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The battle of Balboa Terrace: It’s artists vs. homeowners in a feud over one man’s museum

Group of smiling people seen through an ornate circular frame, surrounded by lush greenery.
Gregangelo Herrera, center, in blue vest, and his artist-allies pose for a portrait at the Gregangelo Museum in Balboa Terrace. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Room 400 of San Francisco’s City Hall on March 20 had the makings of an SNL sketch. On one side, a band of 50 merry artists in bright dress, voicing heartfelt stories about their whimsical leader and his magical lair. On the other, scowling neighbors in nondescript clothes, rattling off complaints about traffic, trash and changing “neighborhood character.” 

A profound chasm divided the two groups, even as the same source brought them into the room together: the 40-year-old Gregangelo Museum, which was being considered by the Historic Preservation Commission for an official city landmark designation. 

The museum—a weird, whimsical, exploding-with-creativity art oasis hidden away in San Francisco’s leafy, suburb-quiet Balboa Terrace—is not any ordinary cultural hub. Its creator and owner is artist Gregangelo Herrera, a long-haired 58-year-old with the soul of a 9-year-old. A native San Franciscan, Herrera moved into the one-story Mediterranean Revival-style home in 1979 and has since set about transforming it into an immersive, through-the-looking-glass Shangri-La.

From the outside of Herrera’s museum, which he still uses as his full-time residence, there are hints that this is no ordinary house. A red- and white-striped carnivalesque gate adjoins the sidewalk, and an off-kilter grandfather clock leans on the front lawn.

But the surrealness really hits once you enter the front pathway, where you are greeted by bedazzled sphinxes, trickling fountains and multiple live rabbits. The kitchen has an intergalactic mosaic backsplash and cabinet pulls made from fake fingers. One room has dozens of shoes glued to the ceiling. Another is a permanent Día de los Muertos altar. 

A person dressed as a vibrant green fairy with large wings, amidst lush greenery and orange flowers, next to a stone Buddha head.
As Jinx, Michelle Musser entertains artists and guests at the Gregangelo Museum, a private home filled with immersive art. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

It’s less a museum than a portal to another dimension, where costumed guides take visitors through a variety of immersive artistic experiences that explore the stages—and meaning—of life. For these therapy-like encounters, more than 1,000 guests per year pay anywhere from $45 to $90 for 90-minute tours, tea ceremonies and fairy-led garden strolls. 

“The journey is about you, from life to death,” said the museum’s artistic director, Marcelo Defreitas. 

Which brings us back to Room 400, where seven commissioners from the Historic Preservation Commission were considering whether or not to bestow upon the Gregangelo Museum the protection of landmark status. The designation would mean that any subsequent changes to the defining features of the residence would have to be reviewed by the commission. The question of whether to give Gregangelo a permanent spot on the city’s hallowed landmarks list had brought several angry neighbors and many more delighted allies out to say their piece.

“I am unaware of any place that can so drastically change the course of someone’s life in a couple of hours,” said Sari Zagorski, who flew in from Las Vegas to be present at the hearing. 

“Gregangelo and his museum changed the fabric of my life,” wrote the artist Diva Marisa in support of the application. “Without [it,] my current life would not exist.” 

A group of people in a lively room with vibrant, carnival-like decor is focused on a man in the center speaking and gesturing.
Gregangelo Herrera, center, speaks during an artist gathering last week. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Planning staff said they received 320 letters in support, written by everyone from a former Palace of Arts swan caretaker to a co-owner of the Mission restaurant Foreign Cinema to an opera singer-turned-trapezist to a professional chainsaw carver. 

Only nine people had written letters voicing opposition. But they were a voluble group, and they weren’t going to take this particular fight lying down.

The Gregangelenos

“I don’t know what we’re doing,” Herrera likes to say about his artistic philosophy. “There’s not a word for it.”  

Born in San Francisco to parents of Lebanese and Mexican descent, Herrera sold his first piece of art when he was 13. Interested in the transportive capabilities possible within one’s body, he spent five years traveling to Egypt and other countries to learn how to become a whirling dervish. He was criticized for never subscribing to Sufism, the religious practice within Islam with which whirling is typically associated. 

“They got pissed at me,” he said. “So I started twirling in the other direction.” 

Wearing his long gray hair in a braid that dangles down to his mid-back, Herrera is an avid roller skater. He is not a drug user or a drinker, preferring to explore the boundaries of reality through art and the body’s limits. The idea is embedded in the full name of his business, Gregangelo and Velocity Arts and Entertainment.

