Fulton Street--The Airplane House, aka The Mansion
Revival style home at 2400 Fulton Street was like no other in
that part of San Francisco, perhaps in all of the city. Directly
across the street from the northern border of Golden Gate Park,
near Stanyan Street at the eastern end of the park and within
walking distance of the Haight, it was designed and built circa
1904 by R.A. Vance, whose family owned the large Vance Lumber
Company of Eureka, California.
A three-story building, it boldly declared its preeminence through
its Ionic columns with heavily ornamented bargeboard and a balustrade
above. To drive the point of its grandeur home, it further featured
simulated Doric columns embedded in the front wall, slanted
bays at the side and decorated cornices.
Inside were materials from all over the world. From India came
mahogany wood paneling, and the wooden furniture was from Santo
Domingo. The 17-room mansion had crystal chandeliers, lace curtains,
exquisite carpeting, a stained glass window at the second floor
landing, as well as tapestry wallpaper, ornate scrollwork and
eight fireplaces. On the octagonally-shaped third floor were
five oddly-shaped bedrooms, and a fresco on the ceiling of the
second story master bedroom depicted reclining, semi-nude women.
The basement was huge and behind the house were three separate
In April 1906, when the earthquake hit, it spared the new building
and, for many years, it has been believed that Enrico Caruso,
the great operatic tenor, sought shelter that night inside its
walls. That claim, however intriguing within the context of
the building's history, may be only so much myth. While some
accounts of Caruso's journey after leaving the Palace Hotel
do have him wandering westward in a daze toward Golden Gate
Park, Caruso's own diary entry regarding that fateful evening
placed him nowhere near 2400 Fulton. Caruso himself claimed
that he remained in the eastern part of San Francisco, doing
all he could to escape the destruction and the fires, finally
paying a ferryman a small fortune to take him across the Bay
to Oakland, never to return to San Francisco. Nevertheless,
the story has resonance.
2400 Fulton Street in the Early '70s
(Photo courtesy Sammy Piazza)
In the 1930s, Vance sold the house to his niece, Mrs. T.E. Connolly,
and it remained in the Connolly family until the late spring or
early summer of 1968, when it was sold by its then-present owner,
a gentleman in his eighties or nineties, to a local rock group
called Jefferson Airplane. The group quickly customized the interior,
installing a 4-track recording studio in the basement, putting
in ping-pong and pool tables, strewing electronic gadgets everywhere,
throwing posters on the walls, taking in stray cats.
Immediately the house, henceforth known in rock lore simply as
2400 Fulton, or the Airplane House, became a magnet for all manner
of visiting fans, musicians, groupies, dope dealers, snake oil
salesmen, oddballs and those simply curious about what the house
and its occupants might offer them.
And the parties became legendary.
Langer: I remember one banquet when there was a big fat joint
on every plate. And a roasted suckling pig with an apple in its
mouth. It was incredibly lavish and extravagant. Ridiculous at
For some time the Airplane had been discussing the purchase of
a piece of real estate to serve as their headquarters. 2400 Fulton
became all of that and more, and the tales attached to the site
are the stuff of rock and roll legend. The Airplane later titled
an album that compiled their biggest hits 2400 Fulton Street,
and an Internet mailing list for fans of the group also honors
Shortly before purchasing the mansion, Bill Thompson had hired
Jacky Watts, the young English woman who had seen Marty perform
solo years earlier on her first night in San Francisco, to serve
as his and the group's clerical assistant. Her job duties were
to include creating itineraries, banking, handling the phones,
the bookingswhatever was needed to keep the band's affairs
running as tidily as possible, and to give Thompson a break from
the day-to-day tedium of paperwork and other managerial drudgery.
Sarti: Thompson actually sent his girlfriend Judy over to
see if I was hip enough. Was I really straight? And then he gave
me a typing test! I passed the hipness test. I had a great little
house, I had black light posters all over the place, I had a kitty
cat, I was wearing paisley. I got the job. He and Judy lived in
this little apartment in San Francisco and I used to have to go
over there. I had a little dinky table, with a purple typewriter,
and a telephone, and that was it. It was in their dining room,
and I used to have to go in and usually they would still be in
bed when I got there. But that's how I started.
Thompson: When I hired Jacky, she came to my house on Rivoli
Street, and we would work out of there. I didn't like it. So I
thought, we've got to find another place. We were looking at office
space and Jacky, I think, went to a real estate agent. I remember
that we went to 2400 Fulton Street, and we met this lecherous
old guy who lived there. He liked her right away. So he sold it
to us for $70,000. And it was the greatest investment we ever
made. We had $20,000 in cash, which I put as a down payment, and
I think the payments were like $358 a month. We used it to rehearse
in the basement. We had our offices there. We had parties there.
Just about everybody lived there. But I got a lot of shit from
the band when I first bought it. "What are you doing, buying
a house? What are you, crazy?" But it was such a great house.
Everybody went through that house.