2141 Powell

Historical Essay

by Holly Erickson


2141-43 Powell in 2003.
Photo: Holly Erickson

2141/43 Powell was built in 1906 to house Italian immigrants who fished the fruitful waters of San Francisco Bay. A century's worth of subsequent residents have marveled at the story that this building survived the fire that followed the earthquake in April of '06 because the quick acting inhabitants doused the roof with wine from several ample vats stored in the basement. This story is told about several North Beach structures that survived the earthquake fire. Who knows whether or not it is true?

The typical Edwardian wooden structure featured narrow staircases, dark hallways, and small rooms. Wainscoting and tin wallpaper gave a decorative lift to the unremarkable interior of the building.

There is a half-century gap in the recorded history of 2141/43. Suffice it to say the inhabitants weathered two world wars and a depression, most eventually prospered and moved on to accommodations more commodious for raising families. By the late 1950s, Victorian architecture had few proponents, no longer were immigrant fisherman pouring into North Beach, and the economy was strong enough that any employed person could afford something newer and sleeker than the small rooms of a tumbledown fisherman's cottage that had been thrown up near the water's edge, when the beach of North Beach had not been filled in and paved over.

Bohemians rush in like a riptide once the working class has fled to higher ground. 2141/43 Powell a few short blocks from the coffee houses and jazz clubs of Beatnik North Beach and just downhill from the San Francisco Art Institute attracted bohemians, beatniks, motorcycle enthusiasts, artists, hippies, and punk rockers who filed into the cubbyhole rooms of this building from the 1950s until the 1990s when the next demographic phenomenon replaced them.

The underground filmmaker and writer Kenneth Anger, best known for his "Hollywood Babylon" book series, lived here in the late '50s.

By the 1960s it was still a greasy kind of place where people tinkered with things. The ground level of the 2141/43 housed a garage where members of a motorcycle club congregated. Willie, a talented German camera repairman also maintained his business there.

In the late 1960s a number of students from the San Francisco Art Institute moved into 2141/43. The premises may have remained another dirt-cheap tumbledown North Beach building serving as temporary quarters for transient artists had not a psychedelic collage artist born Wilfried Podreich, but known as Satty, moved in.

After Satty...Eddie Ritter

The building owners rented the ground floor to several different commercial concerns: a food store, a photo shop, a children's shoe store, a glass blower, a candy store. Success was forthcoming for none.

That year, Eddie Ritter, a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, moved into 2141A.

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Eddie Ritter, 1993.


Eddie Ritter and friends, with tin wallpaper in background.

Photo: Holly Erickson

"2141 was like a gypsy woman with scars and tattoos and lots of cheap jewelry, with sweet-sour breath from too much booze. I loved her. I have yet to enter a nicer [apartment] in all of San Francisco. I fought every landlord who owned her and beat 'em all," he wrote in 2002 from his home in Sweden.

"The previous tenant died there and was found a few days later, the odor of rot and flowers everywhere.

"Once I tried to set the place on fire and decided it wasn't a good idea and flooded the dump instead. I woke up the next morning in a drunken haze with a neighbor and friend climbing through the skylight telling me to evacuate the building, fire trucks all over the place. The stock in the food store downstairs was ruined and the electrical mains were steaming hot. I caught sight of my two-hundred pound neighbor running back to her apartment totally naked.

"At one point my landlady came by and told me that I could be evicted (is burning and flooding grounds for eviction?) and when she wouldn't leave my apartment, I grabbed her by the seat of the pants and the back of her shirt and threw her out with the great line, 'And don't come back!'

"I fired homemade metal rockets at the grain silos, (at the now defunct malting company in the back) and they whacked with a ferocious metallic twang."

2141A. Two people who were naked best outfitted it. Four people stretched the walls a bit. The apartment was a blanket. It used to spit out the godless and moneylenders. It was bohemia.

The Alcatraz beacon lit up the wall of the building next door every 15 seconds and beamed into the skylight as the sea lions barked all night long. The streetlights and the moon over Francisco Middle School was romantic lighting in bed. One could inherit the dreams of the previous tenants after a few years of occupation. An argument there was like an argument no other place, there wasn't anywhere to go except face each other with spit flying and murder in the air.

Lawsuits and dark dealings flourished in its murky stairways. The coin-operated washing machine in the basement gave me all its quarters like an explosion at a casino. I stared at every wall and always found more dust and memory.

If you really wanted to be on the inside there, you had to get illegal. Nothing truly legal ever really happened inside. After a prospective buyer would be shown the place, and the papers were signed, the rats were given the all clear and came out again. People who had plans lasted a year there, tops. Middle class boys and girls who mistakenly found their way in through a maze of introductions were abhorred by the horribly honest presence of nonchalant sloth and lack of good clean ambition. Once I stayed inside for months, jobless and clueless, and didn't bother with rent either.

The garage on the ground floor was turned into a storefront overnight. The promise of more rent money was too strong to bother with any paperwork for construction. Store owners on the ground floor would rob rent checks left in the landlord's mailbox. The photo shop owners tapped into my electrical meter. One owner of the candy store never paid for the place and just emptied it of stock and cash. The Belgian children's shoe store never got off the ground. The glass blower was always blowing up with anger. Business did not flourish here. 2141 was a guerrilla building.

