Nicolas Leo Caldararo asked me to write memories of the building for a manuscript he's developing titled, "The Longest Rent Strike: The Goodman Building: an ethnology of a Decade of an Occupy"...
One morning in Berkeley in April of 1973, I turned a page of the San Francisco Chronicle and was surprised to see a photograph of Martha Senger, a friend and artist who had been my landlady four years earlier. The article accompanying the photograph reported that Martha was asking San Francisco and its artists for support of her home and studio in a building of artists threatened by eviction and demolition. I was intrigued. I was an artist, I was looking for a home and studio, I wanted to live in San Francisco. Originally from a small rural town, San Francisco was Oz to me. I crossed the bay in the afternoon and found The Goodman Building surrounded by heavy city traffic, enveloped by bus fumes and the smell of grilling buffalo steak from Tommy's Joynt on the corner at Van Ness and Geary.
The Goodman Building sat like a disintegrating sugar cube amid crumbs of later, and much lesser architecture. The façade of the building was a beautiful example of 19th century Italianate. A mansard roof with a skylight graced the top. The building had a look of sturdy elegance, but it had become neglected. It needed paint. Abandoned storefronts lined the street level. A tattered boy with the shakes and a neck tie for a belt swayed back and forth on the sidewalk. Cracked steps led up to dented unlocked security doors. A mosaic of grimy tiles read "The Goodman Building" at the entrance. A flight of dusty stairs circled an antique broken elevator up to the first floor, a pay phone with the receiver hanging off the hook was at the landing, addresses and messages were pinned and scrawled on the walls, bare bulbs of yellow light, and masked daylight through painted transom windows lit a long hall. Chipped layers of institutional paint covered the walls. It smelled of old food, tobacco weed, and disinfectant. Music could be heard behind closed doors, the doors carried rows of bolts and locks. No one was in the halls. I passed a door playing 'Desolation Row" and knocked at the door blaring the overture from Tannhäuser. I knocked three times, the latches fell away, it opened to blinding electric light, the smell of turpentine and a loud assault from Wagner. A large man with wild eyes and a brush between his teeth stared at me. Behind him I could see a huge canvas covered with scores of small naked human figures writhing in apocalyptic clouds of green and red paint. The figures seemed to dart from the canvas and fly around the room. "What?", the man asked. "Hi", I said, "I'm looking for Martha Senger". "Well I'm not her", he said through the brush in his teeth, "My grandfather invented barbed wire and I'm painting the story of his life. I don't like interruptions. I don't talk to the press." He shut the door.
Two other doors gave no response. I walked back to the door playing "Desolation Row". Dylan had changed to The Cornelius Bros And Sister Rose singing "Too Late to Turn Back Now". I knocked, the door opened, I saw a rustically dressed man with long gray hair and beard. He resembled a hippy, I came to appreciate his look as that of a medieval craftsman. Behind him, filling the interior of the room to the high ceiling was an immense wooden construction. It was centered in the room, walkways surrounded the framework. Above a platform of carpeted planks rose an edifice of timbers and cross-beams. Steps and ladders went up and around and back down three or four levels. It was divided here and there by East Indian print cloth. There were work and living stations, tool counters, chairs, a TV, a sofa. A woman sat combing her hair in front at a mirror. A loft above held a bed. Shelves of cameras, film canisters, recording devices, tripods, shelves of books, tape players, stacks of albums were distributed throughout. Equipment and tools and clothes hung neatly from hooks and racks. The construction was fully loaded, everything seemed precisely located in good order. A bottled water dispenser, a hot plate, a refrigerator, pots and pans, cans and boxes of food showed a rudimentary but dedicated kitchen. All the necessities of a home and workplace were contained within the construction within the room. The structure was silhouetted in front of an extraordinarily large widow, through the window the checkerboard pattern of the hotel across the street could be seen. The construction was was sculpture. The man at the threshold was friendly, his eyes twinkled. He walked me to Martha's room.
