Golden Gate Park
Entry Author: Christopher
Links to chapters:
Greening of the Outside Lands: The Park's Early History
Visionaries: William Hammond Hall and John McLaren
Monuments and Statues: Unwanted by the Park's Makers
and Birds in the Park
Every place has a story to tell, and Golden Gate Park, an
icon and keystone of San Francisco's park system, is no exception.
Millions of people have visited the park over the years, but
only a few know of all the rich nuggets that it harbors. Golden
Gate Park offers a dizzying array of treasures: fascinating
buildings, scenic meadows and lakes, important monuments,
and major museums.
The history of the Golden Gate Park goes back to the 1860s.
The Gold Rush and the discovery of the Comstock Lode in the
mid-1800s had catapulted San Francisco from a minor port town
into a metropolis, buoyed by completion of the transcontinental
railroad in 1869. Pioneer Californians were proud of their
isolation in the Far West but were also aware of their difference
from the established, cultured East Coast. The emerging cosmopolitan
city lacked the earmarks of greatness, such as museums, wide
tree-lined boulevards, and monumental civic buildings, let
alone a great park.
With the blossoming of large late 19th century businesses
in San Francisco, there emerged a much more dense population.
Businesses created jobs and enticed workers to San Francisco,
but they also created crowded conditions. Society sought a
balance between the urban and natural worlds, and felt a romantic
yearning for the simpler past. Everyone could see the need
for a remote park to provide an escape from their workaday
lives. Parks became an antidote to the materialistic ambitions
of the city's citizens.
A quintessential place of outdoor recreation (re-creation),
Golden Gate Park would one day be an important piece of San
Francisco's infrastructure, a feature that would help make
the West Coast city a distinctive metropolitan area. The park's
designer, William Hammond Hall, illustrated the independent
spirit of the Bay Area when he ignored the advice of Central
Park's landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and created
an oasis where Olmsted thought none should be built. San Francisco
was also to ignore the Chicago-based Daniel "Make No
Little Plans" Burnham's advice to polish the city's image
with a grand new street layout, although some aspects of Burnham's
thinking, and of Olmsted's, were later incorporated. Just
a generation after the overland wagons and seaworthy ships
had delivered their cargoes of pioneers to the City by the
Bay, the park was, in varying degrees, covered in greenery.
Few visitors know the story of how the park was created, let
alone of the foundation of sand dunes blanketed with trees,
shrubbery, and other plants. Seemingly natural oases containing
lakes, streams, and waterfalls are cradled within its rolling
landscape. Key to creating the verdant appearance of this
dry, windy environment has been water. The fact that Golden
Gate Park has endured as the playground of the recreation-hungry
city is a testament to its visionary founders and hardworking
The many monuments and buildings constructed in late 19th
century San Francisco were meant to project the accomplishments
of American civilization. Post-Gold Rush architecture within
the park reflects the eclectic tastes of the Victorian period.
Some buildings look to past styles, such as Mission Revival,
Classical, and Spanish Colonial. Themed buildings redolent
of Egypt, Holland, Spain, England, Italy, and other countries
were built in neohistorical styles as America was finding
its own way stylistically. There were constructions in the
rustic taste: bridges across the Chain of Lakes and several
shelters using all manners of branches and logs.
Gate Park, San Francisco, 1897
Online Archive of California (OAC)
for larger view
At the turn of the century, Golden Gate Park was the free
Disneyland of its time, with attractions ranging from animals
and birds to lush plantings and numerous types of recreational
and athletic activities. It was a huge success, despite its
location far from where the populace lived. Competition came
from other nearby commercial ventures, including the closer-to-downtown
in the Mission District (the city's playground-for a fee;
1866-1892); the first Chutes, located on Haight Street between
Cole and Clayton Streets (an amusement park; 1895-1902), a
second version at Tenth Avenue and Fulton Street (1902-1908),
and the final one on Fillmore Street between Turk and Eddy
Streets (1909-1911); and several incarnations of Playland-at-the-Beach
(1916-1972). Of these places, only the park has held up against
the city's hunger for home sites.
