Master of the Universe
I’m driving down an archetypal Hollywood set of a sweetly sleepy neighborhood, and am so excited for my upcoming appointment I can barely maneuver into a parking spot. Luckily, spaces are generous here in West Portal. My particular destination is the picture of homeowner bliss. It has a perfectly manicured lawn, stone walkway, and an elegant porch. The ornate front door swings open as I’m still lifting my hand to knock on it, and I enter a cosmic kaleidoscope, a surreal space that looks like the lovechild of Cleopatra and Salvador Dali. I’ve stepped into the strange and wonderful world of Gregangelo.
I’ve always harbored a fantasy that magic portals to parallel universes really do exist outside of C.S. Lewis books. My childish wish has been manifested in this very special house, which serves as a gateway to a wonderland where artistry is celebrated, watch-checking is frowned upon, and generic home décor does not exist.
The owner and resident of this unique abode, Gregangelo Herrera, is a native San Franciscan who has channeled his passion for the mystical powers of the universe into a sensory exploration of space and time. At its core, his house is a three-story, narrative art installation. Over the past 30 years, he and an arsenal of friends have transformed this one-time brothel into an ever-evolving extravaganza of mythology, circus arts, and craftsmanship.
Besides being Gregangelo’s home and workspace, this residence is a museum that’s open to the public – with all proceeds from the two-hour tours donated to a local children’s arts organization, Children United by Experience. He says he tries to keep visitors mentally present when he shows them around. “I want them to put down their phones, to get away from the outside world for a few hours,” he explains. In return, he offers patrons nearly unbridled exploration. “It’s not a ‘Don’t touch that!’ kind of place,” he says. “If something gets broken, that’s just a job opportunity for an artist.”
Each room represents a specific time frame. Gregangelo believes that a new day begins not at dawn, but at dusk, so that’s exactly where I start my tour. I’m in a foyer known as The Dusk Hall that serves as a transitional space. Standing on the red carpet, I take in the Egyptian-inspired details – the gold walls peppered with ankhs and hieroglyphics, the ceiling an abstract sunburst that represents the Egyptian deity Aten.
The Dusk Hall spills into the Solstice Room, which teems with natural light that seems to emanate from another brilliant sun that’s painted on the ceiling, its rays snaking down the wall and becoming incorporated into a celestial painting. A macabre angel hangs over a corner bar, and tiny crystalline figures dangle from above like circus aerialists. Gregangelo commissioned an artist to create the figures as a delicate wink to his circus arts company, Velocity Arts and Entertainment, which produces dazzling original works as well as commissions for museums and corporate events.
Because he owns a circus company and lives in such a bizarro home, one might expect Gregangelo to be a self-important, freakishly coifed art fag. Instead, he is modest in appearance and in speech. He keeps his salt-and-pepper curls swept back in a low ponytail, and has unofficially adopted a uniform of jeans and a black T-shirt. Although Gregangelo lives alone in his house, it serves as Velocity’s business headquarters, costume shop, and production hub, so there’s always a steady stream of visual artists, performers, and technicians bustling about.
Here in the Solstice Room, where Egyptian mythology mingles with Celtic, Greek, and Catholic iconography, every inch of surface is festooned with imagery. There are no words for the sensory overload I’m already experiencing, just two rooms into this multilayered artistic confection. I feel like a cat pumped with speed then set loose in a shiny-thing factory. I don’t know where to look, but I can’t stop looking.
Is this place a joke? I can practically hear the strains of creepy circus music being pounded out on an organ. I keep searching for clues of a broken fourth wall, for everyday artifacts like a remote control or a beers of the world coaster that could give me a sense of comfort that, behind the billowing Technicolor curtain, Gregangelo’s house is just a house, not a puddle of Willie Wonka’s brain matter. But there’s nothing.
I give up – and give in to the madness around me, moving next into the Eclipse Room.