Her door was open. She was on the phone talking in great animation. She was surprised to see me and genuinely pleased, she smiled, she waved me to sit down at an assortment of black and red pillows on a low couch in a corner of the room and continued her phone conversation. She was as strikingly good looking as I recalled. She was intense. She wore high black Spanish boots over black stockings, a demin skirt, a black turtleneck. She pulled at beads, a heavy earthen peace sign and a chased silver crucifix which caught in the wool of an elaborately stitched Afghani goat skin coat. She wore the costume in a portrait I later painted. She sat at a counter desk piled with paper and books. Paper and books were stacked on the floor. I sensed urgency. "Larry!", she said into the phone, "Please, please try to come! You know this is important to the life of art in this city and without your help art in this city will die."
An attractive young woman in sneakers, jeans, a Sacramento State sweatshirt and an over sized purple ski parka walked into the room. She carried a typewriter in one arm and a portfolio of drawings in the other. "Is she still talking to Ferlinghetti?, she asked. "We have to get the press release finished by five or they won't run the story!" A mustachioed man with broken eyeglasses, a fez on his head, a trench coat worn over paint stained corduroys and sandals appeared. I would later paint his portrait. He had grocery bags in his arms. He wanted to know if Martha was coming to dinner, he was making Greek Chicken, he had to get started. Martha kept to the phone. The scruffy boy with the shakes came in with the neck tie gone and his pants hanging low. He asked if anyone had a cigarette. A white haired woman with lush velvet red lipstick and one good eye followed and tried hustle the boy out. "Where have you been", she asked, "I'm not through with your drawing! Come back to my studio and leave Martha alone!" An exquisitely emaciated barefoot woman with Pre-Raphaelite hair came in. She wore a flowered silk robe over a tangerine négligée and asked if anyone would like to buy some Food Stamps. Behind her came a very jolly little man with a bottle of Chianti. He began singing 'Volare'. "Perfect for my chicken!", said the man in the fez. An astringent young woman in horn rims who looked like a Radcliffe sophomore was followed by a shirtless man of feral animation with a hammer in his hand. An exceedingly tall and muscular man in a wife beater tee shirt appeared and gave a typewriter ribbon to the woman in the ski parka. She gave him a kiss. "Thanks", she told him, "But I think it's too late. The Wagnerian came in. The brush was gone from his teeth but his rictus remained. "You're all too loud!", he shouted, "I can't concentrate!"
I watched all this in fascination. People came and went. The crowd in the room kept talking. Martha kept talking on the phone. When a handsome young man with rimless glasses, his midnight black hair pulled back and silver bracelets running the length of each arm from wrist to elbow walked in the crowd quieted, but for a moment, and Martha hung up on Larry. "I just know he'll show up", she said, "We'll all get this done together". Everyone nodded. She looked at me. "Oh...and I want you to meet my friend. He's an artist, he needs a studio, he wants to move in and help us too". She'd read me like a book. I stood up from the pillows, everyone said hi. I said hi back. The phone rang, Martha picked it up and everyone started talking again.
I stayed for Greek Chicken, it was delicious. In the middle of the loud and raucous dinner an older man who looked like Ed Wynn bounced into the dining room, demanded and received silence, read a poem with great enthusiasm, then grabbed a chicken leg, devoured it, stuck the bone into the assortment of pens and markers in his coat pocket, grabbed a thigh and bounced out. The room screamed with appreciation. I asked the man in the fez who the poet was. "That's Lord Byron", he said. These people and others became my friends. I would come to understand Lord Byron's particular nobility.
Two spaces were available, I took both. A large room on the third floor for a bed and sitting room, and a very large room on the fourth floor for a painting studio. Each space had a sink with running water. The light was excellent. Loud and rackety heaters hung from the ceiling outside my bedroom gave good heat, and balanced the roar from rush hour traffic outside. Bath rooms were at the end of the hall. There was a communal kitchen on the first floor. By the end of the week I was living and working in The Goodman Building. I was happy, I was twenty-five, I had the perfect place to paint, I'd landed in Bohemia, the first night I dreamt of the Bateau-Lavoir.
That the building was threatened with demolition was a caution which gave extra purpose. Menace from outside brings defense to peril. The home is to be protected. The workshop and studio are to be maintained. The RDA was a wolf at the door, but the people inside were not easy prey. The artists and residents were collective and singular, solo acts and members of a chorus, we were the children in the Labyrinth if not paradise, we were saltimbanques and street rebels. We achieved notoriety if not complete acceptance. We were not radical, ours was an old fight, we were certainly never chic. Others joined the original residents. Others brought others, we all learned to dance on the ancient threadbare tightrope between artistic expression and human survival, and to one degree or another, by one definition or another, by choice or not, all shotgun wed to political action.
