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Is The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) Haunted by Ghosts?

Updated on October 6, 2010

San Francisco is a place where creative people have always thrived. The Beat Poets of North Beach are just one example from the past (and the muralists of the Mission just one example from the present) of individual artists who came together in San Francisco to create a scene. There is vibrancy everywhere one turns in the city. Interest in art here takes many forms, perhaps one of the most formal of which is the prevalence of art education options in the city.

The San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) is one of those institutions of education in art of all kinds. It is considered, by many, to be the most prestigious of art schools located in the Bay Area, due at least in part to the fact that it has been in existence since 1871. This long history alone is enough to suggest that spirits may be present in the location. It is no secret that many artists are tortured souls, at least for some time during their lives. It is also no secret that artists tend to have a higher proclivity for being tuned into the spirit world and the questioning of reality than does the average person. So, it is no surprise then that spirits are said to haunt the buildings of SFAI and that people there frequently accept with little question that this is something which occurs.

The main campus of the art institute is located at 800 Chestnut Street, between the North Beach and Russian Hill neighborhoods of San Francisco, in a location that was once a monastery and also once a cemetery. If these two types of history are not enough to create the setting for a spirit to linger, their combination with the creative distress of the art world seems to be the necessary component, because this place has been haunted for as long as students have been attending the school.

Numerous different sightings of spirits have happened at SFAI over the years. The most common location for such experiences to occur is the watchtower, which is part of the original construction of the monastery. The tower has reportedly been haunted for more than half a century. It was opened in 1927 and from day one people began commenting that there was a strange feeling in the air up in that tower.

One of the first recognized reports of spirit presence in the SFAI tower was by Bill Morehouse, a former student of the arts there. The first time that he reported experiencing something unusual, he had been watching the tower’s third level from the inside. He heard footsteps coming up the stairs. He called out to see who was coming, but no response came. The door opened and closed behind a presence, but there was no one there. The presence proceeded to walk, with audible footsteps, past Morehouse to the tower’s observation deck.

Morehouse reported this experience to friends who didn’t believe that he was telling the truth. Then, a group of them gathered together in the tower one night to have a surprise party for a friend. They were all waiting in the tower room for the friend to arrive when they heard what they thought was the friend’s footsteps on the stairs. They opened the door to yell “surprise” – to their surprise, no one was there.

Morehouse is not the only one who has apparently had these experiences. Wally Hedrick, who once worked at SFAI, reported hearing all of the tools in the sculpture studio begin working at once, although no one was in the studio at the time. Hayward King worked at the location at the same time as Wally Hedrick and would experience something similar; at the end of his shift, he would turn off all of the lights in the building but when he’d get back downstairs, he could see that some of them had turned back on. On one occasion, Hedrick and King were working together, and they made the usual rounds, turning off all of the lights. They exited the building and just as the door closed shut behind them, all of the lights in the building simultaneously turned on.

For awhile after the experiences of these three men, the SFAI tower was quiet – or at least no one was reporting any problems. But the spirits hadn’t left the building. Perhaps they had just become comfortable with the way that things were there and didn’t need to bother anyone. In 1968, renovation on the SFAI tower began. The spirits must not have liked having their peaceful existence disturbed. Immediately, a number of strange and tragic events began to take place.

During the renovation itself, three different near-tragedies took place like items falling inexplicably onto the heads of workers. It was not only the shared experiences of these people that indicated that something was amiss. Spirits made themselves known all throughout the tower. The sounds of destruction which echoed throughout the building often came when work on the tower was not taking place. Chairs would be heard splintering in to pieces, with no one there to cause the damage, and unidentifiable shrieks were common.

In years since, séances have been held and groups of psychics have spent time in the SFAI tower trying to figure out who is haunting the area. Some of the most famous names in Bay Area ghostly experiences have checked out the place. Nick Nocerino came in and took photographs of the tower room, which showed the tower to be exactly as it was at the time the photos were taken – except that there were doors and a window in the photo which were not in the same place in the room, indicating that Nocerino was able to capture pictures of the tower from a time before the renovations. Chuck Pelton is another photographer who has captured photos of things not as they are to the naked eye. His photographs of the SFAI tower show displaced people all throughout the room.

There is much debate as to who the spirits are that haunt this tower. A general séance once found “frustrated spirits” in the location. A more specific exploration by Antoinette May found that the spirits were those of artists who failed to realize their creativity in life and so needed attention in death. In contrast, an in-depth exploration by San Jose medium Amy Chandler ended with her determination that there was a lost graveyard beneath the building – a fact which she didn’t know prior to entering the building but which research later proved to be true.

The art world is a complex place. It is filled with hope and inspiration and creativity which knows few bounds. It is also filled with terror and despair and the inner struggle of people who often feel as if they do not quite belong in this world. This combination creates a dynamic setting in which spirits may get trapped. In turn, the spirit world provides great fodder for the artistic imagination. No one can say for sure what is happening in the SFAI tower right now but even those with creative minds may find that the reality is more than they could handle.


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  • profile image

    anonymous 4 years ago

    I grew up on that block. My parents still live in the house. And the basement is super haunted. I've seen a schoolboy, and let a "psychic" friend wander around the whole house, and without any prompting on my part, he zeroed in exactly where I had seen the boy standing.

  • kittythedreamer profile image

    Nicole Canfield 6 years ago from the Ether

    Hauntings are in fact real. Whether they are "ghosts" or simply trapped energies, they are most definitely real and to deny them is closed-minded and ignorant. Great job, Kathryn. Voted up and awesome!

  • nightwork4 profile image

    nightwork4 7 years ago from ontario. canada

    no it's not haunted. it's impossible but many people still believe in these kinds of things.

  • profile image

    Nan 7 years ago

    Who is crying out from the grave. Was it someone that didn't get any recognition for their work? Sounds can fool you, why I don't know. Good Article