House of Mirrors
If your heart was set on finding a mansion, it might take more than a white rabbit to lead you to the Chenery House. Invisible from the street, with even its numbered address small and innocuous, you can’t help but wonder if the owner really wants it to be found. A large metal gate is the only portal to this particular Wonderland and all that lends to a curious eye is a glimpse of concrete and parking spaces.
It’s not until the buzzer is answered and I am ushered through this condominium-garage of sorts that the true nature of the place begins to unfold. A narrow creek gurgles gently, echoed by a bubbling fountain, and life-size bronze animals flank the walkway, sounding off in a roar or bellow whenever someone passes by. Perhaps the most arresting aspect of the yard (beyond the elephant roar), is a forty foot wall of the City’s celebrities and notables, touted as the “World’s Largest Portrait Mural.” Indeed, it’s huge and mind-meltingly colorful (and at first glance made me hope against hope that someone hadn’t accidentally dosed my coffee).
In one corner, Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio ride a giraffe while famed SF stripper Carol Doda (naturally, in her state of bosomed undress) straddles a zebra. Gavin Newsom applauds gay marriage while Harvey Milk hugs it out. The Governator prefers the company of a bear. Even Koko and her kitten get a nod next to Levi Strauss, Philo Farnsworth (pushing a little invention known as television) and an equally important San Francisco contribution: the fortune cookie. It’s one big Technicolor history lesson.
After all the excitement in the yard, the house itself appears rather subdued. Roman columns straddle white marble steps and a grand piano peeks through a front window. It’s the classic image of a “mansion” if ever there was one, showing nothing about the eccentricity within (isn’t that what every good mansion should do?) Once through the doorway however, there are more artifacts and ephemera than a body could shake a stick at, or should.
To one side of the sweeping staircase is a collection of work by Beniamino Bufano, quite possibly one of the last artists one would think of in terms of household décor. Of course, the average person probably wouldn’t put Hitler’s globe and armband in the other wing, or dedicate a wall to Herb Caen (the former given a placard with the words “May The Bastard Rot In Hell” underneath, the latter a much gentler sentiment). The old FAO Schwarz clock has found a home overlooking the library, not far from a quilt handmade from thousands of colorfully patterned Barbie-sized shower caps. Oddball touches can be found hiding everywhere: the legs of one table are gilded pigs feet set around the inscription “suoegrog gnikcuf era sgip” (you can try that one backwards, even without a record player).
Upstairs the madness continues at an even more frenetic pace. Brightly-colored sculptures mix with a wall papered in dollar bills and hung with articles signed by George Washington. A small replica of the Transamerica Pyramid constructed from Old Glory condom boxes sits five feet from a huge replica of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch, which I’m told was hung in the Rijksmuseum as a decoy during World War II (apparently nothing was safe from Nazi plunder, not even a canvas the size of a house).
Everything from the walls to the sofas (or so it seems) is equipped with a red button, which, when pushed, activates a loud and informative litany on the artifacts at hand. Living room furniture is scattered about as well, lest one should forget that somebody actually lives here.
Chenery House is not a museum – yet – but its owner, Bob Pritikin, doesn’t see why it shouldn’t be. In fact, if all goes well he plans to open his home up to the public sometime this year. It’s been a long struggle with the “beaureaucrap” as he calls it – getting permits, holding hearings and assuaging neighbors who worry about an influx of tour buses and crime.
Pritikin himself is no stranger to publicity (or politics). He’s played host to thousand-person bashes in honor of his close friend Willie Brown, written an impossible-to-forget jingle for a little company called Rice-A-Roni and published a field guide for enterprising entrepreneurs called Christ Was an Ad Man.
He’s been a magician, wowing visitors to his now closed Mansions Hotel in Pacific Heights (another bizarre mix of opulence and ephemera, complete with its own mural) and his Squished Eyeball Theater, which holds what I can only hope is the only life-like replica of an electric chair (smoking, writhing and screaming rubber victim included). He’s also the self-titled Foremost Classical Saw Player in America and judging by the competition (or lack thereof), we’re not putting up an argument.
When asked how he’s managed to do all these things, he just shrugs. Bob Pritikin gets around.
Now, it seems, all he wants to do is get this museum off the ground. He’s already been forced to change the name from the Only In San Francisco Museum to the less flashy, but easier to enunciate Pritikin Museum. He’ll still reside in the mansion and the price of admission (around $60 per person) will help cover the increasing cost of maintenance to the structure, as well as provide an income for himself and his staff.
Though a wee bit more than admission to SFMOMA, the entrance fee will include a 2-hour docent led tour, a poolside Mexican lunch under the retractable stained-glass arches and, as Pritikin’s quick to point out, a photo op in a life-size cable car with a chance to ring the bell sans conductor’s disapproval. If you’re lucky, there might even be a magic show. Just in case you hadn’t seen enough already.
The Chenery House isn’t open to the public just yet, even if you can find it. Though Pritikin used to rent the grounds for weddings and events, he’s become disgusted with the procession of hysterical mother-of-the-brides and wants to focus simply on opening it up as a museum. Keep your eyes peeled. If it happens, there’s going to be a whole lot to take in.
Photos: Mariah Gardner