Over the years, he’s employed hundreds of artists, ranging from mosaic makers to costume tailors to scriptwriters. Through his artistic gatherings, he’s connected documentary film directors with their subjects, designers with their clients and mural artists with their muses. 

A person with a warm smile holding a black and white rabbit outdoors in sunlight.
Artist-in-residence Zoe Schelde holds one of the Gregangelo Museum's many resident rabbits. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Michelle Musser said when she first contacted Herrera, he wrote her back within 13 minutes with a job offer—she currently plays the fairy Jinx for the children’s tour at the museum. “He’s not motivated by profit,” she said, “but by human connection.” 

Others have found administrative roles with the museum when they were unable to land artistic jobs elsewhere. His followers are a multicultural, multiethnic tribe, many of whom have been with him for decades and hail from places as far away as Mongolia, Russia, Brazil and Chile. 

The corporate entertainer Joanne Evangelista called Herrera her life’s greatest inspiration. “Working together has expanded my creativity and challenged me to grow as an artist,” she wrote in a letter in support of his landmark application. Hererra’s residence on San Leandro Way, Evangelista wrote, is not just another house but “a colorful reflective jewel.” 

The protectors of Balboa Terrace

The building that houses the Gregangelo Museum is, obviously, far more than a residence. But the homes that surround it are filled with people who didn’t sign up for this. Many of them are members of the local homeowners association, the Balboa Terrace Homes Association. These members are elected, in part, to safeguard Balboa Terrace’s upscale character—the median sale price of a home in the neighborhood is $1.7 million—and defend their turf against anyone who threatens it. 

An arch reading "BALBOA TERRACE" with a fountain and Tudor-style homes behind it, under a clear sky.
Homes and a historic bus stop mark the entrance to Balboa Terrace in San Francisco. | Source: Courtesy Google Streetview

Association board member Robert Mann appeared at the public meeting to argue that the proposed landmarking of the Gregangelo Museum was the opposite of historic preservation because the property disturbed the “open vista park-like views” of the neighborhood. While Mann said he was supportive of the outdoor tours the museum offered during the pandemic, he doesn’t want to see them continue or expand.  

Balboa Terrace has “been this idyllic place for the last 100 years, and most of us would like to maintain the historic character of San Francisco,” echoed Richard Hill, the association’s board president. Herrera shouldn’t “be subject to different rules just because he is an artist.” 

The landmark designation was proposed by Supervisor Myrna Melgar, who represents Balboa Terrace on the Board of Supervisors. She called the museum a “place of magic and wonder” and believes it exemplifies the character of the city. 

“San Francisco is a city of artists and creators and queer joy,” said Melgar’s legislative aide, Emma Heiken, in presenting the case to the Historic Preservation Commission. “No other institution better exemplifies these facets than the Gregangelo Museum.” 

A woman looks up, smiling, in a vibrant, eclectic hallway adorned with colorful glass and lights.
Guests of "Let’s Do Lunch! Behind the Scenes Visit" walk through the Gregangelo Museum, a private home filled with immersive art in Balboa Terrace. | Source: Camille Cohen for The Standard

Hill and a handful of other residents in the small community, which borders affluent St. Francis Woods, were having none of it. They fear a potential expansion of the museum’s business that might come with its landmarked status. Herrera countered by saying his tours will continue to operate in small groups of six to eight people, and that the current operation has not caused traffic or trash problems. 

Another neighbor who lives directly across the street from Herrera pointed to photographs—which had groups of four or five people standing on the sidewalk—as evidence of crowds and lines. However, an association board member who wished to remain anonymous said that the nearby school created more traffic issues than the museum. 

Herrera explained to the committee that landmarking would not lead to any expansion but would solely help to legitimize his business and further the employment of dozens of local artists. It would also mean that Herrera would be shielded from attacks by disgruntled neighbors who have filed complaints about his business operating in a residential area.  

“The truth is that our intention is to preserve what little remains of our declining cultural business,” Herrera wrote in a mediation proposal with the homeowners association.

A person in a colorful, patch-adorned jacket showcasing a playing card, wearing a mask and hat, with a reflection and warm tones.
Nick Brentley guides a group of visitors on a tour of the Gregangelo Museum in September 2022. | Source: Michaela Vatcheva

Mann argued that Herrera had so much support because he lobbied his artist friends who didn’t live nearby. However, multiple neighbors spoke in support of the landmarking at the public hearing—including one who has lived only two doors down from the museum property for 54 years.

“This is a city famous for its serendipitous encounters,” that neighbor said. “And it adds to the city’s charm.” 

