The Weirdest House in San Fran Is a Steal at Just $8.5 Million
Chenery House has six bedrooms, a retractable roof, and a fake tree that spits fire.
Photos by the author
Through sheer force of will, Bob Pritikin has become a San Francisco legend, albeit the kind of legend who's difficult to describe. He's mostly known for co-writing the Rice-A-Roni jingle, and as the owner of the Mansion Hotel, which had guests including Robin Williams, Carrie Fisher, and John F. Kennedy Jr.. According to a self-produced 2014 documentary, Pritkin has, at various points, been a classical saw player, magician, member of the Coast Guard, real estate mogul, museum curator, and author, too.
He also claims the founders of Google stole the name of their company from a Sierra Club ad he wrote in the 70s that had the tagline “Don’t muddy up the googol.”
Pritikin, 89, is now retired, and currently trying to sell his sprawling, quirky estate, the grounds of which take up most of a city block in the Glen Park neighborhood of San Francisco. It's a monument to a San Francisco that basically doesn't exist anymore and the peculiar tastes of its owner.
The mansion itself looks like what you picture when you hear the word “mansion.” All fountains and molded balustrades, with a grand staircase that leads to an indoor pool with a roof that retracts at the touch of a button. The kind of house that bad guys live in in movies.
But in and around the house is Pritikin’s vast collection of antiques, art, and oddities. Like a fake tree that spits fire, a hyper-realistic statue of a homeless woman, and a quilt made out of a couple of thousand Barbie doll shower caps.
Photos around the house show the lavish parties that Pritkin used to throw, with gospel choirs and musicians, live animals, and celebrities like Carol Channing, Liberace, and Tammy Faye Bakker. The parties were extensively covered in the local press. But Pritikin got old. The parties stopped. His hotel was turned into condos. And people started to forget who Carol Channing, Liberace, and Tammy Faye Bakker even were.
Around 2006, Pritikin opened the house up as a museum offering tours for $100 per person. You could also rent it as an events space.
It doesn’t seem to have been especially well received. The Yelp reviews for the house are filled with people complaining about poor service, bad smells, terrible food, and Pritkin himself.
“There was a life-sized statue in the yard of Pritikin that when you hit a button, played a long song about his life," wrote one reviewer. "We got bored halfway thru and walked away and he got mad at us." (This reviewer still gave the whole experience five out of five stars.)
When I visited this month, I could see why people who'd paid to visit might have been disappointed. The house and its contents were incredible, but parts seemed neglected, and chunks of Pritikin’s collection were gone, having been sold off (he told me he got $60,000 for a globe he had that used to belong to Hitler; it used to be displayed at the house with a sign that read “MAY THE BASTARD ROT IN HELL.”)
After being left to give myself a self-guided tour of the estate, I sat and spoke with Pritikin about the house, its sale, and some of his favorite memories in the place. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
VICE: Tell me a little about the house. How long have you been here?
Bob Pritkin: It seems like three years at the most. But I’ve lived here 35 years. And I built it to accommodate basically me. I had two children, my son died about a year ago of cancer.
And I have a daughter who’s visiting me tomorrow. And I’m divorced. Ask me a question I’ll tell you no lies. The property now is on the market for sale, it started at $10.5 million, and it’s now down to $8.5 million.
Has it been on the market for a long time?
Six months at least. This house has six bedrooms and six bathrooms. You’d need a large family to use those accommodations.
Do you live here alone?
I am, yeah. This is really bigger than I need for one lonely guy.
Do you know where you want to move to?
It’s a good question. It’s a very good question. I’ll worry about that when I get a valid offer and then you go through escrow. I’m accustomed to a much smaller space. This is probably the largest living room in the city of San Francisco.
Yeah, it’s huge.
This living room is as large as a tennis court.
What are some of your favorite memories of the house? I read you used to have some big parties here.
I used to. I did a Labor Day party, and every year I would have what I would call 200 of my dearest closest friends, some of whom I’d actually met. They’d come and get drunk and so forth and I would always have a famous person, a movie star, some luminary as the honored guest, and they included Mickey Rooney, you ever heard of Mickey Rooney?
And Carol Channing, and so forth. Eddie Fisher. You ever hear of Eddie Fisher?
