959 South Van Ness, often called the John Coop house, from the street. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

When I first moved into a beautifully restored Queen Anne in the Mission District two years ago, little did I know it would become the centerpiece of a local sensation — The Last Black Man in San Francisco.

The film, currently playing nationwide, follows the story of a millennial-aged black San Francisco native, his obsession with a mansion his family once lived in, and his attempts to reclaim it in today’s prohibitively expensive San Francisco. In the movie, the house is located in the Fillmore District, once a predominantly black neighborhood that saw the mass displacement of its black population beginning in the ’50s. 

In reality, the house sits in the Mission District — which, as it happens, is currently undergoing its own exodus of working-class minorities. 

Yet the house, the film’s McGuffin, is not part and parcel of that narrative. Over the last six decades, it has been owned by Jim Tyler (my landlord), an 83-year-old retired water treatment chemist, who became enamored with the house in the early ’60s. His connection to the house is not unlike that of another Jim — Jimmie Fails — the film’s protagonist, who claims (or desperately wants to believe) his grandfather built the house in 1946. 

While it becomes clear that Fails’s grandfather never built the house, who’s to say what “build” really means? Perhaps Fails’s grandfather restored it as carefully and lovingly as my landlord Jim. Its painted ceilings, intricate wainscoting, museum of antique harmoniums (what the hell are those?), and classical music streaming 24/7 through a house-wide sound system, are unlikely anachronisms in a row of Victorians whose interiors have largely been modernized. 

The first-floor parlor at 959 South Van Ness Ave. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Tyler tells me on a recent afternoon that the house, in real life, was erected in 1889 by John Coop, the foreman of a planing mill in SoMa, and designed by Henry Geilfuss, who designed some eight other houses in the city. 

So I assume Coop built it mainly to show off their fancy woodwork,” Tyler says, sitting cross-legged in the parlor in his pajamas. “Hence all the woodwork.” 

Following the 1906 earthquake, Tyler explains, Coop sold the house to a man — a “financier type” — named Homer Wilson. Tyler guessed that Wilson never actually lived in the house, but knew that it was occupied by a woman named Sarah Joplin, who ran a boarding house called Aunt Sally’s Boarding House. 

After the earthquake, people came from all over to rebuild San Francisco so they had to stay somewhere,” Tyler says. 

He says his research shows that Wilson ultimately sold the house in 1910 to Dr. Ernest Johannsen, who raised his family here. Yet Tyler isn’t sure who occupied the house immediately afterward. He did know the house was eventually purchased by Zorka Aston, a furrier who ran her shop out of the basement. 

“Apparently it was a pretty wild place [under Aston],” Tyler says, mentioning that he had spoken to Aston many times. “The attic was still just an attic, and they used to have weekend parties up there.” 

After a pause, Tyler adds, “At least one person was born up there.” 

He declines to elaborate in detail. 

Then, he says, Aston eventually sold it to “a bunch of queens who thought, ‘Oh, gee, we’ll own a house and we’ll all have a bedroom to our ourselves and we can have wild parties.’”

Being a gay man, Tyler would frequent these parties and found himself in the house for the first time in late 1960. “I kind of fell in love with the place,” he says. 

The library has full collections of books, including old National Geographic magazines. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Eventually, he and his friend, with whom he lived on Valencia Street, traded the house he had on Valencia for the mansion on South Van Ness. The house lacked any heating, so they installed a system, but did little other maintenance and wouldn’t get the chance to do more. In 1964, Tyler says, his friend allegedly forced him to sell the house “at knifepoint” so the friend could use the proceeds to finance a drug habit. 

Tyler acquiesced and moved overseas to pursue his career in chemistry. Back in the United States in 1970, Tyler rode by the house on his motorcycle and noticed a “for sale” sign. He immediately called the realtor for a price. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t have any money and I don’t have a job, but I’ll get back to you,’” Tyler recalls.

So he hit up his brothers for money, cleaned out his savings, and “put together something that looked like a down payment,” he says. Tyler eventually purchased the house for $47,500, taking out several mortgages over time. 

Earlier, while Tyler was still overseas, a branch of Teen Challenge, a drug recovery program, occupied the mansion, and 40-odd recovering addicts slept in the attic, according to Tyler. “After six years of kids going on rampages occasionally, and breaking windows, and one thing and another,” Tyler says, “the house showed horribly.”

Tyler began to restore the house, a project that continues today. For the first year, he did not bring food inside to “starve out the mice and roaches.” He eventually replaced the kitchen, the roof, and the “witch hat” spire on the house’s turret. He carved out an alcove for an organ (the very one Jimmie and his father play in the film), commissioned a fresco for his dining room ceiling, and built a library that he dedicated to a former tenant of Aunt Sally’s Boarding House. 

Making the Victorian what it is today, Tyler said, has been one of his great life projects. And after some prodding, he admitted that scenes of Jimmie Fails doing repairs to the house in the movie reminded him of his own excursion into the Victorian in the ’70s. 

