the Sunshine Castle, a San Francisco home
tl;dr The Sunshine Castle, a San Francisco communal household, burned down on Saturday, February 13th. It was an iconic home, representative of an aspect of SF which made the city great and we should, as a community, endeavor to hold on to its spirit. Help the artists recover and reestablish the Sunshine Castle. Donate here: https://www.gofundme.com/bbwpwzfw
One time, about a year ago, I was outside my home, the Sunshine Castle, on Fulton and Lyon in San Francisco. I was sitting on the front steps reading my kindle when two women approached the house. They asked if I would take a photo of them standing in the entryway. They told me they used to live there twenty-five years ago. Upon hearing that, I invited them inside for a tour to reminisce. Surprised at the offer from a stranger, they quickly agreed and we all headed inside. As we walked through the entryway they giggled, remembering one crazy night and that one big roommate blowout. One of the women commented that she thought the living room carpet had been the same when she lived there. (She might have actually been correct.) She went through the kitchen and out onto the back deck, where it was bright, sunny, and warm. We had begun laying a little vegetable garden in the back and the green shoots were poking through the dirt, swaying in the breeze. The ladies climbed the three stories of wood stairs running up the back side of the house, pointing and telling stories, until they reached the top. From the top deck on the backside of the house you could see all of NOPA, to the top of Alamo Square, along Buena Vista Park, and all the way out toward the Sunset. It was a special perch for epic sunsets and private thoughts whispered to the wind.
When I first moved into the Castle, I would climb the steps and look out at the sunset, sometimes pastel shades arcing over the dome of the sky, and other times brilliant streaks of radiating color. Every night was different. I would watch the fog march from seaside to bayside through the panhandle of the park. Straight down Fulton, like so many cars and bikes all day. Other times the fog hung heavy and still, creating an amber atmosphere in the darkness. Late at night, we could sit high above the street and hear the sound of a single bike being walked along, a joke being shared, followed by a kiss. We would climb out the fourth story bedroom window onto the front perch and sit high above Fulton to watch the Blue Angels during Fleet Week, or sit quietly an eavesdrop literally in the eaves on the world below. We watched disheveled teams shuffle home from Bay to Breakers, allowing some less stable participants to take a breather on our steps. The whole city cheered for the Giants and the Warriors and it was a street party on Divis and Haight when they won. The soul of SF lived in the Sunshine Castle.
For me, those first moments alone in the house, in the city, when I knew few people, and I had no money, but felt like anything was possible were transformative. Those thoughts are everything to a young person in a new city. The Sunshine Castle was home. Not just for us, some of whom have been living there for seven plus years on the present lease, but for decades past judging from the stories our visitors told that day, etchings of initials in the concrete poured in 1969, and lore of past parties and events.
The house showed signs of age and frequent visitors. It was quirky; one of a kind. There were noises, and periodic flooding. There were spots were the floor underneath the rug was “squishy.” Wind rattled through the frames of the truly gigantic single pane windows. For my entire three-year stay, the inside of that house remained at 59 degrees; I swear. It was one of the only single-family Victorians left on our block. All the others had long ago been split up into apartments. Ours was a four story, four thousand square foot, yellow behemoth, with a turret and perches. The house was special, but what we created in the house, together, that is what made it iconic.
Indeed our emails ended with: “Home is any four walls that enclose the right person.”
The Sunshine Castle was a classic communal household. She housed seven roommates and had one semi-private guest bedroom area. We split the rent based on the size of the bedroom. We didn’t charge extra for use of the garage because we wanted to provide equal access to this rare space in SF for making art, or building a burning man project. We didn’t subdivide the garage space and turn it into bedrooms. We also didn’t charge guests for staying the night. We did not use AirBNB to rent out rooms. We provided free housing to friends and family members for years in the heart of SF, by conscious choice. Hundreds of people, easily, have lived the quintescential San Francisco moment, if only for a night or two, to the fullest, because of the community in the Sunshine Castle.