You have? How old are you?
Well you’re one of the few people left that’s heard of… Anyway. Eddie moved into the house, he stayed here for about six months. He was my roommate, lovely person. And he was married to… Who was he married to?
I can’t believe it. I’m honored and amazed that you know all that stuff. But Eddie’s a wonderful guy, he had a fabulous voice. But then he died on me. Everyone I’ve ever known is now in the past.
How old are you?
How old am I? That’s a wonderful question. I’m not sure if I should be proud of this age, but in a few weeks I will be 90.
What are you going to do for your birthday?
Die, maybe. I mean. That’s old. Statistically speaking.
Most people don’t even get to 90.
So you don’t plan to celebrate?
My daughter does a birthday party for me every time I’ve advanced another 12 months. So. Maybe she’ll do that again, I don’t know. Most everybody I know is dead. So...
Is it lonely in the house on your own?
Not really because there’s always people walking through for one reason or another. Today a company called Life Alert was here. They gave me this [alert bracelet] to wear.
You used to give tours of this place, right? It was a museum?
You might have seen the old movie on me. It’s called Nine Lives because I had nine professions. Included among them, I was a magician. I had a hotel in this city that entertained a lot of movie star types. It became the place to stay when you visit San Francisco.
But this place was a museum for a period, right?
I called it the Pritikin Museum, but we don’t do tours here anymore. But I may well redo that idea. Because there’s a lot of history of San Francisco on the property that would be of interest to visitors to the city, or even residents of the city.
What’re some of the highlights, in terms of San Francisco history?
As you come in from the outside, [two of the walls are] festooned with about 20 famous and infamous San Franciscans, past and present. I engaged a friend of mine, who’s an artist, to do that mural, which was a year in the works. We would do a luncheon. And a tour. And I would charge for it, and it was that simple. There’s a story behind each picture [in the house], and I can remember the history and the provenance of everything in this building.
What are some of your favorite memories of the parties you threw here? I read a couple of anecdotes online.
Name one, because I’m fascinated at your memory.
I read about a trip to Wendy’s.
Oh that was wonderful! I read in the paper that some lady went to Wendy’s on the peninsula or some place and she found a finger in her chili. So I collected about twenty friends, piled them into a bus on this property, and took them to that Wendy’s, and I got a breadstick and had a fingernail painted on the end of the breadstick and stuck one in each person’s lunch.
You said you’ve been here for 35 years but it felt like three. Why do you think that is?
Some phenomenon happens as you get older and it may have not happened to you, but your memory becomes inadequate for most things. I mean I can remember the details for when I was four or five or three years old but I can’t remember almost anything that happened in the last 35 years. Old age or aging really does impact your memory tremendously, I can barely remember what I even had for dinner last night. What was your question again? I can’t even remember your question.
I was asking why time went so fast in this house.
I think it’s a question of your brain. It starts to go.
If the house does sell, will you be sad to leave?
It’s just a shelter. I can’t duplicate it because this is the result of 35 years of pleasure. And agony, in some cases. I won’t regret leaving it, no. The first place after I got out of the Coast Guard. Did you know I was in the Coast Guard for four years?
How do you know this?
It was in your film.
I was in the Coast Guard for four years, but when I got out of the Coast Guard I went to New York. I lived at, I remember 74 W 85th street was my basement apartment in New York. See, I can go back that far. Do you know what my rent was?
$100 a month?
Less. I paid $55 a month. And it was completely adequate shelter, it was in the heart of the crime district in New York, but regardless, it had all of the utilities one needs. It had heat and the television set and what have you. And it was perfectly commodious living for me.
So after this you’re looking for somewhere that costs $55 a month?
Ha, yeah, I’d have to move to Turloc to find that maybe. What else would you like to ask me?
That was it! Anything you want to add? Anything I’ve missed?
You’re married, right?
Do you have any children?
Would you like a vodka on the rocks? I’ll have one. What else do you know about my life?
I know that you said you invented the name Google.
In the television room there’s the big ad. That’s where the word Google came from, by my judgement. Google will never admit that I named it, that they copied my ad 30 years ago. But that’s what I claim.
You contacted Google about it, right?
Yeah, I said I want you to pay me for taking my word, changing the spelling of googol. And they ignored me.
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