Horst Kampschulte postcard
A Horst Kampschulte hand-drawn postcard from 1984

On Dec. 10, 2020, the old man died. It came gradually, then suddenly; neighbors describe a short and aggressive illness. The old man was beloved by his neighbors; he had been concerning them for a while by amassing items in his declining years. His Russian Hill apartment was purportedly filled to the brim. 

It’s sad when old people die alone. It’s sad to see a lifetime of amassed trinkets and treasures disseminated after an old person dies. 

Your humble narrator, in 2015, attended a consignment sale. Items with no discernible resale value were ungently hurled out an upper-story back window into a growing pile of broken detritus in the weed-choked yard below. The vision of furniture and dolls and souvenirs — broken things but real things, treasured things — soaring through the air, framed against a perfect blue San Francisco day, and landing with a thud will always stay with me. It was all too reminiscent of the final scene of Citizen Kane, in its own way. 

How many Rosebuds do we burn every day? 

But in the case in Russian Hill, not only were the old man’s acquired items being unloaded — so was his original artwork. This 84-year-old man’s name was Horst Kampschulte, and he was a prodigiously talented artist with a particular focus on San Francisco, his adopted home of many decades. 

And yet neighbors described the German immigrant’s artwork as being relegated to the building’s lobby, left out for any taker, and even being put in the trash.

Thankfully, however, neighbors have stepped in and attempted to rescue what they can.

In some ways, this is a sad story. But not a completely sad story. Because some of Kamschulte’s work found its way to the best possible place it could, where it will be valued more than he could know. 

But not in any manner he could’ve intended. And, of course, not while he was alive. 

A scene near Fishermans Wharf, taken by Horst Kampschulte between 1978 and 1984

It took a while, but David Gallagher has finally directed his life to where he wants it to be: In his Noe Valley garage, looking at old pictures all day. 

Gallagher, who’ll be 58 next week, is the co-founder and manager of OpenSFHistory.org, an offshoot of the Western Neighborhoods Project. Along with a battalion of volunteers, Gallagher has scanned more than 100,000 photographs of San Francisco’s past, and posted some 53,000 online. 

In early April, a friend alerted him to a Nextdoor post about an old man’s artwork being discarded. Within a day he’d contacted the author of that post, a neighbor of Kampschulte’s, and came away with the little the neighbor was able to salvage: Eight boxes containing perhaps 1,800 or more slides of San Francisco in the late ’70s and early ’80s as well as a clutch of the hand-drawn San Francisco postcards Kampschulte used to sell. There was also some ephemera, including old business cards that, curiously, had no contact information on them. 

You’d have as much ease getting a hold of Kampschulte in 1984 as you would now, it would seem. 

We don’t know a whole lot about Kampschulte. He has an Instagram page featuring psychedelic artwork and a Facebook page acknowledging his death. We’ve written to the administrators of both pages, but neither has gotten back to us. You can easily find his artwork for sale on the Internet; Kampschulte’s self-published 1976 book of framable San Francisco lithographs is for sale at antiquarian bookstores. In this 2016 article in a German newspaper, he seeks a tenant who can maintain “my private little jungle” at his family home in Stockum, near Dusseldorf.  

“Order fanatics would probably not enjoy my garden, but for me it is simply unique,” he told the newspaper. It seems he structured his San Francisco life (and apartment) similarly.  

Horst Kampschulte postcard

It didn’t take long for Gallagher to realize these boxes of Kampschulte’s slides contained gold — quotidian gold. 

Kampschulte’s hand-drawn postcards are serenely beautiful. The detail is astounding, the work is masterful — there’s just something about these postcards that makes you want to crawl in between the pen strokes and live in them. Even if, as San Franciscans, you already do. 

Gallagher appreciated that. But that wasn’t the real find for him. Nor were the stunningly beautiful composite shots Kampschulte created of the Transamerica Pyramid framed by massive fireworks explosions.   

Rather, the real value here, as far as the history buff was concerned, were the incidental shots. Reams and reams of incidental shots. These are the photos of the Victorians and cable cars that would serve as models for Kampschulte’s idealized line drawings and postcard images. Like any artist, Kampschulte took a few liberties. No, there isn’t a cable car line that runs to the foot of Lombard Street. No, you can’t take the cable car to the Golden Gate Bridge. No, the Embarcadero isn’t sunny and open and free of a multi-level highway (well, not in 1984, at least).  

