Local Historian Keeps Past Alive

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Peter Linenthal (left) with Steven Herraiz at the Potrero Hill Archives Project’s Pop-Up Museum. Photo: Mr. WA

Peter Linenthal is a neighborhood treasure.  As Potrero Hill Archives Project director, he’s educated and entertained audience members for the last twenty-one years at annual ‘Potrero Hill History Nights.’  He has a passion for collecting historic maps, artifacts, and photographs of Hill people, places and things, spending thousands of hours searching out and organizing newspaper articles and interviewing community members.  Linenthal is the definitive, ‘go-to’ person for information about the neighborhood.

Linenthal grew up in Presidio Heights.  His mother, Alice Adams, who died in 1999, was a short story writer and novelist. In 1982 she received the O. Henry Special Award for Continuing Achievement. His father, Mark Linenthal, was shot down over Germany on his first mission during World War II. He taught English and creative writing at San Francisco State University for almost 40 years. He passed in 2010.

Linenthal first came to Potrero Hill when he was a child; his family enrolled him in Phoebe A. Hearst Preschool, then located behind the Potrero Hill Neighborhood House.  His teacher and the school’s founder, Rhoda Kellogg, was an early proponent of developmentally appropriate practices, believing that every child is an artist, making art supplies available to her students whenever they wanted them.  Kellogg, who died in 1987, was a prolific collector of children’s drawings, amassing more than two million of them. 

Linenthal earned his bachelor and master degrees from the San Francisco Art Institute, as well as a Teaching Credential from San Francisco State. In 1975 he purchased a 1905 Victorian at the corner of 18th and Missouri streets. He loved the neighborhood’s silence, and its expansive views. He also knew that he could get much more for his money in the then-undiscovered, ‘off the beaten path’ community. He and his husband, architect Phil Anasovich, live on the third floor with sweeping City views, surrounded by books and artifacts.

“Goat Hill Pizza had just opened, and, besides Ganim’s Deli, there were no other food places here,” said Linenthal. “The New Potrero Market was here, and The Good Life Grocery was just getting started, in the building where Papito’s is now. There were a couple of bars.  It was quiet and kinda funky, and the houses weren’t as fixed up as they are now.”

Linenthal was drawn to the ‘visual’ from an early age.  He setup his first ‘museum’ in the washroom of his childhood home.  The initial artifact was a fish he’d caught.  Later, as an adolescent he and his stepbrother began collecting old things, newspapers, items they’d found in stores.  They called the amassed treasures, ‘The Collection.’

In the mid-1980s Julie Gilden founded the Potrero Hill Archives Project as an oral history initiative focused on the Molokan community. Shortly after Linenthal joined the effort, conducting audio interviews. People brought photos in; the physical archives grew, as did Linenthal’s interest in the project.  Abigail Johnston, an early and important volunteer with The Potrero View, lent her expertise in research and page layouts.  The now large collection of photographs, maps and artifacts are stored in Linenthal’s home.

“It would be great if we got a storage space, one where we could meet, connect with the public in a better way.  We could have a display case in which we could have changing shows and display different materials,” Linenthal said.

Besides appearing at Potrero Hill History Night and the Potrero Hill Festival, Linenthal and Johnston take the Archives on the road for ‘San Francisco History Days,’ an annual showcase of local history featuring independent historians and historical organizations, sponsored by the San Francisco Department of Memory.  Their book, San Francisco’s Potrero Hill, was published in 2005 by Arcadia Publishing as part of its ‘Portraits of America’ series, followed in 2009 by Potrero Hill, contributing to Arcadia’s ‘Then and Now’ series.  

Linethal’s passion for history extends beyond the Hill’s to Central Asia, particularly the first century A.D.

“I started collecting Central Asian artifacts because of the combination of Greek, Indian and Iranian cultures in the region is fascinating and unfamiliar,” Peter explained. 

He’s currently working with an archeologist on a catalog of his collection of Central Asian artifacts, to be titled, The Kushan Collection.

“Under the Kushan Empire, the first images of Buddha as a human being were made,” Linethal said. “Previously, he was represented by a footprint, an empty throne, or other symbol.”

Kushan Empire history was the impetus for a children’s book, Jaya’s Golden Necklace: A Silk Road Tale.  Linenthal previously had created Look, Look!, a series of four black and white board volumes for infants, which were recently translated into Chinese languages.  

Linenthal was a pre- and after-school art teacher for thirty years, most recently at Daniel Webster Elementary.  

In June, he was inspired by a box of old photographs and films featuring Potrero Hill images to create ‘Lost Photos and Movies of Potrero Hill,’ a collaboration with artist, Ben Wood, and projectionist, Mr. WA.  Photographs were projected onto vellum-covered windows of Linenthal’s corner flat, broadcasting images in a size, brightness, and dramatic effect never before seen.  The projection coincided with ‘Slow Streets,’ along 18th Street. The program ended last month. 

During the public health crises Linenthal launched ‘Pop Up Museum.’ Most Saturdays he’s on the corner of 18th and Missouri streets displaying larger artifacts: a 1920’s era stove from a Carolina Street cottage, giant aerial maps of Potrero Hill from the 1930’s where one can look for their building, and two original seats from Seals’ Stadium.