What once was a convent for nuns run by the Catholic Church in 1936 is now an over-sized living and artist work-space on Oak Street in the Lower Haight neighborhood of San Francisco. Commonly labeled by others as a commune, it is actually an artist living collective, with enough space and privacy for its inhabitants to focus on projects like sewing, DJing, glass blowing, and other forms of art.
After ringing the doorbell, a girl named Gabriella with long, brown hair and a sundress on answers the door, not asking any questions but inviting to come in and explore the place. Making people instantly feel welcome and comfortable is one of the greater qualities of The Convent. When you walk through the door the hallway is long and dark, with a bright expanse of light at the other end, emanating from an empty room with hardwood floors and windows lining both sides. Gravitating towards the luminescent space, you pass an immense staircase leading to the second floor and rows of wooden doors – one that leads to a kitchen, a few with signs reading “off limits”, another that opens up into a plush, antique-looking parlor, and multiple with large brass numbers nailed to the front. The doors with numbers are all bedrooms. Once you approach the radiant room you realize that it is a chapel – a place for meetings, a place of mediation, a place of respect. These components are some of the key things that comprise the elements of living here.
“The Convent is a place for turning inward, focusing on your personal art, and being a part of a community and communal events,” says Brett Hapoienu, who is originally from Rochester, New York, but has been living in the space on and off since last October. “It’s not a commune because we don’t share everything.”
The residents share the main living spaces and work together on different events that they have, but still try to be respectful of everyone and their space. Brett’s role in the house is a manager of sorts, whose duties have become making rounds once people are asleep and helping run the convent altogether.
“I am usually the last one awake,” Hapoienu says. “And I think being the president of my fraternity in college has made me used to checking on people and closing things down at night.”
In the house, Brett is an aspiring DJ and works in a custom-built music studio setup in the basement.
The basement spans the entire ground floor of the building, and is separated into two different sections. One side is equipped with workbenches, tables, canvases and other instruments for the artists’ work. The other side adorns a bamboo dance floor with more than enough space for everyone and their friends to have parties. It also contains a secret door leading to a music room fully equipped with multiple instruments, and across from there a own personal music-recording studio. In order to get there, you need to venture through one of the “off limits” doors, which is only a spiral of wooden stairs leading down or up to the roof, a place either of solitude or for guests to enjoy a great view of the entire city.
The Convent opened for move-in last October, with many of its residents previously living with only a couple roommates and not knowing what to expect.
“There definitely was no cohesive vision or unified voice for the convent,” says Madeline Fauss, who immediately moved into the space when it became available last October, “but it is an amazing thing to wake up and have all of your friends in the same space. You really have everything that you need here.”
But that’s not to say that living with twenty-four people in twenty rooms doesn’t come with its own set of problems.
“It’s definitely all about respect, that’s the number one issue,” says Brett. “A lot of us here like to have a good time, but sound really travels in this place. Not everyone can party in the wee hours, some people work and some people don’t.”
Establishing ‘quiet hours’ isn’t the only problem, however. The tasks that come with living with so many people can become overwhelming, even daunting at times.
“The most important thing that people need to remember is to take care of themselves,” says Madeline, referring to people who become resentful of others that don’t clean up after themselves. “People were wearing themselves out at first because they were taking on too much responsibility, and the hardworking were overcompensating the lazy. They have to realize that in order to live here everyone has to first take care of themselves and then the house is taken care of.”
To deal with the task of cleanliness, the Convent established a chores system so everyone can pull their own weight, as well as a body of representatives to handle problems anyone might have.
“You’re going to have people clashing in any living environment, that’s natural,” says Madeline. “The challenge is to accept that and find healthy ways of expressing emotions.”
Artist collectives in San Francisco first started to become popular in the ‘60s, according to UC Berkeley history professor Richard Candida-Smith, but some groups were living collectively long before they were popular.
“Artists have had close living and working relationships for a long time,” he says, referring to artist Ralph Stackpole’s studio at Mission Street and Embarcadero in the 1930s and 1940s. “It was a center for progressive arts setup for both living and working, but the arrangements were casual.”
He says that housing costs in San Francisco before the 1970s were cheap, so the economy would not have been a factor in deciding to live with others.
“What would have been required probably was a new ideological perspective,” he says, which is similar to what those at The Convent and other modern-day collectives are doing.
Although collectives may not be many people’s preferred way of living, they definitely have their positive aspects.
“Deciding to live in a collective was a life-changing experience for me,” says Michael Latronica, current leaseholder for The Convent. “I think we tend to keep to ourselves, especially in a big city where you don’t know who your neighbors are. Collective living breeds community, breeds what I think lacks in the city for the most part, and encourages people to share and interact with each other, that’s what it’s all about.” Living collectively brings people together not only as a community of friends and immediate neighbors, but also as a network. To live, work, network, experience, create, and thrive with a group of people on a consistent basis is something some people only wish they could be apart of. Just because you live in a place where you have the ability to be in constant contact with people doesn’t mean that it is a constant party.
“There’s power in numbers,” says Brett. “Collective living aids in ones ability to create and affect change through the collective’s strength. That power is best focused if the community has a shared intent or vision.”
But The Convent never had that vision, it’s just a place to live and be inspired and create personal work. So instead of changing that vision, a new opportunity arose. The landlord contacted Michael and decided to open another collective, offering the people who live in The Convent an opportunity to run the new space. Behold, The Center.
The Center has nineteen bedrooms, five offices, a three-thousand square foot event space, and a completely different vibe from The Convent.
“The Center has this angelic light throughout the entire space,” says Michael. “It was built in the 1800s so the building has a lot of character, but it’s very clean and white and spacious. It’s a completely different animal than The Convent.” Madeline and Brett have taken on responsibility as managers of the new space, with Michael in charge as head leaseholder for both The Convent and The Center.
Although the new space houses about twenty people, it is not considered an artist collective. It is more of a business, with a cafe, multi-purpose space and offices offering acupuncture, yoga classes, tai chi, martial arts, workshops, and other things for the surrounding community.
“I am really excited about it,” says Brett, whose managerial role for the Center is to recruit renters into the offices and bedrooms . “The purpose of this space is to facilitate the evolution of consciousness in humanity and to bring awareness to things about the world.” It is literally in the backyard of The Convent, around the corner on Fillmore Street.
There is definitely excitement flowing through the halls of these two spaces. The people that live here feel like they are making a difference either in their own lives or in the lives of others, making that is their ultimate goal.
“I’d recommend collective living in these two types of places because of the potential of what can manifest from the collective gifts, skills, and resources of a group of people,” Brett says. “Together, our network is instantly huge.”
Collectives allow people to brainstorm and inspire each other, and put those thoughts into effect. It’s always easier to do things with a friend by your side, and, in this case, you have multiple people supporting you and enabling you to become a better person every day.
“If you’re having an artistic dilemma,” says Michael. “You have people there to pick you up and get you back on track.”
And that’s really what it’s all about: being there for other people and having a network, a support system, steps away from your bedroom door and allowing yourself to be part of something bigger.
“Part of me doesn’t want to leave here. It’s really been an unreal experience,” says Madeline, who is originally from Richmond, Virginia. “I have found my nuclear family here.”