Despite the “sweat equity” Tyler put into restoring the house, he predicts that once he’s gone, a future owner will “rip everything up inside and turn it into a bunch of apartments, all of them with no character whatsoever” — something like the Victorian next door, the interior of which he called “sterile.” 

But, strangely or not, this doesn’t bother Tyler. “Once I’m gone, honey,” he exclaims, “I don’t give a shit.”

The organ inside the main entrance hallway of 959 South Van Ness. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.
The hallway connecting the kitchen and the front of the house. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.
Jimmie and his friend Mont prepare a meal in this alcove of the house. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.
A solarium, or sun room, at the rear of the house. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.
The phone works and there’s a dial tone. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.
One of the light fixtures on the main stairs of 959 South Van Ness. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.
Tyler holds an old photograph of the house. Photo by Julian Mark.

Julian Mark

Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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13 Comments

  1. Thanks for this great story, and to Tyler for sharing. I loved the movie. Also I wondered how they did the last view of the house, when it looks “staged” for selling. Was that the same house?

  2. From the City survey

    This imposing house, a very fine example of queen anne architecture, was built in 1889 for john coop, a prominent carpenter, mill-owner, builder and later, land developer. The house is set back 20 feet from the sidewalk on an elevated site and has many of the stylistic ingredients of flamboyant victoriana. A complex cross-gabled roof is flanked by a turret tower on the right (south) side. The turret, octagonal at the base and first floor, becomes round at the second and third stories, has a slender conical roof which rises high above the ridge line with a delicate metal finial at the top. The wood siding on the first two levels is shiplap; the upper story and the gable end are clad in patterned shingles. The open porch has turned columns supporting pedimented roof. The entry has a two-panel french door with beveled glass. The porch forms a balcony for the second story. Ornate wood carvings appear in the second floor frieze and continue around the turret at that level. The gable end is projecting, and is supported by three delicate brackets. The twin windows in the gable end, with rare three-over-two lights, have unusual molded arch ornaments at their heads. The gable terminates with an unusual, graceful final at its peak. Windows are double-hung sash with molded trim surrounds, and appear to be original. The curved glass windows of the round portion of the tower appear to be intact. The ground level has a garage, a later addition, which is flush with the edge of the sidewalk. The existing garage door does not relate to any of the original components. The stair has a straight run with concrete steps becoming wooden steps when it turns to the side at the top. The property is significant as representative of the best of middle-class home building in the mission from the 1880’s. The original owner, john coop, was a carpenter who later became owner of the san francisco planing mill. He built other homes in the mission district, and later was secretary of the belvedere land company. Coop built the cluster of four houses at 884-894 capp street(3642/47, 48, & 49): all four have coop’s signature details including cornice brackets, frieze panel swags, and trim of sawn shields. Also, 1253 guerrero (6513/16); 602 castro (2696/2);108-110 fair oaks (3631/3);

  3. I’ve passed by that house on almost every trip I’ve taken to San Francisco. I’m totally in love with it!!!

  4. I suggest you put a “Spoiler Alert” article for folks who haven’t yet seen the movie! Great article.

  5. I lived on svn for over 20 years and that house is my absolute favorite in the city. thinking about the many times i walked past the home with my daughter makes me smile.

  6. I have known and respected Jim Tyler since 1957, where we worked together on many celebrated pipe organ projects. Jim is a master craftsman and artist in the craft of fine woodworking. He made major contributions to many of the great pipe organs in the City Of San Francisco,, including the Wurlitzer pipe organ in the great Market Street Theatres and the famed organ in Grace Cathedral.
    I remember his great mansion house when he began the restoration and the only water supply was from a green garden hose snaking its way into the kitchen. Of course, anyone who has been with Jim for five minutes are aware of his sharp, caustic and delightful wit. Few are aware of his great contribution to the City of San Francisco.
    Respectfully Submitted, Edward Millington Stout III, Former Curator Of Musical Instruments of Grace Cathedral for forty-two years.

    1. Ed, I have fond memories of dinner with Alan, you, Jim, Katie and others, and you are a great match for the sharp, caustic and delightful wit of Jim Tyler. You regaled us with stories of your, well, storied pasts. Alan and I laughed often remembering the two of you filling the room with laughter. I hope I’ll have the good fortune to see you and Jim together when we are in the City in November to celebrate Alan’s life.

  7. This home deserves a historic preservation marker, so no one can do the horrible things the owner envisions might be in its future. Well done Mr.Tyler! From an “SF Expat” <3

  8. Gift it /will it to the city or to some organization who will love it and preserve it as much as you do.

  9. My name is Ghalib Serang. I was fortunate to be one of those people that was given the honor of living in that house. I am eternally grateful to James Tyler for allowing us students to live there. Living there during the early part of my college years was a great educational experience. The house was a vehicle for passing good American values and culture to those of us who were first generation immigrants.

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