A beautiful photographer from Georgia and her mad genius family and friends moved in. She painted her her studio blue, called it the Cloud Chamber and served mimosas at a hallway exhibet of her photographs. An actress from Chicago with the strength and beauty of the Venus of Wollendorf arrived to give theater workshops at the building and in the Tenderloin. An actress from North Carolina who resembled Rosalind Russell and danced like Ruby Keeler brought great spirit and talent. I would paint them. Other painters, other artists showed up. A boy from England with more talent than that of his 19th century hero Gustav Moreau; a jeweler from Albuquerque who wrapped silver around turquoise with a delicacy unimagined by the Anasazi; a delicate young boy from Utah who studied classical mythology, never left his room, and painted the head of Jupiter concealed by a swarm of bees. My cousin left our home town to live his acting dreams and share his talents on the stage. A photographer came from Los Angeles, a painter from New York. Musicians, writers, poets, carpenters. An architect dedicated to the preservation of San Francisco's architectural heritage became enamored of the building and introduced us to the intricacies of power in the city. Other human beings showed up. Lawyers and community organizers, real and faux-celebrities, shipping tycoons and citizens. The front door of the building was never locked.
Everyone worked at what they felt they did best. The Wagnerian helped paint the dining room. The man of feral animation learned to use his hammer repairing broken doors and windows. Martha's dedication never flagged. I gave more time to my painting than help to the practicalities of saving the building. I was fortunate, I had minimal but sustainable support from galleries and collectors. I made posters and flyers for benefits and events, I recorded the minutes of the Monday night meetings. I attended strategy sessions and community meetings, often as not without full and helpful attention. My comprehension of rent strikes, tenants unions and the mechanics of bureaucracy was never steady. The interest and understanding of the young man with the bracelets guided us all through the maze of internal confusion and external danger. His dedication never flagged. When my minimal income lessened I scrapped paint from stair railings to pay rent.
Life in the building was much harder for others. As many were refugees from society as they were artist-soldiers engaged in a struggle for live/work housing. All were cared for as best they could be by an assembled family created by adversity. The boy with a tie for a belt is lost. Another, in an honorable but confused display of building restoration removed the door, stripped the wall paper off the walls and stood naked in his room screaming "You're a bad man RDA" over and over until calmed. The congressman's daughter who filled her room with a warehouse of fabric never stitched the couture she dreamed. The New York painter murdered her lover. The Los Angeles photographer jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge.
There were moments of misery. There was a fire in the apartments behind the building. It was stopped before it spread. There was an outbreak of hepatitis. It was contained. There was dissension and conflict within the building of the most human and dramatic kind. There were arguments, shouting, a few fist fights, thievery, attempted rape, broken glass, blood spilled in the halls. The conflicts passed, reformed in different sub-groups of the family, trouble came and went. It did not deter the artists at the building, burdened as well by constant outside threats, from making art. Indeed, the conflicts and dangers honed our art making skills.
There were splendid moments. There were spontaneous dinners and parties. There was much sharing of resource, of idea, there was camaraderie. Disciplines cross-bred, painters laid down their brushes for political action and the high notes of philosophy, poets learned to dance. Saving the Goodman Building felt good. We were fighting tyranny. We celebrated Bastille Day with a barbecue and as an act of liberation from the RDA. We liberated the storefronts. We took Peter Weiss' "Marat/Sade" to the streets and ran singing up the steps of City Hall. The lines we could not remember we made up. We danced in the halls of the Goodman Building. Beds were shared, people fell in and out of love, there was a wedding procession that flowed like a Bruegel down the stairs from the fourth floor to Geary Street. The stars and planets aligned. Crossing the Golden Gate one evening to the architects house to meet notables of previous preservation battles the full moon rose over the bay in perfect conjunction with the setting sun. There were long nights spent laughing on the roof of the building as the comet Kohoutek streaked the sky and the universe smiled. I lost all sense of time painting the canvasses hung on my perfect studio walls. My eyes retained the colors and images of what I was painting. I grew used to seeing my hand, the studio, the checkerboard of the hotel across Geary, the world as if made of paint. Art was everywhere.
