Defenestrating the Hugo Hotel

If Walls Could Speak

“If Walls Could Speak” (2003)

Hugo Hotel. 200 Sixth Street.

The Hugo was Sixth Street’s oldest hotel. Shuttered and vacant after a fire burned out several rooms in 1987, the unreinforced masonry building also suffered structural damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. In 1997 a group of artists led by Brian Goggin transformed the Hugo into an immense sculptural mural called “Defenestration.” Scavenged furniture and appliances were modified by the artists to make them appear animate and then cleverly affixed to the hotel. Tables and chairs leapt from the roof and ran across the walls. Lamps corkscrewed from some windows, and sofas, refrigerators, bathtubs, even a grandfather clock squirmed and leapt from others. Sightseers took untold thousands of photographs of the Hugo and its famous furniture, a housing crisis turned into public art. I photographed the Hugo’s former service alley because it showed the only wall of the hotel that had not been altered, save by the hand of Time.


“Defenestration” (2005)

Hugo Hotel. 200 Sixth Street.

“Defenestration” endured for nearly eighteen years, although most of the original sideshow-themed paintings disappeared beneath eye-popping murals of polychrome street art. As a work of conceptual art, the Hugo Hotel was universally appealing — everyone liked it — and I grew more attached to it with each passing year. Yet few people know the hotel remained empty for almost thirty years because its owners cared more about profits than people. They refused to repair and maintain the building as low income housing, but were unable to sell it because their asking price vastly exceeded the building’s actual market value. Their outspoken contempt* for those less fortunate reflects an attitude that for years has been tacitly encouraged by the policies of local government. After years of haggling with the owners, in January 2008 the redevelopment agency announced it was seizing the Hugo by eminent domain, foredooming the controversial landmark to demolition.

*“They can put the low-income people somewhere else… you can be homeless somewhere in Idaho.” –Varsha Patel (former owner, Hugo Hotel)


“Daybreak – Hugo Hotel” (2006)

Hugo Hotel. 200 Sixth Street.

As embodied by the new Yerba Buena pavilions, galleries, malls and tourist hotels, and a widespread proliferation of drab and overbearing condominiums, modern urbanism has been steadily taking over the South of Market landscape for several decades. Demolished, plowed under and built over, the old “South of the Slot” district has been fragmented into near-oblivion, and Sixth Street for years has been slowly dying by attrition. The Hugo Hotel was at last razed in mid-Spring 2015. Inasmuch as it helped prevent the total dissolution of the old neighborhood by holding off encroaching urbanization and gentrification, the transformation of Sixth Street will no doubt proceed in earnest now that the hotel is gone. Despite its longtime closure in the face of a housing shortage, the Hugo was given new life and purpose by the artists who created “Defenestration.” Transformed, the old hotel was a kind of signpost: a reminder of the past and a symbol of the present. It was a powerful presence that will not soon be forgotten.


Filed under Sixth Street

3 responses to “Defenestrating the Hugo Hotel

  1. Michelle Obama

    I live across the street!!!

  2. Mary Beth James-Thibodeaux

    I loved this essay. I am so frustrated by the lack of SRO and low income housing in San Francisco and greed has so much to do with it. In a way though, the greed of these owners saved a little piece of art for 20 years, now the way is opened to more expensive condos. My sister lives in one so I can’t talk about ‘them’ causing our housing crisis. I know them and they are us. Our way of life in the US is becoming more and more based only on making money. SF is one of the outposts of sanity and we still have government that can only get its income from development!

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