The Gem of Golden Gate Park

There is an immensely valued historical landmark in the the North Eastern part of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Last year (2020), Golden Gate Park celebrated its 150 year anniversary. Before the park’s inception (1853), the land the park occupies was known as the Great Sand Bank owing to the plethora of sand dunes in the area. The city of San Francisco asked William Hammond Hall to survey the land in hopes of making use of that space. With Hall’s help, a design was drafted and implemented and we now have what we know as Golden Gate Park today.

The conservatory of Flowers wasn’t originally intended to be part of Golden Gate Park. For that story we have to go back to the 1870’s and review the involvement of the richest man in California. James Lick was a California Pioneer who made his riches in real estate. Lick, originally a Pennsylvania native, was the son of a carpenter and subsequently learned the trade early in his life. In tandem, he also learned how to make pianos and quickly mastered the trade, eventually opening his own shop in New York City. In 1848, after moving to Argentina and then Peru (where most of his piano sales were), Lick moved to San Francisco with his fortune, tools and 600 pounds of chocolate from his Peruvian neighbor, Domingo Ghirardelli.  When he arrived in San Francisco, Lick quickly sold all of the chocolate and sent word to Ghirardelli, convincing him to move to San Francisco and sell his chocolate there. He followed the advice and eventually founded Girardelli Chocolate Company. But I digress… 

Lick soon developed a love of horticulture and in the early part of the 1870’s resolved to build two conservatories on his estate in Santa Clara.  It is believed that Lick commissioned these conservatories from Lord and Burnham, the leader in conservatory manufacturing at the time. It is also believed that they were patterned after the conservatories at Kew Gardens in London. The supplies were crated up and sent from New York, around Cape Horn, and then up to San Francisco. One of the ships unfortunately sank during the trip, and the lost materials had to be replaced with local, old-growth redwood.

James Lick unfortunately died before construction began. After his assets were distributed to specific beneficiaries, the crates were donated to the Society of California Pioneers. Eventually the materials were sold off to some prominent San Francisco Philanthropists like LeLand Stanford, Claus Spreckels, Charles Crocker and others.  These men subsequently donated the supplies to the City of San Francisco to be used in Golden Gate Park for public use, and the conservatory as we know it today came into being. 

The glass house was very popular when it first opened its doors in 1879. The west wing was stocked with ornamental foliage like azaleas and other flowering plants.  A little known fact is that women would cut and steal these blooms to take home to place in their dining rooms and parlors.

The 140 year old conservatory has endured its fair share of accidents and natural disasters. In 1883 there was a boiler fire that destroyed the central dome and many exotic plants. Charles Crocker donated money to have the dome restored, and not long after (1895) the building received electricity, including lights.

The great earthquake of 1906 generated minimal damage to the structure. The grounds surrounding the conservatory (known as Conservatory Valley) became a refugee camp for many people who lost their homes from the disaster. Another fire in 1918 precipitated damage to the glass roof and also to a potting room. Sadly, the structure was threatened with closure during the 1930’s due to the great depression and reduction of staff.  The neglect during this time period caused considerable deterioration and repairs were too costly and couldn’t be implemented.

The conservatory was eventually restored and reopened, but in 1995 there was an intense wind storm with gusts up to 100 MPH in the early morning of December 12th – smashing 40 percent of the glass and destroying rare plants.  With millions of dollars needed for repairs the conservatory was closed again. Many San Francisco locals gathered together to save the conservatory, an effort which eventually got national attention. The site eventually was included in the World’s Monuments Funds list of 100 Most Endangered Sites. Twenty five million dollars was needed and raised, resulting in a much celebrated reopening celebration in 2003.

Here are some Interesting facts about the Conservatory of Flowers:

-The conservatory contains roughly 1,700 plant species

-It’s the oldest building in Golden Gate Park

-The building’s structural skeleton is made exclusively of wood

-It is built in the Victorian style

-It contains the world’s largest public collection of high-altitude orchids

-The conservatory has 16,800 window panes

-The greenhouse features carnivorous plants

-Sometimes it stinks

-Each year in the spring the glass is whitewashed to mitigate the light coming in. Winter rains wash it off, letting in more light during the darker months.

Triumph of light

There is an ornate stone pedestal atop a now overgrown summit in San Francisco. This peak is named Mount Olympus and is located roughly in the center of the city. It was not always so dense and jungly. In fact, it was once visible from almost anywhere in the city. It also boasted impressive views from its zenith. 

