of Haight-Ashbury as a neighborhood,” said Nancy B. Gille, past president of San Francisco Heritage and now “Chief Door Opener” for the Doolan-Larson Building.
Gille will open the door at 557 Ashbury St. from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday, when anyone can climb the narrow wooden staircase and go room to room in what was once at least eight apartments. Guests can continue up into the attic where the illicit mystique of the counterculture era can still be felt.
With what Hunter S. Thompson called “the right kind of eyes,” visitors can envision a year-round version of the “Summer of Love” exhibition at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park that opened two years ago. You’ll hear the San Francisco Sound, see the concert posters of greats like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix illuminated by black lights, and inhale the patchouli oil and incense.
“We have failed everyone if you can’t walk in here and have the experience of what a crash pad looked like in the 1950s and ’60s,” Gille said. “Or have the experience of just hanging out and listening to Janis or Jimi.”
Gille’s dream is a long way off. For now it is a vacant house, still exactly as its last owner, an eccentric bachelor named Norm Larson, left it when he died in early 2018, at age 79. His red Christmas stocking still hangs on the fireplace.
But the first artifact is in place. It is a wooden sign with Peter Max-style lettering advertising Mnasidika, a clothing boutique opened by Peggy Caserta on the ground floor of Doolin-Larson in 1965. Caserta designed her store to appeal to “gay girls,” and this drew a visit from Chronicle columnist Herb Caen, who is said to have coined the term “hippie” after his visit. Caserta also opened the Boot Hook next door, where many of the famed bands bought their footwear.
Caserta is coming up from her home in the Deep South for the Wednesday announcement, her first trip to San Francisco in 30 years. She plans to be at the house telling stories — some shared in her memoir “I Ran Into Some Trouble,” published last summer — and there should be some good ones.
“I was very innocently looking for rent on Haight Street, and the entire psychedelic revolution exploded in my doorway,” she says.
One of her first customers was Joplin, who put down 50 cents to buy a pair of $4.95 jeans on the layaway plan, Caserta recalls. But when Joplin returned to make her first installment of $1, Caserta turned her down.
“I’d heard her sing at the Matrix,” Caserta says. “She made the hair on my arm stand on end.”
Larson was also a fan of Joplin, but that was as far as it went. The collection of CDs he left behind at the house is mostly of opera and baroque classical music. And he was no friend of the hippies. After he bought the building in 1980, Larsen spent five years clearing out the tenants. (When the last one left in 1985, the tenant hung a Larson effigy out a corner window.)
Larson was a Chet Helms lookalike but was more in the fashion of John Muir. He restored the home as near as possible to the original two-story residence. It had long since become three stories when it was lifted up to add ground floor retail. A one-story retail annex was also part of the deal for a total of six storefronts. Larson left the parlor kitchen unimproved and peeled the wall covering back to expose cracks left from the 1906 Earthquake.
“Norm was inspired by the David Ireland House,” said Gille, noting another private home turned artifact at 500 Capp St. in the Mission District.
Doolan-Larson is already a city landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is now the second building in the S.F. Heritage portfolio, and the first since the nonprofit organization was willed the Victorian Haas-Lilienthal House in Pacific Heights in 1973. Haas-Lilienthal is a house museum in a quiet neighborhood that attracts more than 10,000 paid visitors a year. Plans for Doolan-Larson are more expansive and will require city approval and capital improvements to meet seismic and access standards.
This is where the National Trust comes in.
An affiliate of the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum in Manhattan, which gets 285,000 visitors a year, the National Trust has gotten the Doolan-Larson project going by securing a $150,000 grant for roofing and exterior restoration.
S.F. Heritage and the National Trust have also added a third collaborator, the Haight Street Art Center, which took the old UC Extension building on lower Haight and turned it into a museum and workshop dedicated to the art of the rock concert poster. This partnership brings with it executive director Peter McQuaid, who lived the scene and was CEO of Grateful Dead Productions. It will be McQuaid’s duty to keep the presentation honest at the Doolan-Larson Building.
“The best thing we can convey is what happened here and why it happened,” McQuaid says. “It wasn’t all peace, love and understanding. There was a painful experience that young people were running away from.”