San Francisco

Artist's Exhibit a Projection of the Past at SF Victorian House Museum

In an artistic display aimed at drawing visitors into San Francisco’s sprawling Haas-Lilienthal Victorian House Museum — San Francisco’s only Victorian home open for tours — the operators have commissioned an artist to display the family’s memories — on the outside.

In a downstairs window, artist Ben Wood created a light projection of family photos and home movies dating back to the the family’s earliest days in the house, which was built in 1886. As the sun goes down, the memories pop-up — giving the passing traffic on Franklin Street a dose of nostalgia.

“What I’ve tried to do is sort of imagine and peel back the layers of history,” Wood said recently while tweaking the projection. “What would happen if you looked through the windows and saw some of the people who lived in the house over the decades?”

Three panels of video scroll down the long Victorian windows — one band flashes pictures of the home’s interior, another historic family photos, and a third projects home movies dating back to the 1920s.

Haas Lilienthal house
Joe Rosato Jr.
The Haas-Lilienthal house was built in 1886 and is San Francisco’s only private Victorian Home open for tours. It’s now the subject of an art installation paying tribute to its family history.

“I was able to access quite an extensive archive of photographs over the generations,” Wood said.

The home was built for William and Bertha Haas, Bavarian-Jewish immigrants, and survived the 1906 earthquake and fire. Three generations of family lived in the home. Alice Haas Lilienthal was the last resident — living in the house until her death in 1972. Her heirs donated the home to San Francisco Heritage, which has operated it as a museum ever since.

“When people visit the Haas-Lilienthal House," said Mike Buhler, president of San Francisco Heritage, “we want them to be able to step back in time to understand how people lived in San Francisco in the 19th and early 20th century.”

The organization recently completed an eight-month, $4 million renovation of the home. Wood's project was part of the reopening celebration.

“It kind of reflects the human side of the house and its story,” Buhler said. “Many people are struck by the architecture of the house, and this neighborhood used to be full of Victorian homes like this.”

Alice Russell-Shapiro never knew the home by its formal name — Haas-Lilienthal. She knew it as “Grandma’s house.” She spent her childhood in the home visiting her grandma Alice Haas-Lilienthal, banging on the hallway’s pump organ and hanging out in the kitchen with her grandma’s cook. Her own baby photo is among the visual memories scrolling along the outside windows for all to see.

“I almost can’t believe it — that it’s my family out there on Franklin Street,” Russell-Shapiro chuckled. “Twelve-feet tall or whatever it is.”

Joe Rosato Jr.
A projection of historic photos and videos scroll in the windows of the Haas-Lilienthal House Museum as part of an art installation by artist Ben Wood.

The rolling images show scenes of Christmas and Easter parties, which family members celebrated even though they were Jewish. A video shows a rare snowfall outside the house and a wedding that took place on the lavish staircase.

Family descendant John F. Rothmann said for a house famous for its ornate architecture and period interior, the installation is scratching a deeper layer into the family’s story.

“It’s more than brick and mortar,” Rothmann said. “It’s a place where real people lived, had real lives — there were romances in this house, there were funerals in this house.”

The installation will remain up until the week after Thanksgiving, but Wood hopes it will become an annual tradition at the home.

“Nowadays, you know, we can be especially detached from history,” Wood said. “I think this is a great way to capture people’s imagination and to offer them a glimpse into the past.”

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