Bankruptcies, a short-term rental bonanza, charges of tapping power from neighbors — and, now, a Johnny Depp look-alike squatter — are the legacy of this vacant local landmark. So far.
“It’s very rare,” real estate agent Rachel Swann tells us, “that you come into a house where the first floor is a spa level.”
You know what? That’s true. That’s a verifiable fact. And yet, here we are with an honest-to-goodness spa at our feet and photographer Abe Rodriguez about ready to stumble into it while he runs around snapping pictures of this amazing place.
“This is your Japanese pool here … underneath these pieces,” Swann continues. “Here’s your spa room, your wet bar, your half-bath, a full bathtub and there’s the elevator that takes you to all levels.”
There is also, Swann casually notes, a 50-foot-high turbine in the backyard. It’s very rare, you know, for a house with a spa on the first floor to have a turbine in the backyard.
And that’s why, a dozen years ago, buses would disgorge dozens of curious onlookers here at the corner of 25th and Alabama. Gawkers would pay $20 ($15 for seniors) to take a tour through the Mission’s “Sunset Idea House,” one of Sunset magazine’s “showcase homes.”
For nearly a century, this was no showcase but, rather, a typical Mission District structure, with two units on the second floor and ground floor commercial. Longtime neighbors recall a tile shop and, later, an appliance store on the first level prior to the spa and wet bar. In 1998, builder Robin Wilson and her then-partner, police officer Kelly Paul, bought the place and, several years later, erected a home the likes of which this city hadn’t seen before. Or, really, since.
This fortress-like manse was, in the words of the Chronicle, “green to the gills.” Reclaimed everything. LEED-certified everything. Wind-, rain-, and sun-harnessing everything in a 4,800-square-foot two-unit structure with lots of open space and stark (but expensive) minimalism of the sort typifying modern opulence — and a 360-degree panorama of the city from the top floor to boot.
“You’ve got some really great bones here,” says Swann in the present day. “It’s a great opportunity for someone to take something and make it their own.”
This is also a verifiable fact, but it’s a jarring one. Great bones? This home is only a dozen years old and was a tourist attraction and source of considerable fanfare. And yet … it’s a wreck.
This place looks like Keith Moon cloned himself a dozen times over and spent several weeks debauching here. Large portions of the walls and ceilings have been ripped out and are stripped down to the wiring. The Japanese spa is empty and covered over with slats as if the inhabitants hurriedly fled following a reactor mishap. The pond in the backyard is choked with duckweed and the turbine isn’t turning.
Things looked a lot better earlier this year. But, just prior to the torrential rainstorms of early 2019, someone allegedly ascended the walls here and punched holes in the roof line, leading to a deluge that soaked the house down to those great bones. For good measure, this unknown saboteur (or saboteurs) also tossed bagfuls of rocks down the plumbing lines.
The resulting water remediation work at the Sunset Idea House required dozens of workmen to strip down those walls and ceilings, and line the interior of the vast house with plastic sheeting held together with zippers. It all resembled a scene out of Breaking Bad, Swann recalled.
This apparent sabotage — which resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars of maintenance work and led to a $500,000 drop in the asking price down to $3.495 million — is just the latest twist in the strange and terrible saga of the Mission’s Sunset Idea House. In a dozen short years, it transmuted from a lofty green ideal to that worst of all combinations for San Francisco — vacant luxury housing.
Vacant. But not uninhabited.
On the afternoon of June 9, one of Swann’s colleagues was attempting to open the hulking front door of the property when, as recounted in a subsequent police report, “it abruptly closed and he heard the interior deadbolt lock.”
Police were summoned. While the front door had been barricaded, most seven-bed seven-bath homes have a side door, and this one was no exception. The cops discovered a shoeless 31-year-old man with shoulder-length hair and a goatee on the third-story balcony, “sitting calmly in a chair.”
This was unexpected. Former owner Wilson was foreclosed upon and evicted from the property in April 2018. Those chairs — and the house writ large — should’ve been unoccupied.
