S.S. Vallejo

Article originally written for Shift Magazine, Japan

On the North end of the Golden Gate Bridge lies a small town called Sausalito. Well known as an artists enclave, Sausalito hosts an eclectic community due to the extensive houseboats and live-aboard boat residents. In the heart of the houseboats lives an old paddle wheel ferryboat called the S.S. Vallejo which has long been the center of the Sausalito art scene.

In 1949, a young artist named Gordon Onslow Ford stumbled upon the old ferryboat ready to be junked for the metal in its hull. Ford saved the boat and began using it as his home. At the time Sausalito was primarily an industrial ship yard – used extensively during World War II for constructing Liberty Ships.

Gordon Onslow Ford - Floating Woods (circa 1952)

Gordon Onslow Ford was part of the French surrealist movement of the 1930’s. His paintings focused primarily on three shapes – dots, lines and circles – a goal which remained unchanged for much of his long life. Ford bought the boat with his friend Jean Varda, an eccentric Greek artist he had met in France. Apparently Varda was a bit too wild for Ford, who eventually moved off the boat.

Jean Varda - The Phoenix Reborn (date unknown)

Jean Varda was a surrealist collage artist also connected to the French surrealist scene. Forever youthful in spirit, Varda created community all around himself – hosting extravagant dinner parties and sailing the bay in his home-made sailboat filled with “dancing girls”. Varda created art with whatever was on hand, turning scraps of worthless paper and fabric into ethereal cityscapes.

Varda shared the boat with a zen philosopher named Alan Watts. Varda and Watts attracted many of the well known beat poets, such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, which made the boat one of the hot spots of the San Francisco beat scene. In the 60s the boat played host to many key figures of the San Francisco psychedelic scene. Timothy Leary, Gary Snyder, Alan Watts and Allen Ginsberg would meet on the boat to discuss the changing cultural landscape – famously documented in “The Houseboat Summit”, a 1967 article in Oracle Magazine.

Steve Speer - Teletubbies and assorted Burger King swag

Both Varda and Watts died in 1971, which left the future of the boat unclear. The S.S. Vallejo shifted hands many times – at one time being a zen center, then becoming a derelict squatters paradise. Eventually, the boat landed in the hands of someone with some resources and a long needed repair commenced in the year 2000.

Steve Speer with cash and a bible gun - all he needs

One of the contributors to the repair was New York artist Steve Speer. Speer’s obsession with occultism, pop culture, symbology, and general realms of indescribable nature has become a perfect next chapter for this historic artist’s boat. In the past 6 years, Speer has created an impressive volume of works, from sculpture and paintings to messages hidden in walls and a giant cryptic book in the hull of the boat.


Perhaps some day the S.S. Vallejo will be a museum for all to appreciate, but for now it remains a secretive and private residence. Rumor has it that Google owns the boat and applying to live aboard requires completing a twenty page questioner and a set of physical and mental tests only a super-human could endure. Whether true or not, we at least have a glimpse into the world of the S.S. Vallejo though the web site.