One thing that always strikes me about books like Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind is the challenge of reporting on the psychedelic experience itself. Mind-altering destinations elude description, and all we can really do is sketch their outlines in charcoal.
And so it is during our afternoon in the sylvan SF neighborhood of St. Francis Woods. My friend Iris and I step through a spinning wooden gate, and into an alternate reality. We pass a magic mirror and part the curtains of the “Portico Portal,” a waiting area crowned by a hallucinatory mosaic of a blazing sun.
“In a neighborhood of pastel homes,” Iris observes, “we enter a technicolor world.”
The Gregangelo Museum is an outlier on its block, a wildly re-imagined private home divided into a labyrinth of 27 spaces that feel like cinematic tableaux. Nothing prepared us for its spectral variety. Entering feels like walking into a childhood fantasy. Think Alice in Wonderland, Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, and Cirque du Soleil.
The museum’s tours (limited to six guests) run upwards of an hour. We’ve signed up for Into the Rabbit Hole. Our guide, Ariel—vibrant in a whimsical polka-dotted costume—frames our upcoming journey with a short poem, and leads us inside. This tour, she explains, will be about the timelines of our lives. In each of the rooms, we’ll be asked to reveal something about our present, past, and future.
The environments created in each space—from the Galaxy Hall to the Earth Room—provide the jumping-off points for these explorations. In the Eclipse Room, for example, the inspiration is smell. Dozens of brightly-lit perfume bottles stand on display, each label a play on words: Scent-uality; Lumine-scent; Translu-scent. “Which perfume do you most identify with?” Ariel asks, “and why?” Scents of humor is my pick, for aspirational reasons.
From there we move through another doorway, into an elegant Art Deco chamber. Before us is a large green bed, a needlework appliqué of the elusive “green flash” on its headboard. The floors and ceiling are a mosaic of stars and swirls (representing the masculine and feminine), and a flowering trellis is visible outside the window.
This is the “Green” or “Regeneration” room. Everything, we are reminded, is regenerating—from the light of distant galaxies to the cells in our bodies. This room represents the past, Ariel explains, and how an opportunity to change the past might have changed who we are now. “What person do you wish you had spoken with when they were still alive?” she asks, “and how might that have changed you?”
For me, it’s a no-brainer: Leonard Cohen, whose blessing I long desired. But everyone’s response—from a lost grandparent to Josephine Baker—helps shape their personal arc through this extraordinary Museum.
The guidess asked that I not reveal specific details about the tours. Some of the questions do evoke intimate responses—depending, of course, on how open and revealing your little group might be. There’s also the factor of surprise; knowing what awaits you on your tour would be like watching Squid Game after a spoiler.
But in the spirit of a good scavenger hunt, here are some of the things you might seek: gold-tipped statues of Egyptian gods; a flying saucer; a trapeze hitched to a star; the satyr Pan (constructed from more than 14,000 twigs and branches); a mirrored goddess in an outdoor bathtub. There is a Buddha in a palanquin, sequined roller skates, and what must be—I’ll go out on a limb here—the single most remarkable bathroom in the Bay Area.
But the museum is not a flea market of disparate objects. Unlike Santa Fe’s Meow Wolf, with its maze of manic installations, or Burning Man’s loosely themed art projects, the Gregangelo’s interlinked rooms are carefully curated. They usher guests through immersive experiences, led by guides who serve as de facto art therapists.
“They’re not docents,” Gregangelo Herrera, the charismatic creator and artistic director of the Museum tells us after our tour. He’s standing in the kitchen in a black T-shirt and jeans, stirring a cauldron of lentils and carrots. His ponytail is white, his eyes a piercing blue.
“Our guides lead you through your own journey. It’s a place to have questions, to take a leap, to contemplate doing things with your life that maybe you weren’t brave enough to do a minute ago. It’s an odyssey—if you allow it to be.”
Gregangelo moved into the house as a renter in the ‘80s and bought it in the ‘90s. He was already an entertainer and started by using various rooms as workshops for upcoming shows.
“This place sprouted from an old can of paint I found in the basement and a ripped-up shirt,” he says, “because I didn’t have a brush at the time.” But the museum’s present form began to take shape during the 1980s.
“I was coming of age right in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, and lost a lot of friends,” Gregangelo tells me. “The house was a way of creatively purging grief, and finding joy. And now, 40 years into it, we’re able to help many, many artists make a living.”
It’s true; artists from all over the world have been drawn in by the spell of the Gregangelo, which has become a creative collective as much as an attraction.
The tours offered by the museum are conceived and written by Gregangelo, along with creative director Marcelo Defreitas and other resident artists. During Covid, an outdoor tour was choreographed exclusively for close friends and family groups. Called “The Riddle of the Sphinx,” it guides guests through the three phases of their lives: childhood and innocence; adulthood and sensuality; wisdom and the unknown. The journey proved so popular that it has become an ongoing offering, and will resume later this year.
Though everyone’s experience in the museum is different, Gregangelo has a unifying vision.
“I hope people who visit the museum take away some sense of liberation within themselves. I think we all need to be liberated from something. I know I do!” he says with a grin. “My wish is that when guests actually go through one of the experiences here, there’s something purged, and something gained.”
The museum is a lot of fun, but—full disclosure—I didn’t feel it liberated me from anything in particular. I found it a well-spent hour of challenging riddles and scenic wizardry.
But Iris, a professional singer, has a different story. “It happened in the Green Room,” she recalls. “The Flower Duet, from Delibes’ Lakmé, was playing on the sound system. For a moment I found myself in visual and auditory bliss, processing a personal regret. It offered me a greater appreciation for the music I sing; a new perspective that will inform my future performances.”
Well, then. There you have it.
Before leaving, I ask Gregangelo an obvious question: Did any of his psychedelic experiences—as a San Francisco native during the 1960s and ‘70s—contribute to the kaleidoscopic experience of the museum?
“I’ve never done psychedelics,” he says soberly. “Yes, I’ve been told this house can take you on a psychedelic trip, but there’s no pill to pop. Psychedelics are a shortcut for getting somewhere—but this house takes the long way.”
The Gregangelo Museum is located at 225 San Leandro Way in the St. Francis Woods neighborhood of San Francisco. Visits are available by reservation only from Thursday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Check the website for the latest tours and booking information.
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