Many structures that today contribute to the texture of the
park were never planned by its originators, who preferred
to keep development to a minimum. Furthermore, like old growth
in a forest, many of the park's earliest structures have been
replaced by updated versions or removed entirely. In a way,
Golden Gate Park is an anachronism, a relic of the Industrial
Revolution's pinnacle, the Gilded Age. It echoes many of the
major events and figures of any city: the dawn of flight,
earthquake and fire, expositions, war, presidential visits,
movie stars, politics, moneyed donors, and just plain citizens.
In the park's early years, society focused on the idea of
progress, and the park's architecture reflected that notion
with major innovations in structure. Its texture, interwoven
with the names of the city's builders during a time of dynamic
change, is a reflection of San Francisco's enterprising characters
and evolution into a premiere metropolitan city.
Citizens have recently taken a more active interest in the
park's preservation, approving millions of their tax and bond
dollars to repair the failing infrastructure. Aging lighting,
water delivery, and sewage removal systems are being replaced.
Major storms in 1995 did considerable damage to the park,
including the historic Conservatory of Flowers, which is being
fully restored with public and private funds. Replacement
of the de Young Museum and rebuilding of the California Academy
of Sciences, changes that will dramatically revise the landscape
of the park's Music Concourse, have been under consideration
for many years and are now moving forward.
Greening of the Outside Lands: The Park's
Today's tapestry of buildings, meadows, lakes, athletic fields,
forests, and gardens is far from the original state of the
northwest tip of the San Francisco peninsula, for which a
more appropriate name would have been "Sand Francisco."
Labeled the "Great Sand Bank" on an 1853 map, the
sparsely populated and virtually treeless landscape of windswept,
rolling dunes gave no hint of the potential for greenery.
Naysayers called the park's future location a "dreary
desert"; indeed, the chosen spot must have seemed the
most undesirable area imaginable to those without a trained
sense of landscaping. What was to become Golden Gate Park
was an unprecedented horticultural experiment on a vast scale.
Early chronicler Frank Soulé noted in his 1854 Annals
of San Francisco, "There seems no provision
for a public park-the true lungs of a large city." Soulé
scolded that every square vara (the Spanish unit of
measure still in use at the time) was slated for building
lots. In addition to Portsmouth Square, San Francisco's original
nucleus, only three squares had been planned as recreation
space for the town. The three earliest maps of the city-by
surveyors Jean-Jacques Vioget (1839), Jasper O'Farrell (1847),
and William M. Eddy (1849)-had projected only two additional
open spaces: Union Square and Washington Square, both gifts
to the city in 1850 from John White Geary, the first mayor
of newly American San Francisco. Columbia Square was a third.
Later, in 1855, the Western Addition was planned with seven
large squares. San Francisco swelled from a population of
some 1,000 in 1848 to more than 149,400 by 1870. Rapid growth
left little time for planning parks.
During that time, financier William "Billy" Chapman
Ralston persuaded the board of supervisors to bring noted
East Coast landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted to San
Francisco to advise about the possibilities of a grand park
on the western section of the peninsula. Olmsted had teamed
with architect Calvert Vaux and won a competition in 1858
to create New York's highly successful Central Park. In 1865,
San Francisco Mayor Henry Perrin Coon contacted Olmsted about
preparing a similar plan for his city, but Olmsted did not
believe that such an oasis could be created on the arid Outside
Lands. Instead, he proposed a greenbelt (an Olmsted trademark
used in several other U.S. cities) that would stretch through
the city from Aquatic Park to the vicinity of Duboce Park.
He chose sites-especially along Van Ness Avenue-that were
sheltered, which he felt was intrinsic to the success of landscaping
with native drought-tolerant materials, a visionary idea at
that time. The long range concept could be extended into a
series of small parks over time. Ultimately, Olmsted's plan
was not adopted, because city fathers had hoped for something
more like Central Park. Olmsted's ideas did greatly influence
the supervisors in their decision to proceed with a park,
Acquisition of land for the park was a long, drawn-out matter.
When San Francisco petitioned the Board of Land Commissioners
for land that was not originally within the city limits, a
legal fight ensued to capture the entire west side of the
peninsula, bordered by Divisadero Street. Squatters who occupied
this desolate area, called the Outside Lands, claimed ownership
by possession. Some of these occupants were politically and
financially well connected, which helped them stall any movement
by the city to claim land they felt they owned as homesteaders.
