Haight-Ashbury's Hippie House: Preserving San Francisco's 1960s Counterculture

Posted on: July 25th, 2013 by Aria Danaparamita

San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district was site of the Summer of Love, center of the sixties counterculture momentum. Credit: David Yu Photography.
San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood was site of the Summer of Love, center of the '60s counterculture movement.

"Turn on, tune in, drop out." It was the 1967 Summer of Love in San Francisco, and the Haight-Ashbury district was lighting up in psychedelic color.

In the '60s, Haight-Ashbury, now called the Upper Haight, was a haven for cultural revolutionaries: hippies, artists, and psychedelic rock musicians from Jefferson Airplane to Grateful Dead.

But not all of its hippie history has vaporized disillusioned down the rabbit hole, thanks to local preservationist Norman Larson.

Larson lives at the corner of Haight and Ashbury, where his home 557 Ashbury Street was listed on the National Register for Historic Places in 2011. Oddly, the listing is based on the house’s architecture and not its counterculture past: the late '60s hasn't yet passed the 50-year benchmark for historic landmarks.

But social history is what made Haight-Ashbury.

“The '60s was a time of major social change,” Larson says. “This is the place. Social change started here.”

In the midst of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement, a new generation hoped for revolution. In San Francisco, it began down Haight Street with the Golden Gate Park “Gathering of the Tribes.”

Haight hippies, Berkeley radicals, and others who hitchhiked cross-country gathered to hear Allen Ginsberg chant mantras while swaying to Jefferson Airplane. Then, some 100,000 came together for an unforgettable summer.

Those were high times -- and not just because of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. Architecturally, the streets are a vibrant historic collection, which include the Grateful Dead house on 710 Ashbury Street and Janis Joplin’s old apartment on 122 Lyon Street.

Larson’s house was the cosmic center. During this period, the upstairs was a rooming house-turned-flats and downstairs was Mnasidika, one of the first “hippie” stores in the city. Grateful Dead hung out on that corner. And, probably the best part, the clock on the building is stopped at 4:20, the internationally observed time for imbibement.

Norm Larson lives on Haight and Ashbury though insists he isn't "an authentic hippie." Credit: Brian Turner.
Norm Larson lives on Haight and Ashbury, though he insists he isn’t “an authentic hippie.”

The building was designated a historical landmark by the City of San Francisco in 2006.

“Our commission recognized the Summer of Love as an important part of San Francisco’s local history," says Tim Frye, preservation coordinator at the San Francisco Planning Department. "At a local level it’s protected as a representation of the counterculture movement.”

Designed by Frank T. Doolan in 1903, the house is a rare Colonial Revival home. Larson, a Berkeley native, bought the property in 1980. Since moving in upstairs, Larson has spent 27 years restoring the building: the foyer, two parlors, a dining room, and the mosaic-tiled storefront below.

“Also, it’s a party pad,” says Larson.

The thing is, he himself never went to a rock concert and only first listened to Janis Joplin in Saudi Arabia. He moved back to San Francisco in the fall of 1967, just missing the legendary summer.

“I look like a hippie,” Larson jokes. “I’ve got a large beard so when people see me I’m sure they think, this guy’s an authentic hippie. I was pretty distant from the '60s.”

But his own story adds to the house’s history, now an eclectic mix of family antiques and '60s memorabilia.

“I’ve got hippie posters in it as well,” he assures.

557 Ashbury street sits on the historic northwest corner of Haight-Ashbury. Credit: Brian Turner.
557 Ashbury street sits on the historic northwest corner of Haight-Ashbury.

The house continues to be a community site, hosting events like fundraisers for San Francisco's former mayor Gavin Newsom and Larson’s “musicales.”

“The formal parlor has surprisingly good acoustics,” he says.

Larson has also made the property a planned gift for San Francisco Heritage. The city has a few landmarked buildings associated with other movements, from LGBTQ to African-American civil rights.

“Our commission has made it a priority for future local designations to focus more on social and cultural significance,” says Frye.

The hippies (or hipsters) have migrated to neighboring Oakland and elsewhere. But the Haight remains a pilgrimage site for tourists and peace-loving souls. Next you’re in town, walk the streets of Haight-Ashbury -- and be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.

Bonus: Feel the vibe of Haight-Ashbury with this Summer of Love playlist.

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Aria Danaparamita

Aria Danaparamita

Aria Danaparamita, or Mita, is a contributor to the PreservationNation blog and recent graduate of Wesleyan University. She enjoys walks, coffee, and short stories. Follow her odd adventures on Twitter at @mitatweets.

Local Preservationists, Pop Culture