Skip to main content

These weird and wonderful California places are rarely open. How you can go inside

Judi Henderson-Townsend, Mannequin Madness owner, poses next to her mannequins. | Courtesy Mannequin Madness

Strange, unusual and rarely-open-to-the-public organizations across California will be throwing open their doors for one-of-a-kind tours Sept. 9 and 10, offering everything from ringing 200-year-old bells at the San Jose Mission in Fremont to jail-hopping in Truckee and Elk Grove. 

There’s lots to choose from in the Bay Area during Doors Open California weekend: the archives at the GLBT Historical Society Museum in San Francisco, the historic 1939 Art Deco world’s fair building on Treasure Island, the greenhouses of Filoli’s famed gardens in Woodside and more. 

A project of the California Preservation Foundation, a $20 all-inclusive ticket gives you access to over 70 historic sites throughout the state (additional fees may apply for individual workshops). The weekend is sponsored by a variety of architecture, structural engineering and preservation firms.

A mannequin stands beside a parked car at Oakland's Mannequin Madness. | Source: Courtesy Mannequin Madness

But the most unique might be Mannequin Madness, a former cotton mill-turned-mannequin liquidator in Oakland, where you can tour a historic building and participate in an art-making class with faux flowers and mannequin heads. 

Owner Judi Henderson-Townsend turned a side hustle into a million-dollar business back in 2001 when she began repurposing mannequins she sourced on the internet. 

Henderson-Townsend was working at a small dot-com when she saw a Craigslist posting for 50 dummies for sale. Her inventory soon went to 500, as she started accepting leftovers from department stores that had difficulty offloading their nonrecyclable, lifeless figurines. 

“I thought I might be a little crazy doing this,” said Henderson-Townsend in a video by the business news site Blooomberg. “I’m a woman with no experience in an industry no one’s really heard of.” 

Yet Henderson-Townsend’s instincts paid off, and her business is now the largest mannequin liquidator in the U.S. and the only mannequin company in the world run by an African American woman, according to the company’s website

But Mannequin Madness isn’t only making money—it’s also keeping the nonbiodegradable materials from which mannequins are made out of the garbage dump. Henderson-Townsend received an award in 2003 from the Environmental Protection Agency for diverting over 100,000 pounds from landfills in a six-month period. The recycled mannequins are used for DIY projects ranging from Halloween crafts to Burning Man art pieces. 

Workshop participants make flower crowns at Oakland's Mannequin Madness. | Source: Courtesy Mannequin Madness

Henderson-Townsend estimates she now receives 30,000 pounds of mannequins every month, with lots of stores looking to offload the human-shaped figures. 

The building that houses Mannequin Madness has its own compelling backstory—built in 1883, it used to be the largest cotton mill west of the Mississippi, said Jon Haeber, field services director for the California Preservation Foundation. 

The mill made fabric for the military during World War I and II and, at its height, employed 1,500 people, mostly immigrants from Portugal who had settled in the area. The mill closed in 1954, and a majority of the complex was demolished to make way for the construction of the Nimitz Freeway. 

One of the few remaining buildings of the original structure today houses Mannequin Madness, a strangely fitting (and fabric-adjacent) coda to an unlikely tale.

“I had no idea it would have this kind of potential,” Henderson-Townsend said.   

Doors Open California: Mannequin Madness 

📍 1031 Cotton St.
🗓️ Sept. 10 | 11 a.m.-5 p.m. 
🎟️ $20 general tickets | $30 mannequin art class
🔗 Visit website 

Julie Zigoris can be reached at

Filed Under