In 1864, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Johnson Field
handed down a decree in favor of the city, which an act of
Congress confirmed on March 8, 1866. Although these were steps
in the right direction, however, neither action settled the
issue of specific claims. Mayor-Elect Frank McCoppin finally
negotiated a settlement, asking claimants to surrender 10
percent of their holdings and help the city acquire the land
once and for all.
In 1868, Mayor McCoppin ordered a survey of potential park
sites west of Divisadero Street. The state legislature approved
order 800 by San Francisco's board of supervisors, and Governor
Henry H. Haight signed the bill on December 7, 1868. A committee
appointed by the board of supervisors was given the task to
appraise and apportion the land; the 1,013 acres established
for the park were valued at $801,593. An April 4, 1870, act
of the state legislature set the park's boundaries and proclaimed
the inception of Golden Gate Park, which was the first documented
use of the name. Shortly thereafter, on April 19, the governor
appointed a three-person Board of Park Commissioners. Bonds
were sold and bids sought for a survey of the future park,
a task carried out by William Hammond Hall.
With the land finally in hand, construction started that fall
on the area closest to the city, the Panhandle, at the park's
eastern end. The process of reclamation was arduous and long
but paid off in the end. Hall was well versed in soil management,
though he had to be creative to solve the particular problems
associated with converting the park's sometimes shifting sands
into a growing medium. To those who argued that the entire
park site should be flattened-including one self-serving contractor
who coveted the resulting soil as free fill for a project
at Mission Bay-Hall recalled Frederick Law Olmsted's advice
to capitalize on the "genius of the place" and maintain
the site's natural features wherever possible.
The sandy soil posed another challenge when it came time to
plant. Lupine (a perennial shrub) was initially planted in
the sand dunes but could not take hold fast enough to restrain
the blowing sand, especially at the exposed beach areas. Serendipity
finally helped: barley grain spilled onto the sand from a
horse's feed bag, and Hall noticed later that it had sprouted.
The quick-growing seed was broadcast on the sands but lived
only a couple of months, not long enough to set deep roots.
Next came sea bent grass mixed with yellow lupine. Over this
were spread topsoil, manure, and organic matter. By 1873,
the drifting sands at the beach had been tamed and further
harnessed with a fence made of boards and posts covered with
tree boughs and brush. The fence was located about 100 feet
from the shoreline and extended across the length of Ocean
Beach to barricade the encroaching winds.
In an 1873 report to the park commissioners, Hall deftly noted,
"These enterprises are found to pay-to yield to the city
a direct moneyed return on her investment." B. E. Lloyd's
Lights and Shades in San Francisco notes that just
four years after opening, the park, "traversed by promenades,
bridle paths and drives, invites the pedestrian, equestrian,
or driver to follow their mazy windings into the labyrinths
of hedges and borders." Some 15,000 people visited the
park that year. By 1876, development had reached Conservatory
Valley, despite budget cutbacks.
view of Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, 1892
View from east end of park looking towards Pacific Ocean;
seven marginal images at top depicting sites of interest.
Legend includes cable lines and railroads.
Online Archive of California (OAC)
for larger view
By the late 1880s, several streetcar lines made the park
accessible to all who could afford the fare, boosting its
popularity. Railroad tycoon Leland Stanford began conversion
of the Market Street Railroad to cable in 1883, increasing
the speed and distance of mass transit. The McAllister and
Haight Street cable-driven lines brought people to the eastern
end of the park for recreation, which in turn made the area
a fashionable and sought-after residential district. "Cable,
electric, and steam-cars reach the park from all parts of
the city," noted an 1892 writer. Nine streetcar lines
terminated at the park by 1900, providing ample transportation.
By 1902, the automobile was also bringing people to the park,
but the newfangled method of transportation was initially
banned from the park itself because the fast and noisy machines
were believed to frighten horses and bicyclists. Finally,
in 1904, cars were admitted into the park through the Page
Street Gate, although they remained banned from the Concourse
Transformed or not, the arid, sandy environment of the park
couldn't sustain plants without a constant supply of fresh
water. The Spring Valley Water Company had supplied the park's
lifeblood for its first seven years, but water was costly,
even at the reduced rate the city paid, and the park commission
sought a water supply within the park as early as 1886. The
ingenious solution was to drill wells near the salty Pacific
Ocean, (the first suitable one in 1888, followed by two others),
pumped by windmills.
