2400 Fulton Street--The Airplane House, aka The Mansion

The Colonial 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 gardens.

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.

Barbara 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 certain points.

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 the address.

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 bookings–whatever 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.

Jacky 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.

Bill 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.

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