47 Clarion Alley

47 Clarion – the Superhero Warehouse (facade mural by Aaron Noble & Rigo 23)


History of 47 Clarion (from the Essay by Aaron Noble)

The Clarion Alley Mural Project emanated from an artists loft at 47 Clarion Alley. The building was demolished in 2002 and all of its people and history evicted. It was a warehouse at 3345 17th street with a loading door on Clarion, built as either an industrial laundry or a Woodmen of the World Hall in 1907, after the 1906 earthquake fires evicted the one before it. I’ve heard that most of those fires were set by landlords to collect insurance and Federal relief funds. The Woodmen, a fraternal organization, apparently loaned or rented the hall to labor radicals Tom Mooney and Warren K. Billings attended strike-planning meetings there in 1915, the year before they got framed for the Preparedness Day bombing and put away for more than twenty years.

Anton Refregier, a Russian artist, was hired by the U.S. Federal Government in 1941 to paint 27 murals in a post office downtown that told the story of California from its first inhabitants to the present. The murals were finished in 1948 and now reside in the Rincon Center. Mural #23. “The Mooney Case” involved Thomas Joseph Mooney and Warren Knox Billings. They were accused of planting a bomb in downtown San Francisco on July 22, 1916 during the Preparedness Day parade. Ten people were killed and 40 injured. Both Mooney and Billings were convicted, but because they were radical labor organizers, many believed they had been framed. Irregularities in the trial were later discovered and the controversy continued. The two spent years in prison, but eventually received full pardons.”


The Mission Laundry Company steam cleaned uniforms for the downtown hotels until the late 50’s when John Burman retired from the business and sold the building to Harry Loebensteen. The cleaning equipment was sold to a Laundry across the street at 3388 17th that operated up until about 2003 when it coincidentally burned down just before it was to be demolished. This transferred the demolition costs from the developer to the taxpayers, and evicted some people in the adjacent apartments. Harry got an insurance payoff for heat damage to our building and never fixed the damage, so the fire was great for all the owners. There are some fake live/work lofts where the second laundry used to be, and some more where our real lofts used to be.

Harry had lived around the corner in the 1940’s, in the Anglo Apartments at 2161 Mission. The neighborhood was a mix of recent European immigrants and had a lot of furniture stores and Italian restaurants, like the famous Cigar Box at 18th and Mission. Original Joe worked there before he started his own place. By the early sixties the Latino and Bohemian populations that defined the neighborhood until the end of the 20th century had started moving in. In 1963 after a woodshop tenant went bankrupt, Harry rented the building to a theatrical company. When I asked him about this group he told me he hated to think about them and didn’t want to remember their name.

The Cockettes in a Field of Lavender, photograph by Fayette Hauser, 1971


Their name was the Cockettes, and they were a seminal gay drag troupe, the predecessors of the Angels of Light and godmothers of the whole tradition of radical queer cabaret from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence to Klubstitute. You can see them with your own eyes in the eponymous documentary. Clarion Hall has been a center of cultural production ever since, with generation following generation. In 1988, when I moved in, there were still rumors extant about orgiastic affairs in which the performers were hard to tell from the audience.

Until 1968 the whole building was one big space. Steven Arnold lived here and made experimental films in it including the infamous Tricia’s Wedding and Luminous Procuress with the Cockettes. Avant-garde screenings and musical performances were staged. Terry Riley performed. John Waters and Divine passed through. The after-party for the SF Film Festival premiere of Fellini’s Satyricon was there. In ’68 the building was divided into four live/work studios. Tim Barrett from the early new-wave band No Sisters occupied my space in the seventies, followed by the muralist Mike Mosher from ’81 to ’84. Jacob Holdt, a Danish photographer and hitchhiker, stayed at Mike’s and put together his coruscating slide show on class inequality called American Pictures, which toured all over Europe and became a book that I discovered at ThriftTown shortly after I moved here. They had a whole box of them. Every time I went to Thrifttown I would end up reading the whole thing again, but not buying it, because it couldn’t be as good as I thought it was, or why would there be a whole box for fifty cents apiece? Finally I bought one and brought it back to the building where the whole box probably came from. Local sculptor Charles Spaeth ran a rubber jewelry factory called Webwear on the 17th street side of the building that employed several important local artists including Scott Williams and Marshall Weber, cofounder of Artist’s Television Access. The M.E.T.A.L. mural-sculpture downtown that commemorates the 1934 General Strike was planned in Horace Washington’s space. Lise Swenson, early director of ATA, and director of the independent feature Mission Movie arrived in 1986 with the photographer Martin Cox, and the musician Scott Alexander. I joined them two years later, followed by Julie Murray. Rigo moved into the southeast corner in ‘92, and we started talking about painting murals on Clarion Alley.

Photograph by Jacob Holdt from the book American Pictures, published by Forlaget Per Kofod, Denmark, 1997


When Harry died in the middle of the dotcom real estate boom we knew our number was up. The last tenants standing got a lawyer and settled the eviction at a good price. Rob Trains, painter and boxer; and Horace Washington, sculptor and teacher at Creativity Explored for many years; both moved to the East Bay. The sculptor Marisa Hernandez moved to New York. Marc Heffels, an artist/ technician who worked with Survival Research Labs and Seemen, was last heard from in South Korea. I worked all night packing for the move to LA, leaving a twelve foot high pile of junk in the middle of the studio. In the morning they came and boarded up the place.

We weren’t the last occupants though. Iggy Scam squatted the place for months, making zines, and doing archeological digs in the decades of junk we left behind. Ivy and Zoe were asleep in there when the wrecking ball finally hit the wall one morning. Ivy told me they loved it there and she couldn’t believe the cool stuff they found in the giant trash pile. Mural designs, protest signs, posters for legendary punk rock bands and a page torn out of an old Life magazine with a picture of two Olympic athletes from San Jose, fists raised and heads bowed at the awards ceremony. It was me that found the magazine and brought it home in the late eighties and Julie Murray who tore the picture out and pinned it on the wall where Rigo saw it in the early nineties. In 2005 Rigo designed a statue for the campus of San Jose State, honoring these two athletes, whose careers were destroyed because an image they made with their bodies electrified the world in 1968.

Pancake Breakfasts at 47 Clarion – late ’90’s:

Pancake breakfast at 47 Clarion in 1998. Around the table L -> R: D-L Alavarez, Craig Goodman, Cliff Hengst, Aaron Noble, Megan Wilson, Carolyn Castaño, friend of Marisa Hernandez, Scott Hewicker, Michelle Rollman; photograph by Marisa Hernandez

Pancake breakfast at 47 Clarion in 1998. Around the table L -> R starting front center: Scott McLeod, Toddmary Bern, Craig Goodman, Scott Hewicker (holding Violet), Cliff Hengst, Aaron Noble, Michelle Rollman, Tom, Carolyn Castaño, and Megan Wilson, photo by Marisa Hernandez.