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.
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.
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.”