Studios: Cold, wet, noisy — with history and warm memories.
The building at 728 Montgomery was, in 1849, the First Freemasonry in California. At the time of the ‘49 Gold Rush, Montgomery Street, like all of the streets, were sand or mud or worse. Wind, fog and rain and all the extra influences — and no sidewalk surfaces — one can hardly even imagine just getting from a building to your mode of transport. 722 and 728 were once a cigar warehouse, a theatre, and a public bathhouse. There were gas lamps at the street (that could still be lit in the 1960s).
Starting before the 1920s, the buildings, from 728 Montgomery Street — south to the huge Montgomery Block building, were locations adopted by a surprising great number of great writers and great artists — (there is no need for me to repeat this information from the web — it is all there in full). I am zeroing in on just one artist of that time, Maynard Dixon, who had his studio at 728 Montgomery Street from 1913 to 1938.
And here he is carrying (a painting?) south on Montgomery Street.
He had a twenty-by-twenty foot room at the back of the buildings top floor of 728 with north light from a skylight. There is a documentary video, narrated by Diane Keaton — selections from (click this link) “Maynard Dixon Art and Spirit.“ It shows the view above and also this one of Mr. Dixons in his studio with his collection of western artifacts.
There is another video, (click this link) “Arizona’s Artist: Maynard Dixon” narrated by Mark Sublette, that shows a drawing of how Mr. Dixon carried all of his collected treasures to safety the day after the 1906 earthquake.
In those years — and through the years, the buildings must have been cold, wet and sometimes noisy!
The buildings had a lot of charm, but I can’t say that the renters in the 1960s and 70s — were warm or dry in the winter. The artists there at the Belli Buildings knew that Mr. Belli would take only lowest bids for repairs.
Not so lucky, for Janet Jones (who had her studio overlooking the courtyard) as she describes: I definitely can tell you the Belli Building was leaky. The story was that Belli was too cheap to put on a new roof and kept patching, then refusing to pay when the roof leaked again. My little office was flooded when water leaked into the outside wall and ceiling, and soaked all my books and filled the flat file with water, ruining all my papers.
Now, should we hear about the heating system in the buildings? There wasn’t one. Most renters kept electric heaters at their feet. Bill Hyde had rented the third floor front space when the partnership had dissolved — and there was an area with a drawing board, chair and side cabinet that I could rent. Bill had put in a Franklin stove, but with the size of the room and the very high ceiling, five single glass high windows and a large skylight above…we were “commercial” artists freezing in a garret. We wore heavy wool clothing and even mittens (except when actually working on artwork).
Bill, then having become a single free-lance artist, was able to produce creations that were his alone. He was creating huge Op-Art (popular at that time) back-drops for Chevrolets that were photographed in studios back east. Here are three of Bill’s clients. The United States Post Office (Contact, Norman Todhunter), Anchor Steam Beer (Owner: Fritz Maytag), and an advertising agency — Baker, Johnson & Dickinson, of Milwaukee (Art Director, Will Johnson) The bronze casting by Tom Martin Browne.
Norm Nicholson took over my location in Bill’s studio when I moved on in 1969. He probably used Bill’s great drawing board that lifted easily by the shift of a handle below. I did a lot of work standing up…large pieces where I’d have to walk around the board. Norm wrote: I remember Bill Hyde’s potbelly stove that seemed to be the heat source for that room. If I got there in the morning before Bill, I would fire it up.
Janet: There was no heat in my office, but I had a little space heater. Noise? Also, you may remember that whenever Belli won a case they fired a cannon in the courtyard, and it was ruinous if I was ruling a line or doing fine work at the drawing table. I remember that when he won he also would fly the “Jolly Roger” on the flagpole on the roof, (also in disrepair) so it came crashing down. One more jolt to live through.
Thom LaPerle had his studio on the second floor of 722 (right above the Belli offices) — he wrote: I was in the Belli building from February 1970 through mid-1979. Mel wanted my space to expand and offered to buy-out my lease for $10k, which I eventually pushed to $40k and moved the office to the third floor above Swiss Ski Sports on Commercial Street. Others in the Belli buildings, during my tenure, where Charles Felix, Janet Jones, Charles Matheny, Dan Ramano and Paul Rupert. Sure had some fun and memorable times there.
Each year, there was the Christmas Party!
Norm: Did you ever attend Melvin Belli’s Christmas parties? They were something else. He made his famous Pisco Punch that he served. Herb Caen mentions it in one of his columns.
Me: I remember being to a least one Christmas party there in the deep underground rooms of 728. Had some Pisco Punch, too. The only time that I spoke with Melvin Belli was then as he handed out the drinks. I knew that he had represented many famous and infamous persons. He represented Corporations, Hotels, and (to name a few) persons: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Mae West, Errol Flynn, Lana Turner, Muhammad Ali, Jack Ruby, Sirhan Sirhan, Alex Haley, Nick Nolte, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, Tony Curtis, Mickey Cohen, Lenny Bruce, Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker — and MY GRANDFATHER (!) who had (as my mother told me) an OSHA type claim for an injury to his hand (or arm) — this may have been in the ‘30s while my grandfather worked as a winch driver on lumber ships at the San Francisco docks — and Belli was with the National Recovery Administration (that NRA created a migrant worker relief program). Mr. Belli later claimed that he developed a deep sympathy for the underdog during that time.
Also being in “touristy” North Beach (the previous “Barbary Coast” area), one evening when I was watering the Geraniums in the window boxes of 722’s second story windows, “Three Caballeros” serenaded me (with guitars and voices) from the street below. Nice.