By the turn-of-the-century, the park was already well under
way to becoming a special place when it received another boost:
a 1900 city charter reform transferred power from the three-person
governor-appointed board to a city and county of San Francisco
five-member park commission, providing closer contact with
the park's development and the needs of San Francisco.
Tenacious Visionaries: William Hammond
Hall and John McLaren
Two men with distinctly different styles share
the credit for the creation of Golden Gate Park, namely engineer
William Hammond Hall, for the park's framework and initial
landscaping, and horticulturist John McLaren, who made the
park his personal mission until his death. McLaren's long
tenure often overshadows Hall's expertise, but the determined
efforts of both men led to what exists today.
Courtesy of Strybing Arboretum
for larger view
The family of Maryland-born William Hammond
Hall (1846-1934) moved to San Francisco in 1853 but relocated
to Stockton the next year, following major property losses
in one of the city's all-too-common catastrophic fires. "Ham"
attended a private academy in Stockton with the intention
of attending the military academy at West Point, but with
the commencement of the Civil War, his parents revised his
plans, and he remained at the academy in Stockton until 1865.
His professional civil engineering career started immediately
when he apprenticed as a draftsman and surveyor for the U.S.
Corps of Engineers. He advanced quickly, among other things
surveying the west coast around San Francisco Bay for the
U.S. Coast Survey. His efforts with the army allowed him to
observe the reclamation of sand dunes along the city's western
edge, an important ingredient in his future. With his move
to private practice, Hall was on the brink of what would become
a renowned, if checkered, career.
On April 19, 1870, Governor Henry H. Haight appointed a three-person
Board of Park Commissioners, which soon solicited bids for
a topographical survey for a large city park in San Francisco.
The 24-year-old Hall won the contract for $4,860 on August
8, 1870, and completed the task, including a preliminary plan,
in six months. Hall's prior knowledge of the terrain was an
enormous help, as he designed undulating roadways that took
advantage of the terrain, kept speeding drivers at bay, and
sheltered users from the incessant winds. Appointed superintendent
on August 14, 1871, at a salary of $250 a month, Hall met
great opposition from naysayers who felt that the Herculean
task of turning sand dunes into a verdant park sounded like
Later, Hall became a victim of political motivation and revenge
by former blacksmith-turned-Assemblyman D. C. Sullivan. Hall
had fired Sullivan for padding his bill while in the position
of blacksmith, and Sullivan accused Hall of wrongdoing and
had him investigated by a special committee. Although none
of the charges stuck, Hall resigned in April 1876 when his
salary was cut in half. He continued to consult on behalf
of the park without compensation and regained an official
title when Governor George Stoneman appointed him consulting
engineer to the park in 1886; he kept the position until 1889.
During this time, he hired and trained John McLaren as assistant
superintendent, initially assigning McLaren the job of landscaping
the Children's Quarters, designed by Hall.
Coutresy od San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection,
for larger view
Legendary John Hays McLaren (1846-1943) presided over the
park as its superintendent for 53 years. Hailing from a farm
in Stirling, Scotland, just west of the Firth of Forth, the
stocky Scot learned his trade by working on nearby estates
from the age of 16. Later he worked in Edinburgh's Royal Botanical
Gardens. At age 24, he sailed for America. A short time after
arriving on the east coast in 1869, he proceeded to the west
coast by ships and by a train across the Isthmus of Panama.
Finally settling in San Mateo County, McLaren worked on large
estates for 15 years before joining the park. He was employed
primarily on the lavish George H. Howard Estate, "El
Cerrito," and did work for other notables, such as financier
William Chapman Ralston, railroad tycoon Leland Stanford,
and banker Darius Ogden Mills. He is responsible for the continuous
rows of eucalyptus trees that still line El Camino Real along
Following three years as assistant superintendent, McLaren
became superintendent in 1890, overseeing 40 gardeners whose
ranks would swell to 400 during his long tenure. Using experience
and direct observation, the shrewd and aggressive superintendent
worked diligently to keep politics and commercialism out of
the park. He was held in great esteem but was also considered
hard to work for by some. "Wild game is coming"
was the muffled cry when McLaren came to inspect his workers.