The real estate agent didn’t want to make a big deal of it. He didn’t sign the citizen’s arrest form. The intruder did not have any outstanding warrants (though the police report notes he did have mugshots on file). He was not arrested but merely detained, which is why the police have not disclosed his identity.
As for his appearance, however, “he looked like homeless Johnny Depp,” said Swann. Then she thought better of this redundant statement. “Johnny Depp is pretty much looking homeless these days.”
Depp’s whereabouts are unknown. But his doppelgänger appears fixated on the house on the corner of 25th and Alabama. Upstairs, its glass door has been knocked off the rails. A neighbor earlier this month called Swann and told her a man had scaled the building and then ambled out the front door.
Did he resemble Captain Jack Sparrow? “Yes,” says Swann. “Yes, he did.”
Security footage from June 21, meanwhile, reveals a man with shoulder-length hair and a goatee calmly reading a newspaper in the backyard before bedding on the patio. Neighbors say the cops are here now every week or two. When asked why, they matter-of-factly reply, “squatters.”
During our walkthrough, what may have been a makeshift bed crafted of towels was visible in one of the home’s many bedrooms. Inexplicably, a copy of the book The Time of Mute Swans was sitting on a countertop on the home’s top floor. Swann hadn’t seen that before. But if this was a cryptic message for her, she didn’t seem fazed. “Johnny’s on the prowl,” she said, “so now we have a really great security system and burglar alarm system.”
This, she says, won’t be a problem for the next owner. Swann envisions “tech gentlemen who live together and work on ideas and thoughts and processes together” or, perhaps, a well-off multigenerational family. Neither of these scenarios would probably be judged as ideal by the home’s neighbors. But, at this point, the they appear to be ready for it.
They just want a little sanity. Is that too much to ask?
It has been, so far.
Irony is hard to define. But, here goes. The Sunset Idea House was pitched as a green dream and the energy-efficient home of the future. Not only was there the ubiquitous turbine, there were also solar panels and efficient materials. And yet, in February 2009, the neighbors called the Department of Building Inspection and complained that the Sunset Idea House was siphoning off their electricity.
“Electricity is being tapped by the neighbor for a long period of time,” reads the DBI report.
Well, that’s one way to be efficient. To paraphrase the old Jackie Mason joke, if you can’t get it wholesale, steal it.
On top of all this, the wiring used for the siphoning was described as substandard: “Wiring is in the weather with no protection and of non-weather-rated construction.”
Complaints from the Department of Building Inspection were plentiful here. Among many observations tucked away in these voluminous reports, this house was built five feet wider than permitted. And these Building Inspection complaints have continued, even after Wilson lost the home in 2018 and ownership was assumed by a Southern California-based LLC called Stoneridge.
As for Wilson, court records turned up five bankruptcy cases between 2008 and 2017 alone. Clearly there were money issues here, which led to the use of this home as a short-term rental bonanza and event/party space — in contravention of San Francisco law.
“It was an odd situation,” says one neighbor. “It was so obviously Airbnb’d. There were always different people out on the patio. Young people. A lot of people coming in and out.”
Neighbor Frances Taylor sums up these revelers as “Arrogant white people holding drinks and hogging the sidewalk.”
The city, meanwhile, citing “continuing and flagrant” violations of short-term rental laws, fined Wilson nearly $60,000. Disgruntled Yelp reviewers, some of whom juxtaposed the high asking price of the unit and amenities such as a coffee pot held together with duct tape — on the inside of the pot — complained to the city and attempted to get their money back.
You’re not going to believe this, but they were unsuccessful. And the city has not yet collected either. And good luck to anyone who thinks that’ll happen.
Your humble narrator was unable to reach Wilson, who did not return our phone messages.
And now we’re on to the next phase at 25th and Alabama, whatever that is. Taylor, for one, welcomes it. A dozen years ago, she pointed out the hypocrisy of buses idling on the block to accommodate environmental tourism. Nothing in the ensuing years has softened her opinion of the place.
Nobody knows quite what’s coming next. But, whatever it is, Taylor is likely to be less than thrilled.
“How many families could be living in that space?” she asked. “And, instead,” she says, her voice dripping with disdain, “it’s a showpiece.”