But his incidental photos, the models for idealized works of art, are not idealized. Not at all. They’re moments of life in a city very different from our own, but one that looks, in many neighborhoods, very much the same — save for the aggressive right angles of 1980s-vintage clothes and ski-jump profiles of the elongated 1970s cars. It’s San Francisco in an unposed, candid shot. And that’s what Gallagher needs. 

“I look for city and street views that show us what the city was. And not every old picture shows things better than they are today. Just different,” he explains. 

Gallagher loves the past and studies the past. But he doesn’t want to return to the past. He just wants to see the pictures and document it. Kampschulte can help here. 

“These are good. I can use these,” says Gallagher in his garage, with a dozen or so of Kampschulte’s slides spread out across a light table. 

“These are important. It’s important to show San Francisco as it was at that time.” 

And, make no mistake, Kampschulte was a gifted and professional photographer. And that’s important, too: “I look at a lot of blurry photos,” says Gallagher with a laugh. “And this guy knew how to use a camera.” 

So, this is a sad story. But not a completely sad story. There’s no better place for Kampschulte’s photographs documenting San Francisco to end up than where they ended up. But, paradoxically, it was the minor details, the fleeting details — the details Kampschulte’s postcard- or lithograph-buying audience probably had the least concern for — that ended up being most valuable of all. Rather than the sweeping arches of the Golden Gate or the finely wrought facades of the Victorians, it’s the people, the decor, and even the detritus that ended up making these pictures special. 

It makes you think about what’s going to matter in our own San Francisco lives. Rosebud, after all, was just a sled.  

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Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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    1. Ken —

      You’re welcome!

      I hope someone with personal memories will weigh in here, but to the best of my knowledge, this appears to have been a theme restaurant in which patrons could eat in ornate, wood-paneled Elizabethan-type rooms, served by people dressed in period garb and, presumably, eating something resembling food of that era. Would it be Bud or Anchor Steam in the flagon? Probably. Hoping someone can fill me in, too.



      1. Yes, you are right. Ben Johnson was a tourist destination by or in Ghirardelli, shunned by locals, at least me. I was disappointed/annoyed when my dad came to town on company business and they arranged for dinner there instead of asking me for a recommendation. 1970’s probably. Mediocre food. Sexist atmosphere.
        Thanks for your articles, Mr. E. Your love for the City is palpable.

  1. This really made me appreciate that I get to live in San Francisco. Sometimes I take everything for granted. I will go on a walk this afternoon in my beautiful city and love it just like Mr. Kampschulte did.

  2. Great story. Especially including the link to the Germany news story. I guess a google search gave you that?

  3. Thank you for that acknowledgement of a person who lived a San Francisco life. He’s happy now!

  4. The Ben Jonson was a restaurant in Ghirardelli Square. It was wood-paneled, with a kind of Elizabethan scheme, but I don’t remember it being overdone. My then-wife and I went there, fairly regularly, mostly for the very good and not unreasonably priced prime rib. I seem to remember that Barbara Boxer had an event there for her first run for Congress, when she ran against Louise Renne to fill John Burton’s seat. ( I could be wrong about that; it’s been a long time.). I can’t testify about the beer. With the prime rib, I always had red wine.

  5. Yes, thank you for your insightful tribute to a very talented man. The story struck a painful cord for me as well. Growing up in San Francisco I’ve known quite a few wonderfull artists who passed away all to suddenly and whose work and personal effects were discarded with no care or repurpose in mind. As an artist myself, you can’t help but wonder, is this my fate as well?
    I can only hope my work finds its way to some one or some collection other than a dumpster. Bravo to those persevered in saving this very talented mans work for others to enjoy.

  6. Another place to donate slides and prints of SF is the Special Collections at the SFPL. I have some work there.
    I have also used work from there for my own projects.

  7. What a poignant story— a mélange of tragic, melancholy and, nostalgia…
    I grew up in Marin during the 60’s-80’s. Funny, my recollection of The Ben Johnson was that it was in the Cannery complex — I went with my family on a number of occasions in the early 70’s, mostly when our Boston family came to visit. I have held that place, as well as the old Cliff House, Zador’s, the Graf Zeppelin, Scott’s on Lombard, Tommy’s Joynt and others, dearly and in high-esteem, in the recesses of my memory.

  8. I posted the story and the picture on my Facebook page. Thank you for writing about it. I have always wondered about the artist if this picture and now I know. Fascinating! Thank you very much.

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