SAN FRANCISCO—The Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz sum up San Francisco for many, but Emperor Norton I, Beach Blanket Babylon, and the history of hippies are some of the things San Francisco really has to offer, if the San Francisco Welcome Center’s new History Museum has anything to say about it.
Both locals and tourists agree that just by being in the city you can feel the “eccentricity,” says associate curator Tim Evans, and the history of the city is no different.
Visitors to the museum are greeted upon entrance with a life-size wax statue of the self-proclaimed “Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico,” Joshua Abraham Norton. The narrow hallways then lead curious tourists on a do-it-yourself tour of 21 rooms, each one with a theme and completely tiled with old photographs, artifacts, and trivia.
Located on the fourth floor of the San Francisco Welcome Center on Powell Street where anyone can stop by for city information, these 21 rooms aren’t nearly enough to hold the city’s anecdotes.
Evans says there are many more exhibits to come, some of which will be rotated at six-month intervals, but many schools have been wanting to take tours through the museum before the holidays, hence the early opening.
I think a lot of people come here for the whole counterculture experience.
—Tim Evans, associate curator
Eventually, the goal is to work with locals, who can help showcase the extensive collections of odds and ends—such as slot machines—throughout the city.
“The first slot machine—three-reel, cash pay—was built right here, invented here in San Francisco,” said Stephen Squires. “Designed and manufactured right here, by Charles Fey.”
Squires has loaned the museum an entire room full of antique slot machines, which he collects, repairs, and sells all over the world.
“When I was a kid, I got some slot machines and I put them out, and when I saw how much money they took in, it twisted my arm,” said Squires, who has worked with slot machines since age 13. “I thought, this is the business I need to be in.”
He has plans for sprucing up the slot machine exhibit, as well as bringing in photos of some of the many antique slot machines he’s owned.
Sidney Mobell, a famous jeweler, is the creator of “Lady Luck,” the World’s Most Expensive Slot Machine. Mobell purchased the 1925 Caille slot machine, which he then gold-plated and set with 317 sapphires, 302 rubies, 183 diamonds, and 16 emeralds.
“I think it’s really good,” said Mobell. “They’re going to do a whole room of me, of my work.”
The museum is currently showcasing rooms from iconic eras, from Hitchcock films to speakeasies and hippie artifacts. Evans says there are also plans to collaborate with the Chinatown Historical Society, Japantown Historical Society, and other groups to do an exhibit on the history of immigration in San Francisco.
Along with highlighting the eccentric features of the city, there are comprehensive rooms detailing the Gold Rush era, 1906 earthquake, and other historically significant events and people.
“We’re also going to put in a beatnik museum, which really celebrates the counterculture,” Evans said. “I think a lot of people come here for the whole counterculture experience.”
The San Francisco Welcome Center’s History Museum is open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It is located at 449 Powell Street.
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