For decades, the Heinzer Warehouse was one of the best-kept secrets among Mission artists. Since at least the early 2000s, dozens of creatives and entrepreneurs had found refuge and cheap, rundown studio space there to execute their craft. But then came the missive that upended the almost covert operation: The building was going up for sale.
By the end of September, the artists and creatives must vacate the 69-year-old building, a notice from the real estate agent said.
“It just sucks. It’s one of the worst things to ever happen to me,” said artist Chad Hasegawa, whose work has been featured in the Chase Center and at the DeYoung Museum. “I wouldn’t be an artist if it wasn’t for the building.”
The building is unassuming from the street, a pale green warehouse on Treat Avenue near 22nd Street. A photo of a Hannya mask, representing a Japanese demon, is posted on the door that opens to the printmaking studio. The other side displays chipped capital block letters reading ERNEST HEINZER, now partially obscured by overgrown foliage; the name is the sole hint at a history that began long before the warehouse transformed into an artist collective.
The Heinzer building was in poor condition when artists discovered and toured it, they said, but that’s what made it magic. The eccentric and gruff co-owner, Ernie Heinzer, pretty much allowed artists to build whatever they wanted, from the 2000s to 2022. For Hasegawa, that meant constructing walls and building his entire studio from scratch.
“I didn’t want to move into one of those corporate-owned studios. I didn’t like it because it was a rip-off and I still think they are,” Hasegawa said. The building “gave me creative freedom.”
Food and props stylist Christine Wolheim agreed. “It felt like a place that was hidden away, and the last kind of vestige of a funkier San Francisco,” she said. “There’s been a lot of art made there, and a secret autonomy, you know? I think that’s rare nowadays. And it’s all really thanks to Ernie.”
“Ernie” died on June 2 at 79, according to public records, and the email from Urban Group Real Estate came a month later.
“This letter is to inform you that 931 and 933 Treat Ave. … has been listed for sale,” it stated.
Real estate agent Louis Cornejo would not say how much the warehouse would list for, but tenants speculate it could fetch a few million, at least. The trustee declined an interview, and the other property owner — Heinzer’s brother, James — could not be reached for this story.
The Ernest Heinzer warehouse
Ernie Heinzer was the sole reason the warehouse survived for as long as it did. He and his brother, James, co-owned it and other nearby properties. Tenants said it was obvious that in recent years, James was hungry to sell, but Ernie wouldn’t budge. Multiple tenants said the brothers allegedly made a deal that James could pursue development plans at the neighboring 935 Treat Ave. if Ernie kept majority control of the artists’ warehouse.
“He was very sentimentally attached to that building,” said Adam Feibelman, a longtime tenant and a self-described “artist at large.”
That building is where Heinzer’s father launched Ernest A. Heinzer and Son Co. in 1934, according to a celebratory certificate pinned to the warehouse hallway. For decades, the Heinzer family used the warehouse at 933 Treat as a furniture showroom and company offices. The Southern Pacific railroad ran just behind the warehouse, and the family used the track to deliver freight on the “Old Main Line” until it closed in 1990.
The certificate states the business operated until at least 1999, though tenant Kachusha “Chuey” Munkanta, who made his popular Chuey Brand cycling caps in the warehouse for years, remembers sporadic business dealings in the early 2000s. Once the senior Heinzer died, the parcels and buildings were passed on to Ernie and James.
Over the years, the brothers sparred with the city, greenspace activists and each other over how to use and develop the spaces they inherited (the present artists benefitted from the loading dock and freight elevator, though). Ernie revered his family history and used it to claim his place in “upper-crust San Francisco” along with his Barbour jackets and his Olympic Club membership, according to Feibelman and Munkanta.
Thanks to his obsession, much of that memorabilia still exists inside 933 Treat. One recent morning, tenant and record-label owner Arvel Hernandez led a reporter through a dark, dusty room filled with the remnants of the Heinzer company: Overturned wooden chairs and ancient prams, portraits of the senior Heinzer and his wife, and random documents, like a 2004 city notice declaring minimum wage raised to $8.50 an hour.
“It’s honestly a time capsule. He is basically a hoarder,” said Hasegawa, a view affirmed by virtually every other tenant of the warehouse.
“He was emotionally attached to the building in an odd way, truthfully,” Wolheim said. The artist recalled the tenants’ attempt to buy a new lock for the gate. “We were like, ‘Hey, can we get a new lock?’” Ernie replied, “‘But that’s my father’s lock! It’s from 1932!”
Cherry rose bushes his mother planted, depression-era fire extinguishers — removing anything of Ernie’s could risk getting booted.
Ernie’s attitude is, in part, why no repairs occurred throughout the years, tenants said. It also fed the quintessential intrigue and mystery associated with the building. “It’s kind of funny about all these stories,” Feibelman said. “You never know what percentage of that is actually correct, because you only got the story from either one or the other brother.”
