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Charles Fracchia has seen it all

The historian recalls San Francisco’s wild past (Satanism, anyone?) and embraces Gold Rush 2.0 and Google buses filled with young techies who “save the city.”

By Paul Wilner

Charles Fracchia is both an expert on San Francisco and a footnote in its storied history.

The founder and president emeritus of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society—not to mention the author of several books, including When the Water Came Up to Montgomery Street: San Francisco During the Gold Rush and City By the Bay: A History of Modern San Francisco, 1945–Present—is uniquely equipped to talk about the changes and historical continuity between the city’s Barbary Coast past and current techie-infused times.

“All cities are unique, but San Francisco today is what it is because of the initial birth trauma of the Gold Rush,” he says. “We are the only city that is based on people coming simultaneously from every nook and cranny of the world in what was then an extraordinarily expensive, long and dangerous trip by land or sea. It was a self-selected group from everywhere—people from Europe or the East Coast cheek by jowl with people from China.”

The clash of cultures resulted in a kind of tolerance that paid off with the birth of the oil industry, agribusiness, Hollywood in Southern California and then technology, starting with companies like Ampex all the way through Apple. “The reason for this is not just because of the success of the extractive industries of gold and silver, but the human capital—people willing to listen to new ideas,” Fracchia observes. He has personally been part of one of San Francisco’s most famous exports: Rolling Stone. Fracchia was an original investor in the iconic magazine when founder Jann Wenner was just getting it started.

“A friend of mine, the rock ’n’ roll photographer Baron Wolman, said I should talk to Jann,” he recalls. “We had lunch at Tadich’s, he sketched out his business plan on a napkin and I gave him $8,000 to start the magazine. Against all probabilities, it became a major success. … At the time, I was a three-piece suit investment guy down on Montgomery Street being thrust into a different world. Jann loved to take me to various gatherings. One time we went to meet John Lennon on Union Street, I think at Coffee Cantata, and I was with him when he interviewed Bob Dylan at the Chelsea Hotel. I remember going to meetings with him with [the late rock promoter] Bill Graham and the two of them were screaming at each other.” Ultimately, the two parted ways. “Jann was never easy to manage—he was always sure of his own way, but the results speak for themselves,” he says, with a laugh.

He was also a player in another part of 1960s San Francisco history, when he owned the historic William Westerfield House at Fulton and Scott Street on Alamo Square.

“I bought it and was going to redo it, but at the time it was a very rough neighborhood,” he says. “My wife said, ‘I’m not going to live there,’ so I leased it out to a guy named Kenneth Anger,” the experimental filmmaker who wrote the lurid book Hollywood Babylon and at one point collaborated with the Rolling Stones on a project. “One night, my wife and I were driving down Fulton Street after midnight, and when I go past the house, there’s a blaze of lights. I opened the door, and down the grand staircase comes [counterculture poet] Lenore Kandel, naked as a jaybird. In the dining room, Anton LaVey, the famous Satanist, was doing a Black Mass. There were candles all over the place, and it was a wooden house, so it could have gone up in a trice. On top of that, Anger had a lover named Bobby Beausoleil who was associated with Charles Manson.”

Fracchia sold the house.

In more sedate moments, the historian received a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of San Francisco and graduate degrees from the USF School of Law, UC Berkeley (in Library Science) and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

He’s semiretired but still teaching part-time at USF and its Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning.

Fracchia, whose father emigrated from Italy, was born in the Marina district and grew up in San Mateo. He founded the not-for-profit San Francisco Museum and Historical Society in 1987 so the city would have an organization devoted to its own past, in contrast to the broader statewide mission of the California Historical Society. (Former eBay exec Kevin Pursglove is now the president, with Fracchia remaining as President Emeritus.)

Originally named the San Francisco Historical Society, in 2002 it merged with the Museum of the City of San Francisco, which was founded by the late archivist Gladys Hansen.

“We started out very simply, with a series of historical and architectural walking tours and a slide and lecture program, free of charge for adults, and within four or five years we had 3,500 members,” he says.

He considers the institution’s greatest achievement to be the two “spectacular publications’’ it puts out: Panorama, a quarterly newsletter, and The Argonaut, published biannually, which includes a combination of “academic and popularly written pieces’’ ranging from “Everything You Wanted To Know About Garbage But Were Afraid to Ask’’ to a history of the storied Fleishhacker family. It also sponsors an awards luncheon, to be held this year on October 2 at the InterContinential Mark Hopkins Hotel. This year’s “Living Treasure’’ honoree is Delancey Street cofounder Mimi Silbert; Awards of Merit will also go to the Maritime National Museum and San Francisco Chronicle architecture critic John King, among others.

Fracchia also points to popular Society events this year: Barbary Coast Trail walks, which he likens to the “Freedom Trails’’ in Boston, a tour of the Haight-Ashbury to mark the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love and a visit to Mission Dolores.

He is philosophical—and optimistic—about the recent changes in San Francisco.

“I live in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood near Saint Mary’s Cathedral these days, and I can see the young people right by our window, getting into the buses for Google and Genentech. I say amen to that—it helps save the city. In terms of openness to new ideas and individuals, San Francisco is very much true to its traditions. When I think of the fabric of the city—traffic, density—I’m not so enthusiastic.” 

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