This story first ran on December 25, 2010.
If San Francisco has a North Pole, it’s on Dolores Heights, the steep hillside that divides the Mission and the Castro. Like a real pole, it is magnetic — it draws people from far and wide to gaze upon its wonders and receive complimentary candy canes on cold winter nights.
Some pilgrims come on purpose, drawn by tales and rumors. Some find it by chance.
Sue Bernstein, visiting from Washington, D.C., this week, attributes the vision before her to possible oxygen starvation induced by climbing 21st Street. She had been thinking about how nothing could be more majestic than the hills of San Francisco and the human engineering that had enabled houses to be built on them. And then she saw the house.
Near her, an older couple in winter parkas stand, arm in arm, staring at number 3650. The man points upward, straight at the 65-foot-tall, steel-reinforced pine tree before them.
“Let’s talk about this,” he says.
The couple stands there, taking it in. It’s daytime, so the lights aren’t even on yet, but there’s still the spectacle of the toys. And the glitzy packages piled underneath the tree, each larger than an actual child.
“Look,” says the man in a tone of calm wonderment. “This one’s turning!” He points at a Barbie doll, spinning endlessly in a display. “Oh look,” he says, pointing in another direction. “Santa on a train.” A toy train with Santa riding the back like a Christmas hobo rumbles by.
“Let’s go,” says the woman, taking his arm and gently leading him away.
Above the driveway, two huge red stockings hang from the deck, overflowing with stuffed animals. One stocking is labeled “TOM,” the other “JERRY.”
“We asked a friend, what does it need?” says Tom Taylor. “They said stockings. So we added the stockings — we’re Tom and Jerry.”
Tom Taylor and Jerry Goldstein have owned 3650 21st Street since 1973. When they moved in, they bought a Norfolk Island pine tree the size of a potted plant. Today it is 65 feet tall.
Well, according to Jerry, anyway.
“No, it’s about 40 feet,” says Tom. “We forgot to measure it this year.”
In 1988, the first year they decorated, the tree was easy to climb. But as it got bigger, so did the ornamentation around it.
Now, 1,400 LED lights glow in the night, surrounded by hundreds of ornaments. Under the tree, a kaleidoscope-like 8,500-piece ferris wheel turns and turns. Tom makes the gift boxes around the tree by hand. He makes them larger than life so that they stay in proportion to the tree’s size, hoping that it will look like a normal Christmas tree with presents underneath — if you stand across the street. Even standing across the street, though, the tree looks nothing like a normal Christmas tree. It is so bright that it is quite possibly visible from space.
Also under the tree is Santa, a.k.a. Paul. Neither Tom nor Jerry plays Santa, but Paul has been 3650’s Santa for five years now. On a recent rainy night he unflaggingly stayed until 8:30, handing out candy canes and posing for pictures with anyone, child or adult.
Tom and Jerry think of their tree as a public service, and hint in a flier about the decorations that they’d like donations from their wealthy neighbors to help support what they do. They do not, however, want money from the majority of the people who visit the tree. “We feel the people who would give the money are the least able to do so — working people with children.”
They won’t reveal the cost of the extravaganza (Tom simply says, “It’s terrible”), even though the neighborhood wonders if it’s in the tens of thousands of dollars. But he did reveal the answer to the other burning question visitors have: Where do they store all this stuff the rest of the year?
As one onlooker said recently, “What this tells me is that they have a big garage.”
The garage is actually modest, fitting a Prius, Santa’s helper’s motorcycle and only a single poinsettia plant.
“We have a warehouse South of Market,” Tom explains. He works as a property manager, running Taylor Commercial Interiors. Jerry works as a neurologist for the San Francisco Clinical Research Center.
It takes two and half weeks for Tom and Jerry to build the holiday scene. They start before Thanksgiving, putting up steel to reinforce the tree so that it can carry the weight of all those ornaments in a windy city. The crew has ballooned to six men and a boom truck — at least, according to Tom.
No, that’s eight men and a boom truck, says Jerry.
A project like this carries with it its own pressures. “The main issue with children is being consistent,” says Tom. He worries about disappointing kids, who he says definitely notice when things aren’t exactly the same. For all the complexity of the display, Mission dwellers in their 20s say that the tree hasn’t changed much since they were little. For as long as they can remember, it’s always been that huge and elaborate.
“We have to have it ready for the last week of school. One year we didn’t, and we got a bunch of letters asking, ‘Is Santa sick?'” At the end of the year, local elementary schools plan class trips to see their house.
The display is also popular with adults — who can at times be unpleasant visitors. Tom and Jerry have now hired a guard to protect their decorations from dusk until dawn.
“I actually see a lot more grown-ups than children,” says neighbor Jacob Myles, who’s lived one door over from the house for the last seven years. “I mean, the … moped army was here the other night.”
Living next to the North Pole is “annoying as hell, honestly,” he says. Sometimes Myles can’t park at his house because of all the looky-loos. “What doesn’t make sense to me is the honking,” he says. “Why do people have to honk their horns?”
Even so, considering the little visitors, “I think the good outweighs the bad.”
“Years ago, it was some of the adults who came by and spirited us on,” says Tom. He adds, “Christmas does bring out the worst in some people, because they have very bad memories. But we do it for the children. This year, we added the dolls for the girls.”
And the children do notice. “Great house!” shouts a little boy in yellow rain boots as he hops out of his car seat.
The pair do not have children. In a different time, they would have, says Jerry. But in the ’70s, their lives were devoted to the fight for gay equality.
Today, they often think about children’s issues. They supported the remodeling of Dolores Park’s playground, and are excited that the plan is becoming a reality.
However, how long their house will continue to be holiday headquarters is in question. “There’s the physical problem of getting old. And it’s a financial drain,” says Tom.
He and Jerry are both in their late 60s. They may need to move to a house with fewer stairs in the near future.
But as long as they live at the white house with the 65-foot (or 40-foot) tree, the house will continue to dazzle the neighborhood, luring in children, grown-ups, trippers, stoners, neighbors, tourists, visitors, teens, tweens, families, low-flying planes, Christians, pagans, Buddhists, Muslims, Mormons and any and all combinations of the above.
3650 21st Street will be decorated until January 1.