A dueling sun and moon frame the doorway of the Eclipse Room. The Egyptian god Ptah (adopted, Gregangelo says, as the god of artists) and the goddess Nut (the goddess of the sky) preside over a piano and a low glass table that’s brimming with candy. In the center of the table, a pink ceramic birthday cake catches my eye. It’s caught a lot of eyes; Gregangelo pulls out a slice packed with bulging eyeballs and miscellaneous gore. It was a prop from a photo shoot, he explains, wherein performers from Velocity Circus posed in playful costumes. This particular photo is framed and sitting on the glass table next to the birthday cake, and it tells the story of a woman who killed her husband, baked his viscera into a cake, and fed it to her kids.
Here’s the part where I ask myself if I should run screaming back to the Dusk Hall and claw my way out of Gregangelo’s rabbit hole. But the Midnight Hall beckons with golden fingers, and I comply, too deeply entranced by this twisted mystery wonderland to turn around now.
Hours later, there’s still more to see. As we’ve exchanged earnest conversation about art theory and the mysteries of human nature, Gregangelo has taken me through rooms that narrate multiple stunning scenarios symbolizing natural phenomena or mystical spirituality. We move through the Green Room (inspired by the green flash that happens just as the sun’s final droplets melt into the horizon), into the Galaxy Room, a sparkly silver chamber based on “yesterday’s tomorrows.” Then it’s up a small flight of stairs to the painstakingly hand-painted Henna Lounge, which oozes exotic sexuality.
Gregangelo also shows me the Shoe Room bedecked with colorful footwear from around the world, and from there I climb like a monkey to a lofted bedroom with a chariot bed that “flies you to your dream state.”
There is so much stimuli to absorb everywhere that by the time Gregangelo guides me through a secret passage into a labyrinthine series of hidden chambers, my stranger-danger warning bell isn’t even vibrating. Normally, the hybrid cast of crime-show detectives that live in my head would be screaming things like, What the fuck are you doing? You’re willingly following a man you don’t know into a secret passage in his house. Does anyone even know where you are? Oh man. You’re so fucked.
But nope. Even though I’ve been with him for only a few hours, I trust Gregangelo. He’s calm and kind and so full of gentle confidence that I’m completely endeared. In fact, when he tells me to get down on my hands and knees, I immediately oblige.
And hoooooray! Because then I crawl into the most delightful little fuzzy nugget of a room. Puffy orange fluff hangs from the ceiling in tufts, and orange Koosh balls offer their springy little strings. A record player screeches to life and "The Girl From Ipanema"fills my ears. This room, Gregangelo explains, is what he thinks it would look like if you tickled a laugh. It’s a safe and cozy Muppet womb, and I never want to leave.
But there’s more! I make my way through a series of tiny rooms that I can best describe as a haunted house inspired by a Led Zeppelin album cover, and suddenly, I’m inside a pyramid.
The walls are black. A geometric mobile hangs from the center of the room over a shaggy mattress. Gregangelo instructs me to crawl to one of the corners of the room, place my head on a pillow there, and lie facing up. Some new agey electronic music begins to play, and the pyramid walls light up with thousands of pinprick stars. I watch as galaxies transform around me, and I’m suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. I think I even fall asleep for a second. It's not a “Jesus, I’m tired” or “Jesus, I found you!” kind of state, but a meditation. I finally have a few moments in this psychedelic planetarium to think about all that Gregangelo has shown me today, and it’s starting to click. I don’t know what it’s clicking into, but I feel a calm understanding of Gregangelo’s art, of his world.
Gregangelo’s house isn’t just a home. It’s, as he describes it, “A tiny little house with a whole universe inside of it.” I still haven’t figured out where he keeps his remote control, but frankly it doesn’t matter. This place is so much fun, and it offers such a profound and powerful experience, that I don’t want to know what’s behind the curtain. I want to keep the magic alive.
Gregangelo gives tours of his house by appointment only. A tour lasts approximately two hours, costs $150, and can include up to four people. Visit www.gregangelo.com for contact and tour-booking information.