I invite you to be my guest on a trip to an enchanted place – where dreams and history, fantasy and hope combine into a land that never was, and will never be – but whose promise still shines brightly today.
“It is the bridge to enchantment – Sunshine, Sails, Surf, Birds, Kites & Joy. Hillside Gardens forever in bloom. Fishing wharfs, foghorns & Moviemakers. Architectural Daring – high as the hills. The taste of goodness & and touch of whimsy. It’s the past, present and future, flower stands & the bell atop a cablecar.
San Frantasia – Timeless wonderland of the West.”
Decades ago, these were the words at the bottom of the poster which I saw among the pieces of history at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, CA, buried in an old freightcar filled with lamps, timetables, and more. The jumbled vision of old and new, whimsy and dreams, caught my eye – never imagining I would one day live here in the less colorful yet still vibrant real city by the bay. Like many curiosities that attract my eye, it faded into my memory, stirred recently by discussion with a friend who asked me to find it online – along with new discoveries. I hope you will let me guide you along the path that helped me find it after all those years.
It turns out “San Frantasia” sprang from the vision and imagination of Albert Tolf, whose father Albert Tolf Sr. emigrated in 1900 from Sweden, settling eventually in Joliet, IL where Albert Jr. was born in 1916. He had formal training at the Chicago Institute and for a while assisted on the now nearly forgotten “Gasoline Alley” newspaper comic. Following a vacation trip to San Francisco in the late 30’s, Albert fell in love with the city, moving here in 1948. He worked on billboards and other commercial projects, including scenic painting for an amusement park under construction in Southern California – a risky venture by another visionary, Walt Disney’s Disneyland. Soon, Albert gave up commercial art to build his own gallery featuring his oil paintings, at six SF locations over 20 years, including Post at Sutter near Union Square, the Transamerica tower, and a Holiday Inn lobby on Kearny. One profile described him riding around his gallery on a custom unicycle! Albert married his wife Naomi in 1967, retiring to Santa Rosa where he passed in 1996.
Another explorer provided an online window that opened my eyes to the broader world of Albert Tolf’s vision. In 2016, local resident and respected photographer Ron Henggeler was exploring a Berkeley bookstore, and found a worn volume published by Albert called “This was San Francisco”. He too was charmed by the illustrations of local lore and events. He scanned and cleaned all of the images, which you can find on his personal website, including thousands of wonderful historical and current images. I hope you will explore his amazing online gallery, but here is where you can see the entire book of Albert’s collection of local facts and curiosities – https://www.ronhenggeler.com/Newsletters/2016/5.18/Newsletter.html
The original images were published over several years in the 50’s, when Albert provided a weekly cartoon “In Old San Francisco”, illustrating local history and lore to the “San Francisco News”. This publication is long gone, like many, as after mergers it was eventually bought and shuttered by the San Francisco Examiner. The website above has all of the illustrations, but here is just one example, of a name many of us know (and a treat many of us have enjoyed!) – Ghirardelli Chocolate.
After some more digging, I found that the volume Ron Henggeler had discovered was a revised reprint of the original edition, “In Old San Francisco”, published in soft cover in December 1959. But I still didn’t know where “San Frantasia” came from? As I learned in the few articles I was able to track down online, Albert created numerous images of his beloved city, as well as artwork of local landmarks in both present and past times, such as Union Square and the Embarcadero.
Eventually I learned, to my surprise, the original poster which I had seen years before was initially available accompanying another smaller 1966 publication – “Al Tolf’s San Francisco .. Timeless Wonderland..” which he described as “a presentation of seven impressions and caricatures” with “one plate reproduced as a lithographic print”. Tolf is quoted as saying “San Francisco is like one big Disneyland”, and it is clear his imagination was unfettered. Several of those images follow … because, as you see below, I engaged in retail therapy and tracked down – separately – both original books and the print for my own. It was apparently quite successful, with one article noting in time over 12,000 posters were sold. A few even apparently remain on display in some locations scattered around our city, their origins mostly forgotten.
When I look at this amazing “gee whiz” world that Tolf created in his poster, filled with cable cars on impossible heights, steam engines and horse drawn buggies alongside dirigibles, unending construction of skyscrapers near tiny houses, horses and convertibles – I am inspired. This is a vision, yes, a dream – and I am struck by how that dream endures even over 50 years after he created it. Today we are facing upheaval here and in our broader world, our village where creative and personal freedom, fringe culture and groundbreaking thinking have been birthed for over half a century since his publication. Still, even now, in this time of uncertainty, sometimes bleak and seemingly impossible challenges – San Francisco remains and endures and becomes and evolves. Just as, in a shorter time frame than this city, we all must, constantly, and at a seemingly increased pace. Somehow, this vision I feel in Albert Tolf’s art gives me – hope.
But the most intriguing article I found was from the San Francisco Rotary in 1967 – the second oldest chapter in the world! They were very kind to share with me that Albert, a devoted member, even designed their “Grindings” newsletter masthead, still in use today – shown here with their permission (thank you!). It captures in just a few detailed lines much of our iconic city.
The article showed a “work in progress” which hopefully still exists today, for the upcoming anniversary of the Golden Gate bridge. Like his talent, it was large – as was his love for his city – and was created for display in the Rotary offices. But, as change comes to all things, Rotary closed their office in time, and passed it on to another non-profit agency with a long heritage – I hope to discover they still have it on display, and that I can share this history of their treasure for future preservation.
As much as I would love to have one of his amazing originals of this “Timeless wonderland” that has become my home, I am happy to have brought “San Frantasia” and his books into my life. For those who are fortunate to have one of his many whimsical sketches, or full on oil paintings of his beloved city, or railroads, and other places he loved – perhaps our trip through time will help them learn of Albert’s amazing life – and to realize they have a small treasure.
It’s hard to say just why thinking of San Frantasia gives my heart a lift, but it does. Although it’s impossible for me to pick out one “favorite” segment of his detailed vision, this tiny image from the lower right side is perhaps the perfect way to thank Albert, and all the dreamers and characters, visionaries, adventurers, scoundrels and outliers that brought us the city we love today. May it endure, and continue to be a shining star for future generations. “The best is yet to come” – it is now in our hands to bring that dream just a little closer to reality. Shall we?