Coincidentally Drew Gyorke, Satty's friend, befriended Eddie Ritter when they were cooking together at a restaurant/caterer on Divisadero:

"Later, of course, I would hangout for nights on end with Ritter (at 2141) while we made beer and roasted chickens. I stayed there a few days after separating from my wife, leaving a restaurant where I was chef, and losing my girlfriend. All at once the world was harsh, sharp, full of loss. The Alcatraz light was on me all the time, I couldn't rest. But the living room became an Italian fishing home once again, and I was safe just drifting out with the tide for awhile while I undid knots in my nets.

"The place was always a shaky, friendly hand on my shoulder and I left the heaviness of my apparent daze at the front door, which, by the way, took two hands to unlock so one could not be too involved carrying things in order to get in or out.

"I gave Ritter a big worktable once and we bolted it in a room off the living room. Now there was a workroom. But there was way too much to do instead of work so we listened to a lot of music, talked a lot about photography and drank good ports and the beers and wines and honey meads we had made. I made a lot of great phone calls from the phone on the wall. And I can't say that about a lot of phones! It was safe there to have conversations that were impossible otherwise. How about that! For an old altar boy, a confessional and a pulpit all in one. A little cloud of a little heaven. I had a grounded high there."

Courtney Love Lived Here

After appearing in the film Sid and Nancy a pudgy, brunette, wannabe punk-rock star named Courtney Love spent time here with a boyfriend who later robbed a bank and went to prison. Her abrasive personality wore thin with some of the residents--ducking, or hiding, or pretending not to be home when Courtney knocked became a household joke.

Eddie didn't mind her too much. He'd read her Hemingway aloud while she lolled about the house in a ballet tutu. Because she was squeamish about hitting herself up with heroin he would do it for her. But one time he started giggling and she got furious and stormed out. She went on to found the band Hole, marry grunge rocker Kurt Cobain, and become a film star in Hollywood and was notorious for being notorious.

Eddie's childhood pal, a gay man named Charlie, a drug dealer and professional shoplifter, moved in after being released from jail. He lived here for two years until AIDS forced led him to a Buddhist hospice in the Castro where he died in 1993.

Eddie's sister Marguerite and her young daughter lived here for a few years, running the Caf Francisco. And one of his best friends, David Whiting, lived here temporarily with his two children in 1993. Eddie left to move to Sweden in 1994, leaving his apartment to his brother Michael, a junkie.

Eddie doesn't know what happened after that. The rent was $475.00.

The Boom Comes to 2141/43 Powell

Around 1998 a new owner refurbished 2141/43 to its shell ripping down walls. Small but intimate rooms became one large room with flat white surfaces. The walls of a sink room were torn down in favor of molded sink at the other end of the kitchen. The wall between bedroom and living room was torn down to make one big, blank, white space. The footed bathtub was ripped out in favor of a molded plastic shower stall. The early 20th century tin wallpaper that is hallmark of North Beach premises was removed. The window boxes where everything from tomatoes, carnations, marijuana, opium poppies, and culinary herbs had been cultivated with varying degrees of success were torn down. The attic loft became the "bedroom" even though a small woman would be unable to stand except in the exact middle of the space where the roof slanted.

Potential renters described the atmosphere as "late dentist office" and "early Silicon Valley". From inside one would never know one was in North Beach. But there was still a ladder up to the loft. It isn't actually the ladder that Satty died falling from but that doesn't stop everyone whoever enters the apartment from hearing that it was.

And the day that two self-described techno-kids were looking at the place and decided to rent, the truth of the matter didn't stop me from asking:

"Hey wanna hear anything about the history of the apartment you're gonna move into?"

They did not. Whereas previous tenants glowed at the possibility of being one more candle in the chandelier of bohemian life at 2141/43, as the owners had ripped out all signs of the pasts the current renters were not interested in anything but their own presence.

I exited saying, "An artist broke his neck falling down this ladder."

The apartment was on the market again within months. The building went up for sale for $1.6 million dollars. A Japanese Tea Ceremony operation took over part of the ground floor with the other part rented as storage by the antique dealer next door.

Postscript: 2003

2141/43 still shakes like a quaking aspen every time the bus passes. The Alcatraz beacon still beams, kids' screeches still carry from Francisco Middle School and the bark of the sea lions echoes from the Bay. In the back of the building the former Malt House, which closed down business in 1982, is now a very expensive condominium.

2141/43 is painted pink and peach and is about as appealing as a cellophaned Supermarket cupcake. Buildings evolve in what has become a predictable way.

A structure is built as a factory or a working class home, the factory folds or the workers prosper, artists wanting cheap rents and picturesque environments move in, a dwelling that had been beneath notice becomes financially interesting, a place that rented for $475 in 1994 goes for $2,400.00 four years later to residents willing to pay for an artistic atmosphere. Those who can afford $2,400 for a one-bedroom apartment decide they would prefer a bedroom they can actually stand up in.

A "For Rent" sign flaps in the breeze for years.

But no fishermen, underground filmmaker/writer, motorcycle gangsters, artists, bohemians, junkies, jailbirds, robbers, single parent with kids, short order cook, carpenter, or gypsy will ever be able to afford to live at 2141/43 again.

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