McLaren's landscaping philosophy was similar to Hall's in
that he wanted to create a natural look by working with nature,
not against it. He was an experienced horticulturist and forester
who studied the local climate and what would thrive in it.
Still a dynamo when he reached his 70th birthday in 1916,
he was granted a special honor. With McLaren's mandatory retirement
at hand, the board of supervisors passed special ordinances
giving him lifetime tenure over the park. Blind at the end
of his life, he relied on protégé Julius Girod
to be his eyes.
McLaren's work was not limited to Golden Gate Park but also
included other emerging city parks and special events. He
did landscaping for the 1915 Panama Pacific International
Exposition and for the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition on Treasure
Island. In appreciation, a special day was set aside at the
PPIE to honor McLaren for his design work, and two local newspapers
presented him with an engraved loving cup (an ornamental vessel,
or award); some 4,000 San Franciscans had contributed as little
as a few cents each toward the gift. Other accolades for the
indomitable, self-described "Boss Gardener" included
the naming of an avenue in the prestigious Seacliff District
after him, and the award of an honorary doctorate by the University
of California at Berkeley. Upon his 80th birthday and his
40th year with the park, a 450-acre park in the Outer Mission
was named after him. McLaren Lodge in Golden Gate Park honors
his longtime contributions, and the East Bay's Tilden Park
has a meadow named after him.
After his death in 1943, at age 96, McLaren's body lay in
state in the San Francisco City Hall Rotunda, a tribute reserved
for only a few San Franciscans. Later, the funeral cortege
drove his casket through Golden Gate Park, also a special
honor, as the park commission normally discouraged corteges
from entering the park. His final resting place is, appropriately,
the garden cemetery of Cypress Lawn in Colma.
Monuments and Statues: Unwanted by the
"The value of a park consists of its being a park, and
not a catch-all for almost anything which misguided people
may wish up it," according to the first Golden Gate Park
superintendent, William Hammond Hall. Hall considered the
park to be a place to enjoy nature without the trappings of
the city, a place that did not include a lot of structures,
particularly ones that did not contribute to the true park
experience. Yet in an 1873 report to park commissioners about
the state of the park, Hall noted, "Some classes of park
scenery are fitting settings for works of art, such as statues,
monuments, and architectural decoration."
Relic of the Mid-Winter Fair, 1894, still in the same spot,
where the new Music Concourse is now, Golden Gate Park, 1898.
Online Archive of California (OAC)
for larger view
Following Superintendent John McLaren had even stronger views,
firmly believing that statuary would weaken the goal of creating
a pastoral setting. Because of his dislike for the structures,
McLaren would commonly plant densely around those that did
find their way into the park, letting nature envelop them
as quickly as possible. McLaren quipped in his Scots brogue,
"Aye, then, we'll plant it ott!" after another "stookie,"
as he referred to them, was placed.
An 1892 San Francisco Chronicle account notes, however,
that the park was "not very well endowed" as monuments
go, a clue that the city's society desired these elements.
Former Mayor James Duval Phelan, a proponent of the turn-of-the-century
City Beautiful movement and president of the Association for
Improvement and Adornment of San Francisco (1904-9), donated
several pieces to the city over time and encouraged others
to do the same. After McLaren's death, with a new administration
in the park, the pieces hidden under his reign were rediscovered.
Trees and hedges were trimmed to reveal the artworks, and
the press made them known to a generation who hadn't seen
Today the park discourages installation of monuments, suggesting
instead that donations be directed toward enhancement of the
Monuments reflect the culture of Victorian times, when society
felt that the presence of physical tributes distinguished
bygone individuals and events and honored the courageous accomplishments
of civilization. With posterity in mind, the detailed parts,
usually cast of bronze, were combined with larger features
of natural hard stone. During an era of imperial expansion
by the United States, these physical symbols seemed to enlighten
and uplift people and were also status symbols that fulfilled
the notion of urban beautification. The point of being newly
rich during the fin de siécle Gilded Age, which
lasted roughly from 1880 to 1906, was that wealth was to be
displayed. Mortality and mourning in the Victorian period
were reflections of 19th-century spirituality. In an age when
high death rates were common and life spans short, memorials
seemed to confer longevity as well as be a visible expression
of grief. In the context of the new photographic technology
of the time, "secure the shadow or the substance fades"
was a prevalent attitude.
