Documentary on The Old Russian Embassy House in San Francisco

The impressive row of Victorian era houses known as The Painted Ladies, located on the perimeter of San Francisco’s Alamo Square Park, have achieved iconic status and been seen in 70+ TV shows and films including Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Full House. But a close neighbor, a block away on the NorthWest corner of the park, actually has a more remarkable story waiting to be told. It’s a story intertwined with San Francisco’s cultural history and notable musicians & personalities for decades including the hippie era and the rave scene.

The William Westerfeld Mansion got its “Russian Embassy” nickname in reference to the period in the 20’s when it was occupied by a group of Czarist Russians who also ran a night club out of it. 1198 Fulton Street also housed the first Hippie commune in the city, appeared in Tom Wolfe’s book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and served as residence and movie set for experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger. Others notable people from Janis Joplin to Anton LaVey to Jerry Garcia to John Handy have lived or spent significant time there. Togare, LaVey’s pet lion, even left a claw mark in the wall.

A new documentary, supported by a Kickstarter campaign, is in the works that covers its storied history and profiles current owner Jim Siegel who has lovingly restored it to it’s Victorian period grandeur. A few years back, I got a tour of the mansion from Siegel. It’s an incredible building and the many tales within its walls should make a fantastic documentary.

The German-born merchant William Westerfeld built the house in 1889 for just under $10,000. The tower atop the mansion allowed him to see ships carrying supplies for his business as they approached the harbor. The building has 28 rooms in all plus a carriage house which was later converted into the first automobile garage in San Francisco.

The William Westerfeld Mansion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a San Francisco Landmark. Jim Siegel also owns the venerable Haight Street head shop Distractions. He has been buying, salvaging and restoring Victorians since he was 18. Siegel and many on the Distractions staff live together in the Westerfeld House.

photo by Samuel Wantman