On a list of what to do while in San Francisco, at the top is most certainly a visit to Golden Gate Park. This year marks the 150th anniversary with 100 institutions throughout San Francisco participating in some way to celebrate Golden Gate Park’s past, present, and future. One of the largest parks in the world at 1017 acres (New York’s Central Park is 843), its origins and that of San Francisco’s rise to prominence are parallel tales.  

‘Squatter’ camp

The first urban parks- ones that were open to the general public as recreational, cultural, and free green spaces — in the United States and Great Britain weren’t established until after the mid-nineteenth century and before the real effects of the Industrial Revolution’s mass urbanization were felt. Open spaces were still within walking distance.  The new industrial labor opportunities caused a massive population shift from the countryside to jobs in urban centers, causing major cities to burst at the seams.

With industrialization, its attendant pollution, crowded tenements, poor sanitation, and the physical dislocation from nature, Victorians responded with the firm belief that creating open urban green spaces was essential to combat the material ills of the time. Civic leaders and politicians alike understood the psychological and physical needs of the citizens, and large urban parks were their anodyne.

In the late eighteenth century and into the first part of the nineteenth century, rather than there being public parks, “pleasure gardens” existed as urban escapes, and were to be found all over Europe and the United states. These were privately owned spaces that were open to the public and provided opportunities for different social classes to dress up in their finest and to see and be seen.

Vauxhall Gardens in Kensington, London is the most notable pleasure garden and the most famous. Its popularity drew visitors from around the globe. Europeans often came back so enamored they introduced pleasure gardens into their home countries. In fact, the word Vauxhall became synonymous with the concept, so much so that it entered into the lexicons of France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, and Russia. And many of the attributes associated with pleasure gardens, ranging from balloon rides, to theater, dances, refreshments, concerts, artwork, scientific demonstrations, as well as exotic elements, such as masquerades, vaudeville, and even volcanic eruptions, created a dynamic social space where individuals from all walks of life intermixed.

It was also a place where the middling classes could become “elevated” by interacting with those of a higher rank. Although the cost was relatively low – Vauxhall charged one shilling – it was prohibitive for the lowest classes. Dress attire was of upmost importance, another facet that excluded the extremely poor. In fact, some gardens would allow free entry, but only to those who were dressed “in a genteel manner.”

These pleasure gardens were precursors to the large urban parks that were to follow, in that large urban parks were meant to provide an idyll rural setting within a city and were meant to provide individuals a place of recreation, entertainment, and sanctuary from the pollution and concrete of cities.  Indeed, local entrepreneur and philanthropist – and our library’s founder Adolph Sutro – opened his own property in San Francisco to the city as a public park on certain days of the week, free of charge.  

San Francisco’s meteoric rise in population did not account for the planning of green spaces. Starting with the Gold Rush, San Francisco became a major international metropolis, exploding from a town of around 1000 in 1848 to over 25,000 by 1849. Other factors like California’s entry into the Union in 1850, the Comstock discovery of 1859, the completion of the trans-continental railroad in 1869, followed by cable car service in 1873 – which allowed people to move further away from the city center – all served to boost the city’s prosperity and population. 

As the city became more sophisticated and more densely populated, civic leaders like William Chapman Ralston helped to garner support for building a large urban park like New York City’s Central Park. In 1868 Governor Henry Haight signed a bill establishing the Golden Gate Park Commissioners Board.  On April 4, 1870, the state legislature set the park’s boundaries and shortly after that the governor appointed the Board of Park Commissioners. That same year engineer William Hammond Hall surveyed and was then hired to design the park, serving as its first Superintendent. William Hammond Hall had worked for the Army Corp of Engineers and was an expert in soil management. He along with highly respected and accomplished horticulturist, John McLaren, transformed the barren desert into green space.

The initial task of the Park Commission was to sell $225,000 worth of municipal bonds for immediate park improvements as well as to oversee its development. Municipal bonds for those of you who don’t know (like me), are securities issued by governmental entities to fund public projects, like highways, schools, and parks. The buyer is basically loaning money to the city in exchange for regular interest payments later on.

John McLaren and John Muir at McCloud River, California — Calisphere
John Mclaren and John Muir

John McLaren is the person in history most associated with the park because of his long tenure. Over the years he continued to improve and develop the park and his condition for serving as Superintendent was the stipulation that the city provide $30,000 a year for improvements, and so began his 53 years as Superintendent and caretaker of Golden Gate Park. The city even passed a charter amendment that exempted him from forced retirement. On his 92nd birthday San Francisco honored him as its number one citizen. He lived in McLaren Lodge until his death in 1943 at the age of 96. The lodge is located next to the Conservatory of Flowers and in the Northeastern corner of Golden Gate Park on Stanyan. It now serves as the administrative headquarters for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department.

In 1900 a city charter reform transferred administrative power for the park from the three-person governor-appointed board, to the city and county of San Francisco. They then created a five-member Park Commission, providing closer contact with the park’s development and the needs of San Francisco. Prior to 1950 the Park Commission and the Recreation Commission were parallel entities with the latter operating and managing playgrounds, athletic fields, and recreational facilities across the city. In 1950 the two commissions merged under the auspices of the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department and today is responsible for overseeing and managing the organization and maintenance of over 220 parks, playgrounds and open spaces in San Francisco, as well as some outlying areas like Camp Mather in Yosemite.

Over the years Golden Gate Park has been host to numerous fairs, festivals, events, and concerts. The 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition attracted 2.5 million visitors. The park has also been used to help in emergencies. During the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake/’Great Fire,’ around 250,000 were left homeless with 80% of the city destroyed. Across San Francisco, refugee camps sprung up, with Golden Gate Park hosting somewhere close to 40,000 refugees. John McLaren quickly organized the chaos, and designed “Earthquake Shacks” as wells as tents, setting up makeshift towns in regimented rows. Even after two years some of those ’towns’ were still in operation.

Today, the park is home to other attractions and recreation: tennis courts, a nine-hole golf course, the California Academy of Sciences, a bison herd, picnic areas, fly fishing pools – the list goes on.

San Francisco Recreation and Parks is excited to celebrate the 150th anniversary. The California State Library – Sutro Library is also participating in this celebration and has an exhibit in our reading room featuring images, maps, and ephemera from Sutro’s collection as well as the State Library’s California History collections. Events are scheduled to begin April 4th  https://www.goldengatepark150.com/ nd, 2020, but due to the coronavirus, this start is uncertain.  For the latest updates, visit their website at https://sfrecpark.org/ 

Bibliographic notes

Most of the images in this post are from the California State Library – California History Room and the California State Library -Sutro Library. The Pleasure Garden images and the industrial city image are from the British Museum. And the image of John Muir and John Mclaren is from Calisphere.

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