In some respects, the park is now an open-air museum of artifacts,
a repository of remembrances by moneyed individuals or organizations
that sought veneration. While most are on the highly visible
Music Concourse, others occur all around the park. They range
from donations of a select cadre of powerful rich individuals
who would not be forgotten to contributions from first-generation
immigrant ethnic groups to denote their growing stature and
desire for respect. Still others represent a variety of causes,
mostly patriotic. Some simply honor humble citizens for their
contributions to society. More subtle monuments abound in
the forms of roadways, meadows, waterfalls, and the like,
all named after their benefactors or an admired person.
Over time, the park's statues have been relocated like pieces
on a game board. The Francis Scott Key Monument has been in
three different sites. Douglas Tilden and Willis Polk's 1897
Native Sons Monument, currently located downtown at the intersection
of Post, Montgomery, and Market Streets, was in the park's
Redwood Memorial Grove from 1948 until 1977, and stood prior
to that at the crossroads of Mason and Turk Streets. The Goethe
and Schiller Monument and the Goddess of the Forest, Doré
Vase, and Thomas Starr King statues have each been
moved to suit the purposes of the times. Some statues, including
the original Sarah B. Cooper child statue, the fountain
in front of the Conservatory of Flowers, and the marble bust
of Ruben H. Lloyd at Lloyd Lake, are gone entirely.
On the cusp of the World War I Armistice in 1918, San Francisco
Mayor James Rolph received a letter from a correspondent who
signed himself "Patriot" and said that he found
the Goethe and Schiller Monument objectionable. The writer
stated in the San Francisco Chronicle of June 13, 1918,
that the statue to "a pair of Huns" should be melted
down and recast as a Joan of Arc tribute. Patriotic fervor
again reared its head just after the war, on May 8, 1919,
when the San Francisco District of the California Federation
of Women's Clubs passed a resolution to request that any future
monuments added to the park be of "Illustrious Americans."
Some ideas have never made it off the drawing board but have
remained a concept in the artist's head or to be located elsewhere.
In 1998, for example, San Francisco Art Commission President
Stanlee Gatti proposed that a 24-foot-high stainless steel
peace sign be located in the Panhandle. The work of sculptor
Tony Labat was intended to commemorate the hippie days of
the Haight-Ashbury District, but area residents objected,
claiming it would draw a bad element. In 1897, Mayor James
Phelan commissioned artist Douglas Tilden to create a monument
to explorer Vasco Nuñez de Balboa to be placed at the
western end of the park looking out over the Pacific. The
model was made but never cast because of the untimely outbreak
of the Spanish-American War on April 21, 1898. At other times,
simple budgetary problems have prevented perfectly uncontroversial
monuments from being built. The Scandinavian Civic League
proposed a heroic-size statue of Leif Eriksson in 1936, for
example, but nothing came of the Depression-era proposal.
The San Francisco Art Commission has joined forces with the
Recreation and Park Department to establish the Adopt-a-Monument
Program to raise funds specifically for the restoration and
maintenance of the city's monuments. Only one within the park-General
John Joseph Pershing- has its own endowment fund.
Animals and Birds in the Park
Over time, a kaleidoscope of captive creatures has inhabited
the park. Only the bison remain today, but the menagerie in
the past included deer, elk, moose, caribou, and antelope.
At one time, donkeys and goats gave rides to children, while
chickens inhabited an imitation barnyard, both located in
the Children's Playground. More exotic specimens have included
elephant, zebra, bear, kangaroo, emu, and ostrich. A spectrum
of smaller unusual birds, including pheasants of many types,
peacock, and quail, were all at one time part of the park
landscape. In February 1927, Park Superintendent John McLaren
suggested that the city find a better-suited site to create
a zoo, and in 1929, the animals became part of the nucleus
of the San Francisco Zoological Gardens, a project of Park
Commissioner President Herbert Fleishhacker. The zoo's connection
still remains: Golden Gate Park's eucalyptus trees supply
tender leaves to feed the zoo's koala bears.