Some nights every room was packed and so were the guest areas. Friends came from out of town went out late, after-partied, then laughed so hard with friends while eating pizza on the grass in Alamo Square, stumbling in the predawn quiet in gold glitter and clicky-clack heels, home to the Castle, glowing. THAT’S San Francisco! We would wake up on weekends and make brunch for whomever happened to be around and maybe make it to Delores before the sun sunk behind the fog wall at Twin Peaks. Everyone was a friend in the castle, even if you didn’t know them yet. There were plenty of mornings where I met new friends while making my coffee.
We sublet our rooms for cost when we left town, giving tons of travelers the same access to SF that locals had, for the same cost. We had sub-letters and roommates and people sleeping in our guest areas from all over the world. We told them which restaurants to go to and let them borrow our bikes. It was magic. It was community. It didn’t matter if they were a brilliant startup success story, or my friends cousin, or a rommates old college friend, or someone who had never visited America before. In the Castle, we believed everyone had a story and everyone could contribute to their community in some way.
The Sunshine Castle housed artists and activists. It housed the folks who helped produced the NOPA block party. It housed people who worked with the San Francisco Bike Coalition. They worked at service jobs while they were building skills at home carpentry, fine jewelry making, community organization, and nonprofit management. They built a 9$ computer for the world, promoted women in tech, and worked to end of the failed war on drugs. We did our best to make SF wonderful for everyone in our small way. It was not a dormitory for young tech workers. It was not a themed or for-profit community house. The Sunshine Castle didn’t jump on the bandwagon of “community” and sell it to its inhabitants.
We worked with the WIGG Party and built [freespace]. We hosted events at St. Cyprians to benefit local charities and created the Urban Eating League, and the NOW Festival. We stored A LOT of people’s burning man gear, and bikes, and furniture and clothing. We offered what we had, to the community, to our friends, to this city.
The Sunshine Castle was only possible because the people who lived there chose to pool their resources and share space together, like a family. We made it work for each other. We kept things as simple and cost-effective as possible so we could experience everything San Francisco offers. It was damn good and I was a part of that and THAT is something I am proud of. I moved out of the Castle a few months ago. Mostly because I wanted to turn the heat on, but also because I noticed that I wasn’t taking full advantage of all the gifts living in the Castle brought into my life. Now, I had many friends so I didn’t need to meet new ones asleep on my couch in the mornings. I was moving on to a different stage in my life and the moment came when I could pass my space on in the Castle to someone who would thrive in the space. The single most important thing to me, when leaving, was to fill my room with someone who would contribute to the house and the community and make it more colorful, and more alive. Someone who would relish THIS San Francisco moment. I got that and I packed my things and left my room knowing the Castle was left in good hands.
On Saturday night, the neighbors house caught fire and it spread to the Castle. The back of the house lit quickly and spread. Few roommates were home, but those that were grabbed whatever was within arms reach and high-tailed it out of there. SFFD arrived quickly and did some heroic magic, like they do, and saved the surrounding homes from the fire. They climbed to the roof, where so many sunsets filled the sky with fire, and from there, salvaged what was left of two old houses on Fulton Street. My roommates lost everything. In an instant.
After the two ladies that had lived in the Castle twenty-five years ago were done reminiscing and had thanked me for letting them tour the house, one of them remarked about how much being in the house brought back many vivid memories. She expressed how she was a different person then; so young and broke, and all over the place and just “in love with everything.” Her voice was heavy with nostalgia noting that the city has changed, but maybe that was just the way of things. But she was so glad the Castle was still there, filled with the same young spirits, actively loving the shit out of San Francisco.
We can’t let the sun set on the Sunshine Castle. It is exactly what the city needs more of right now. A safe space for artists. A home in the big city for big dreamers of little means who refuse to sell out their home and lifestyle, by conscious choice. Broke-Ass Stuart called the Sunshine Castle “One of SF’s last great community oriented, home for weirdos…” and that’s true.
The roommates are raising funds to help them locate new homes. They are also accepting clothes, and furniture. They do not have the means or know-how to get a new lease but, I think they should try, and I think we should help them.
If you can please donate some cash.
We are taking any and all advice as well.
How can we keep the Castle going?
Thank you for reading this. It is with a heavy heart and epic gratitude that I write this on behalf of the current residents.