There were mixed moments. The architect brought Imogene Cunningham to a vernissage on the fourth floor. The presence of the famous photographer was a stamp of approval, at least recognition, from San Francisco's highest altar of art. I met her as she left, I asked if she needed a hand down the stairs. "Young man", she said. "I got up these stairs without you, do you really think I need your help getting down". "And also", she added, "think twice before again showing unfinished paintings to the world".
Friends of my cousin visited from Oregon. They brought a friend of theirs, a Parisienne, a highly respected member of French ethnographic and artistic communities. She was given a tour of the building, studios were cleaned, she was shown everything top to bottom. We were anxious for her reaction. On the sidewalk in front of the building she was asked what she thought. "It is all very interesting", she replied, "I see the potential, but where is the art?" We all walked on in silence, then talked over drinks and dinner, then danced, she's a friend of mine today.
The quantity and quality of art that came from the building was criticized from within and outside the building. New artists wanting studios were judged by the taste of those already there. It was often harsh. Alternative response was fine, and in search of new art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art exhibited drawings and paintings made in the building, but establishment critical response was negligible. Thomas Albright of The Chronicle wrote "there was not much to look at" after seeing my work. Bernard Weiner, the Chronicle's theater critic, reported the talents of a performer in an adaptation of J. D. Salinger at the Goodman Theater were "a nullity". Disappointment stopped no one. I learned this at the Goodman Building: Art is best defined by those who create it.
There was tangible achievement. Larry did show up. The façade of the building was painted. The abandoned storefronts were reopened, a theater was created, a gallery was opened. Plays were written and performed, poems were written and recited, paintings were made and shown, photographs were taken, films were made, classes in the arts began. I taught drawing and watercolor, and learned more from the students than they learned from me. Through trail and error we became what we claimed to be: people holding a place in the city to live and make art.
I lived at the building five years. I was not there for the eviction. My bourgeois upbringing eventually overwhelmed the romance of Bohemianism and I accepted the satisfaction landmark status seemed to give. Money had become a problem. I was weary. When fire marshals closed the ad hoc kitchen we'd set up in the second floor fire escape to relieve the congestion of the community kitchen on the first floor, I sold a painting to the architect and bought a ticket to London. What remained of the money would get me from Gatwick to Camden Town and a friend. The night before I left there was a knock at my bedroom door. It was late, I knew who it was. I knew he was on his way out to the streets to write his well known cypher on walls all over town. Lord Byron often knocked, he never came in but stood in the threshold as long as I could stand, he'd recite poems, show me a fresh piece of his art, tell me tales of the old days, stories of art and artists in the city, he'd known them all, he went on and on, often annoying, often with an anecdote to which I should have listened with more attention. He'd lived in the Goodman Building longer than anyone. Others knew him much better than I. His monologue that night was a ramble of timeless points where Robert Louis Stevenson merged with Ambrose Bierce, Bierce with Kerouac, Kerouac with Jack Micheline, Lucien Labaudt with David Park, Park with William Blake. He stopped, took a breath, said don't ever tell anyone, don't say thank you, but send me a post card of William Blake. He put a one hundred dollar bill in my hand, turned and ran down the hall.
I sent Byron a card of "Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing" from the Tate. I returned months later, things had changed, landmark status had moved the building to more Byzantine levels of bureaucracy. The fourth floor had been condemned, my studio was gone. I stuck around awhile, I crashed with my cousin. I showed a double portrait of the photographer who'd served the mimosas and the actress who danced like Ruby Keeler in the gallery for a month and then called it quits. The phone at the landing was hanging off the hook the day I left. I hung it up and walked down to the street. I found another studio, then others, none ever quite so perfect.
I've heard but do not know what happened in the building before I lived there. I did not experience what happened after I left.
Of all those, artist or not, whoever lived, loved, worked, laughed or cried at the Goodman Building, and of all those who served the spirit of art and humanity and the cause of the building, there is only one amongst the many, only Martha Senger who deserves the highest credit. She held the torch.