So, the warehouse had its myths and odd characters. The general manager, Bob, seemed an extension of the building itself; it was rumored that he was hired by the senior Heinzers and had lived upstairs for 40 years. He knew the place down to when the pipes changed, tenants said. When Wolheim first inquired about the property, she was directed to “Naked Bob,” so nicknamed for his choice to go pantsless in his later years.
In the mid-2000s, rumors circulated of mysterious drug dealing and a squatter who refused to leave until he was given tens of thousands of dollars. Munkanta swears someone found a corpse upstairs.
In exchange for all the liberties, the tenants attempted to care for a space that was definitely not up to building code. Hasegawa raised his daughters there, and vacuumed the warehouse so they could crawl while he worked. He changed lightbulbs on his own dime so his daughter could see better, and said the Heinzers refused to reimburse him the $650.
Heinzer was cranky, strict, mouthy, but a softie, too. He reserved the parking spots outside the warehouse for the neighbors’ kids across the street. When Feibelman welcomed his first child, Ernie asked, “Do you want to take a pram?”
Over the years, ragers and exhibits took off. “I used to have my daughter’s birthday parties there,” Hasegawa said. Then the Ghost Ship warehouse fire happened in Oakland in 2016, killing 36 people. Ernie changed the rules. “‘No more guests,’” Ernie told Hasegawa. “‘I couldn’t let myself sleep at night.’”
The stranger folk “got weeded out, and we really got it turned into an artist space,” said custom-photo-booth maker Graham Loft. Aside from trading greetings, artists kept their heads down and worked.
“Everyone’s working a lot. It’s not a party,” Hernandez said. Their art helps support their families. Illustrator Jon Stich walks his daughter to a school around the corner; Feibelman is painting a mural at his daughter’s school, Mission Kids Co-Op, which is visible from the warehouse’s backyard. A Halloween robot-doctor costume he fashioned for her from cardboard for her sits in his studio.
Thousands of products came out of the warehouse and into the city. De La Paz Coffee Roasters rented space for a while. Hernandez’s label, Empty Cellar Records, pushed out some 7,000 records. Printmaker Geneviève L’Heureux made hundreds of prints here.
At times, these works memorialized local characters and history. Hernandez’s label produced a record for Cool Ghouls at George’s Zoo, a band whose member was a key organizer in the Tartine Bakery’s unionizing effort. “A lot of people in the music industry used to work there,” Hernandez noted. The Chase Center displays artwork from Feibelman as well as Hasegawa, and dozens of Loft’s photo booths live in Bay Area bars like Evil Eye, Emmy’s Spaghetti Shack and Junior Bar.
The dispute between brothers
Throughout all this artistic bustle, the brothers continued to feud over selling the warehouse. “Ernie understood the arts” and visited often with his yappy dog, said master printmaker and professor Paul Mullowney, who ran his studio at 931 Treat.
Tenants recalled Ernie, well into his 70s, yelling at speculators to get the hell off his land. “I’ll never sell!” he screamed. He thought what the artists “were doing was a cool thing,” Hernandez added. “He imagined there being a plaque one day.”
Then Ernie got sick and stopped coming around. Some tenants took him to the hospital or checked in on him when he was bedridden. Tenants received their goodbye email by mid-July, about a month after he died.
“It’s really so sad, oh my God,” said muralist and spray-paint artist Britt Henze, also known as Lady Henze. “I’ve cried every day. All of us cried — whether or not they’ll tell you they did.”
Her studio contains a work table stacked with rows of spray paint cans and a bag of goldfish crackers for fuel. One wall is hung with canvases of checkered backgrounds and pastel stripes. In less than two months, it will all be packed up and gone.
“The cities benefit from having arts and artists. And yet, it’s just this constant, you know, go find this, like, really dilapidated, falling-apart situation,” Stich said.
Some tenants, like Feibelman and Henze, attempted to rally artists or tap community nonprofits to buy back the building. With the projected cost of a few-million-plus renovation, it seems unlikely.
About half the tenants say they don’t know where they’ll go next. “It’s really frustrating as I shop around; how much empty commercial space there is in this city, still, but how unwilling prices are or landlords are to come down,” artist Daryll Peirce said.
“It’s incredibly disruptive,” said L’Heureux, looking around her printmaking studio at 931 Treat. “Printing presses are heavy.” She doesn’t blame the trustee, though, as most tenants don’t. Given the choice between millions of dollars and bringing a warehouse up to code, most would likely pick the former.
“It will be a bit of a mental thing to get used to. Just not having that space available in the city anymore,” Loft said.
Several artists credit the warehouse as the backdrop to a formative period in their lives. Art helped change Henze’s life when she was unhoused and struggling with substance abuse; the warehouse was home to the spray painting and murals that allowed her to make a living.
Feibelman, standing in front of the mural at his daughter’s school, said, “I moved in when I was a boy, and now I’m a dad. This building definitely gave people the time and space to figure some shit out.”
Update: We have learned that Graham Loft, the photo booth artist and co-founder of Glass Coat Photo Booth, has passed away in a motorcycle accident on Aug. 11. His peers are “gutted” and wish to acknowledge him. For more information, visit this site.