The Haunted Church Turned Art Center in San Francisco [A Halloween Sentiment]
Buildings and places often carry sentimental value in our memories. They are the landmarks of our journey through life. Ten years ago, I brought my son to my hometown in northern China and found very few familiar sights. Everything became bigger, shinier, and modern. It felt as if all traces of my childhood were erased.
Recently, I volunteered at a Litquake event at the beautifully renovated St. Joseph’s Arts Society in San Francisco. It was hard to fathom it used to be the St. Joseph Catholic Church, a city landmark founded in 1861.
I took this photo on the mezzanines overlooking the main hall filled with art “salons” decorated with drapes and a theatrical flair. During the evening, I got to know one of the organization’s employees—an aspiring young writer with a background in museum study. She said the church stayed vacant for 20 years until it reopened in 2019 as a culture center. The original intention had been to convert the historical building into tech-oriented office space. Given so many tech workers are now working from home, I’m glad that the owners changed their minds.
The security guard told me he grew up in the neighborhood and often saw squatters inside and around the church. They took everything that could be pried away. I asked him if there were ghosts in the building. He laughed, pointing at the main gate behind him. “I’ve never seen one, but I hear this door squeaking open at night when I’m patrolling inside the main hall. It’s so weird.”
I wonder what spirit lives there. According to this San Francisco Chronicle article, the developer who bought the place opened the door to find 2,000 rotting pigeons inside. That was some sight.
For a visual comparison, here’s a photo of the vacant church with old furniture left behind. You can see some of the original detailing is preserved.
Not sure if it was a convenient choice, the designer installed toilets where the confessionals once stood. As I washed my hands in the elegantly decorated bathroom, I wondered if the ghosts of the past would wander through the art center, searching for the safe space where they had once spelled out all their sins.
I asked the security guard if it was a shock for him to see the building undergoing drastic transformation. “For sure,” he said, nodding earnestly.
How do we preserve history while keeping up with the change of time? People switch careers all the time. Can buildings serve different roles without losing their sentimental value and historical significance? Maybe this art center is a brilliant reincarnation of the decrepit catholic church, offering a unique venue to the San Francisco art scene. What do you think?
Do you have a special place that’s converted to something utterly different?