Outside of the entrance to Harold’s Art House there is a sign that says:
“HIPPIES USE BACKDOOR. NO EXCEPTIONS.”
After a thirty-second identity crisis over which access I qualified for, I realized that the sign itself was an art piece…
Walking through the converted barn I’m swallowed by memories. 1960s LIFE magazines wrapped in protective plastic blanket tables. They sit next to an original copy of Nobody Knows My Name. A sizable chunk of floor space contains the $3 records (the “Funky Collection”), while the more classic names sit under a $5 sign. Bare walls are a rarity. Black and white profiles of MLK and Timothy Leary take up the south wall, while wide shots of every big protest and cultural moment to happen in the Bay Area cover another. Chromatic oil paintings hang crookedly. My knee knocks into a chest of costume jewelry. I bend down to the tangled treasure and see that the supply of tchotchkes has no end.
If you talk to the Art House owner Harold Adler for five minutes he’ll tell you about the afternoon he spent with Allen Ginsburg raising money to get The Living Theater crew out of jail in Brazil. If you talk to him for twenty, he’ll tell you about the time his friends spiked his milk carton with LSD before gym class (he sprouted wings and came in third in the track race). For thirty he’ll tell you about the time he told Janis Joplin to drink tea with lemon for her sore throat. Sweet talk him enough and he may even show you the “1968 room.”
Harold’s had this place for sixteen years. Cultural center curator is the last item on a laundry list of occupations: poet, film studio producer, rave light show designer. Principally, Adler identifies as a photojournalist. It’s the job, rather a way of life, that’s responsible for the obsession with preservation that wafts through the Art House air.
Back when Harold’s served its original purpose, the lofts in the upstairs corners were rented out to photographers and artists, while the main space was an art gallery and cultural center. Live music headliners ranged from local Berkeley stars to the Chambers Brothers.
When the pandemic shut down such events Harold’s friends donated anything and everything that could be sold to keep the place afloat. “I’m blessed,” Harold says.
The Art House explains what the word Berkeley means to a select group of witnesses and a younger population longing for a time passed. But Harold is somewhat lost on the concept of fetishizing the 60s. Each time I probe this idea he is puzzled. It’s not that Harold doesn’t understand performative aesthetics. But he says things like, “All people want to help each other” and “People are naturally creative.” Maybe every Berkeley student buying a psychedelic blacklight poster doesn’t really get it, but why would you waste time wondering? His belief in the innate goodness of others is a refreshing reminder that judgment is most often fruitless.
At the same time, Harold refuses to forget the past’s reality. When the Summer of Love comes up during our conversation, Harold gets up and turns on Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco:
He warns of the false fantasy that prints of the Flower Children may lead you to believe. “After that song came out [and so many people came to San Francisco] it was devastating. The truth is they didn’t have a lot of money or luxuries but they had a lot of great music and a lot of peace and love.”
Aside from the drugs that Harold sees as the death of the Haight, he says the 60s were about love. It seems that this is the ingredient missing from the present.
Both decades are moments of monumental cultural shifts propelled by young activists. However, to Harold, the 60s was a push to accept love, rather than reject hate.
Comparing the 60s to our current time of strife is not something Harold prefers to do. “There was just nothing like it.” With each mention of Trump, he chokes up. It’s unclear whether that’s because he despises the man or the foreignly negative emotional state to which the former president sends him.
They’re not all tears of rage, though. Talking about young people and the hope in activism gets his waterworks going, as well. “In the 60s we wanted to make a better world, and now kids want to make a better world, too.”
There’s a tangible difference discussing life with Harold. He seems to have escaped succumbing to the collective exhaustion with hostility. “Like a tree that’s been burned in a forest fire it will come back, the seeds will grow. That’s human nature. Out of the mud grows the lotus.”
Perhaps spending your days in a hall of remembrance is overlooked ambrosia. When a visitor picks up a photograph, Harold beelines over to them, equipped with three and a half origin stories. He doesn’t see this as “selling” his legacy so much as distributing tokens of the footprints he’s been privileged to have.
“I don’t drive my car fast. Why should I drive my car fast? I wake up and say this is another day.” He sighs and tells me he has no regrets. Except for when he forgot to set the exposure the day Huey was released. That was a bummer.
I left Harold’s Art House with three translucent glass bottles, a shot of Paul Revere and the Raider’s horn section, the 1969 double issue of LIFE magazine, and two broken necklaces I planned to piece back together. Most importantly, however, I left the barn with faith that rewards wait for those who have the patience to find beauty amidst the chaos.
Harold’s Art House and Cultural Center is located at 2905 Shattuck Ave in Berkeley, CA. If you can’t visit and would still like to keep up with Harold go to https://www.facebook.com/arthousegallery2905/ for upcoming virtual events.