A Historic Tale of Art and Total Elation on Alabama Street

A few years back, I went to the Bernal Heights Outdoor Film Festival. On that particular night the location was on Bernal Heights Boulevard, on the slope leading easterly towards Folsom Street. I remember it being extremely cold and uncomfortable. The other thing I remember, apart from the fact that it was kind of a crappy place to see a movie, was a film called “Yield To Total Elation” (by Pat Ferrero). It told the story of a reclusive draftsman who lived and worked for more than 50 years in a tiny house on Alabama Street in Bernal Heights.

From 1935 to 1944, A.G. Rizzoli produced a large body of architectural drawings of fantastical buildings — some of which were symbolic representations of friends and relations, most notably his mother. The drawings from this period are all part of a larger environment loosely based on the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, a world’s fair based in what would become San Francisco’s Marina District.

In 1935 Rizzoli began exhibiting his work, The Achilles Tectonic Exhibit, on the walls of the Alabama Street home he shared with his mother. Patrons included friends, relatives, and neighborhood children. Overall, it was kind of like the Open Studios of today.

The First Achilles Tectonic Exhibit

The book, A.G. Rizzoli: Architect of Magnificent Visions provides a detailed schematic look at the Achilles Tectonic Exhibit of 1940, with a 10′ by 13′ room crammed with over 50 artworks.

Rizzoli died unknown in 1982, 5 years after a debilitating stroke necessitated moving from the Bernal Heights home he’d lived in since 1933. His works were “discovered” in 1990 and his life has captivated people ever since.

A.G. Rizzoli on the Internet:

The Ames Gallery – Berkeley

A. G. Rizzoli: Architect of Magnificent Visions. by Jo Farb Hernandez, John Beardsley, and Roger Cardinal.

Yield to Total Elation, a film by Pat Ferrero

Close To You: Daily Life and the Essence of Neighborliness

Among Friends

Among friends some things are ok. David Gallagher/Flickr

In Bernal Heights, we’re forced to look our neighbors in the eye, to make sure we’re taking care of them. It’s the way the neighborhood was built, with small lots and narrow streets. When driving, you have to look a block ahead, see who’s coming, and what you can do to get both of you by. If somebody pulls over or waits for you, you learn to thank them.

On my street, we know every car, we know whose driveway you can block, whose you can’t, and how to park our cars to make the most out of what we have. We may not talk, but we look out for each other.

The week we moved into our house, the neighbor came over and welcomed us. He also said he need our permission to connect his house to ours, to keep the rain out.  We agreed and thanked him for thinking of both of us.

Our Connection

Our Connection David Gallagher/Flickr

Our closeness is part of living on the hill, and one of the things that makes this place special.

Ribeltad Vorden: Bernal’s Most Notorious Spelling Mistake

Arrow Indicates Possible Bullet Hole

Arrow indicates possible bullet hole from earlier shenanigans at Precita and Folsom

In 1996 when Brady and I moved to an apartment on the 3200 block of Folsom street just up from Precita Park, my brother-in-law immediately said we were right across the street from an old hang-out from his biker days.  I heard him call it was, “The Ripple Tap.”  As an armchair historian, I did all I could to determine anything about this bar which sat at the location of today’s Caffe Cozzolino. (TIP: order the pesto chicken pizza to pick up.)

My search was fruitless. I searched the Internet, old phone books, and city directories, I asked every old-timer I could find, and I came up with nothing about The Ripple Tap.  All I knew was that my brother-in-law and sister and their motorcycle-enthusiast friends used to start their evenings there back in the day, and that many shenanigans ensued.

Then about 5 years ago, while working with Vicky Walker of the Bernal History Project, I discovered a wonderful history written by longtime Bernal Resident Jerry Schimmel who shed some light on this elusive story:

Around 1968 when Peter Cancilla (of Cancilla’s Market) acquired the property across the way at 300 Precita Avenue, among the odds and ends he acquired was a medium-sized cloth or banner bearing an applique version of the Colombia national arms.

The amusing thing was its completely garbled motto, apparently perpetrated by a Japanese seamstress. The normal spelling of the Colombian Spanish motto is Libertad y Orden (Liberty and Order) which somehow became Ribeltad Vorden… the bungled phrase inspired the name of his new watering hole.

Ribeltad Vorden banner

The original banner of the Ribeltad Vorden Doyle McGowan now has the framed cloth on his apartment wall after tracking it down through a circuitous trail of ownerships. Courtesy of Jerry Schimmel/Bernal History Project

Thus all became clear, sort of. Jerry’s account of life at the Ribeltad jibed exactly with my sister’s stories, right down to the shenanigans. And now we know the real name of the place, sort of.

Read Jerry Schimmel’s full story of the Ribeltad Vorden at the Bernal History Project

Breaking News, 1969: A House Explodes in Bernal Heights

The remains of 1540 York after the explosion in 1969

The remains of 1540 York after a gas explosion in 1969

KPIX Eyewitness News report from October 23rd 1969 by Ben Williams in San Francisco featuring the explosion of a residential house, caused by a gas leak. Includes interviews with witnesses, the fire service and views of property wreckage.

Sad to say, we can’t embed the video with the raw footage, but you can watch it here.

Local TV news coverage of this mundane 1969 disaster in Bernal Heights comes to us today by way of the excellent San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive,  hosted by San Francisco State. This segment is a story about a bad day in the neighborhood, but one which has since been largely forgotten.

The house in the story was on the on 1500 block of York, just up from Cesar Chavez (Army) Street. On October 23rd 1969, it blew up. An occupant  —  they were “a Spanish family,” a neighbor says — was taken away unconscious.

The neighbor is freaked out.

The neighbor was visibly rattled by the experience. But a street-savvy fire chief restored order, matter-of-factly, because a house blowing up due to a gas leak is just one of those things he deals with sometimes in the city. How bad was the damage? “At least $30,000,” he estimates.

1969 Fire Captain discusses York Street House Explosion

The SFFD battalion chief discusses the explosion

The location of the blast, at 1540 York, is now occupied by a two unit apartment building built in 1985. The neighborhood has moved on.

The new home at 1540 York

Yet that’s also the reason why you should check the original video footage from that day in 1969.

Then explore more of the San Francisco Bay Area Television Archive. But clicking the link may lead to hours of viewing locally produced video from the collections of KQED, KPIX, KRON, KTVU as well as topics such as the San Francisco State Students Strike and the Native American Occupation of Alcatraz. Addictive stuff.