Another neighbor, Lisa Napoli, pointed to Herrera’s goodwill in the community, acknowledging his conversion of a parking lot into a performance space at Lakeside Village and his efforts to help raise funds for the local Episcopal Church. “He’s the ultimate connector,” Napoli said. 

After hearing all the arguments, the seven members of the Historic Preservation Commission voted unanimously to approve the landmarking. The case will next move to a yet-to-be-scheduled meeting of the Land Use and Transportation Committee, which Melgar chairs. From there, it will have a final vote by the full Board of Supervisors. 

Yet the forward progress wasn’t enough to quell the homeowners association. The group sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Gregangelo Museum last Monday. 

Extending ‘an olive orchard’ 

In response to the association’s opposition, Herrera did the same thing he’s done the past 40 years: He called in the artists. 

On Thursday, he hosted “Let’s Do Lunch,” a program he’s been running weekly for 38 years, and offered blessings to the neighborhood as well as a “good-vibes-only” tea ceremony. The artist Kai-Kenny Chew poured Iron Goddess brew into small white teacups, asking the group to infuse the golden liquid with their good feelings and to defuse any tensions in the neighborhood. 

The tea leaves were passed around for the group of around 20 to inhale. Then Kai-Kenny poured the tea, instructing everyone to close their eyes and sniff the brew, imagining the smell. Everyone sipped with closed eyes, feeling what it was like to drink what they had envisioned. 

A group of people enjoys an outdoor tea ceremony with a person serving tea, seated on grass under sunlight.
Kai-Kenny Chew serves tea during a "good-vibes-only" artist gathering at the Gregangelo Museum. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

While board members Mann and Hill presented the homeowners association as a unified front against the museum, one current board member told The Standard that there was no such unanimity among board members. Many people in the association were supportive of the museum, the person said, noting that the Gregangelenos had previously provided entertainment for association events.

The museum isn’t the only Balboa Terrace neighbor to run afoul of the association. To eight-year resident Nathan Ng, the complaints and targeting of Gregangelo sounded eerily familiar. In 2016, the homeowners association used a city-sanctioned process known as discretionary review to stall Ng’s home renovation.

Ng said the board’s efforts to thwart the Gregangelo Museum fit a pattern. When Ng submitted plans to renovate his home, he claimed that one neighbor joined the homeowners association in part to stop the project.

“She said we weren’t buying a house because we wanted to start a family, but … because we were flipping it,” Ng said, who had two children in the ensuing years. The claim incited anger toward Ng among other board members and residents, Ng said, even as it mischaracterized reality. 

Ng recalled bumping into Mann at a homeowners association barbeque event previous to when he filed his plans.

“When I confirmed I was the one trying to remodel my house, he said, ‘We’re gonna stop you,’” Ng said. “He was the main person orchestrating all these attacks, and it feels very similar to what he’s doing to Gregangelo.”

Board member Hill pointed to his reelection to the board in March—and Herrera’s loss of a position on it—as evidence that the neighborhood is with him and against the museum. “It was a fabulous demonstration of democracy,” Hill said of the election.

As far as Ng’s situation, Hill sees it differently. “Nathan and his wife don’t think the homeowners association should have any say over their house,” he said, “even though we have a bunch of historic homes, and the goal is to maintain the look of the neighborhood.”

For his part, Herrera is hoping all of the negative vibrations are temporary. The artist plans to invite the entire board over to his home this week. “I don’t want to just extend an olive branch,” he said. “I want to give an olive orchard.” 

A man stands among colorful flowers and whimsical decorations, including a large fake mushroom.
Gregangelo Herrera poses for a portrait at the Gregangelo Museum on San Leandro Way in San Francisco. | Source: Estefany Gonzalez/The Standard

Even if the landmarking moves successfully through the stages of the city’s lengthy entitlement process, the designation remains an atypical one. The difficulty of protecting such a landmark—a private residence that could be sold or have a new owner—sparked debate among the commissioners during the March hearing. 

“It’s unusual to have a single-family house that is being landmarked for its association with a living person,” said Woody LaBounty, president of the nonprofit SF Heritage, a nonprofit tasked with safeguarding the city’s cultural legacy. “And it’s not just Gregangelo; it’s what he’s created inside.” 

Yet LaBounty also pointed to the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” collage in the nearby Ingleside Presbyterian Church as a potential precedent.

“It’s a unique and unusual landmark,” LaBounty said. “But the Gregangelo Museum is a unique and unusual place, so it only makes sense.” 

For Herrera, so accustomed to building bridges, the whole drama has unsettled his normal sense of zen. “I’m numb,” he said after the landmarking hearing. “It’s crazy watching people decide on your life.”