The pedestal was once the domain of a statue given to the city of San Francisco by a man named Adolph Sutro. The hill and the land surrounding it belonged to Sutro and he had commissioned a recreation of a sculpture by Antoine Weirtz – a Belgian artist who created “Goddess of Liberty” which featured the deity wielding a sword in one hand (which she was using to battle off evil in human form), and a torch in the other. The goddess’ likeness was twelve feet high. Sutro christened it “Triumph of Light”.

Thanksgiving Day, November 24, 1887, there was a ceremony atop Mount Olympus to dedicate this monument. Guests at the event were apprised of the following:

“The Monument, with a square of ground one hundred feet each way, is the gift of Adolph Sutro to the People and City of San Francisco . . . Time will spread the city to its base. Within a few decades it will be the center of life and stir. Old men will sit to rest on its steps, and playful children climb to the summit. Generations will fade away, and still that monument will Dally with the wind, and scorn the sun. Yet, while a semblance of its shape remains, the name of Adolph Sutro will linger in the memory of man. Children shall ask: Who built this Monument? And old men shall answer, Adolph Sutro, a pioneer of this fair land, a successful miner, a joyous free American Sovereign, a lover of Light and Liberty, that for all time those who live at its feet may be like him, and love them too!”

Sutro hoped that “Triumph of Light” would inspire San Franciscans to do “good and noble deeds” that would ripple through the community and benefit mankind.

Time has passed, and the city has encroached up to the monument’s base, nearly consuming it. Left forgotten, and nearly destroyed by vandals, Sutro’s celebrated gift was ultimately removed to make way for some of San Francisco’s most valuable real estate. 

Not many people are aware of the contributions Sutro made to San Francisco. Today, as we observe the corporate greed and corruption that abounds in the area, it’s very important to pause and take note of a how Sutro put his wealth to use. His contributions include:

  • Remodeling The Cliff House (also known as the “Gingerbread Palace”) after it was destroyed by fire
  • Constructing the Sutro Baths (where most of my photos were taken)
  • Contributing to the creation of the streetcars that were used to go down Geary Street to the beach
  • Planting the trees that are growing on Mt. Sutro and the Presidio
  • He was very generous toward the poor and common working families. The Cliff House and Sutro Baths were not built for the wealthy, but for working families to have a cheap and fun place to spend the weekend
  • Opening the grounds and gardens surrounding his long-gone home overlooking the Cliff House to the public. He constructed them in a style similar to gardens found around stately European mansions. His intentions were to edify the public, since most people in that time could not afford a Grand Tour of Europe. 

The tragic part of all of this is, just like the “Triumph of Light”, most of what Sutro built has been expunged. His home on the bluffs of Sutro Heights, the gardens, Sutro baths and adjoining facilities – They are all gone. The pedestal, the ruins and the trees are all that remain.

Despite this misfortune, I find beauty in Sutro’s intentions and I often think of him and his generous spirit. How I would have loved to go swimming in the baths or walk in his conservatory of flowers! Nevertheless…I am off to “do good and noble deeds”!

The Three Sisters

Sharing these images is vitally important. I love history – and places like this evoke such profound memories. The Marin Headlands have seen the passage of civilizations, conquerors, wars, and advancements that boggle the mind. The evidence of this history is scattered throughout this beautiful landscape, but some of the landmarks are deteriorating or disappearing. In an effort to prevent them from being completely lost, I hope to capture them in my photos and maybe even inspire you to see these amazing places for yourself!

Buildings 960, 961 and 962 also know as “the three sisters” are located in the Marin Headlands just north of San Francisco. They were built in 1907 as part of the coast artillery structures by the U.S Army and part of Fort Barry. Building 960 was the Quartermaster warehouse that served as a non ordinance storage for many years. Building 962 was a bakery that was converted into a crew ready building serving the Nike site SF-88L.

The Headlands Center for the Arts acquired the buildings in 1994, signing a 20 years lease agreement with the National Parks Service. This agreement made it possible to renovate and bring them up to code being completed in February 1999. Building 960 now houses Headlands’ Affiliate Artist Program.

Angel Island- Fort McDowell Hospital

Looking in at a place that once gave healing. Now that place stands in need of it.

Angel Island-Main Mess Hall

Fort McDowell on the east side of Angel Island processed thousands of soldiers in World War I and World War II. This historic fort served as a crossroads for soldiers coming and going from the Pacific Theater. One of the buildings still standing was perhaps the largest mess hall in the Army at the time. It could serve 1,400 men at once. Known as the Main Mess Hall, this building is in disrepair and is uninhabitable. The structure is boarded up and has a fence surrounding it, as well as signs stating its condemned state. Unfortunately there are no plans to restore it to its former glory. Because it is as old as it is and due to not receiving the attention it deserves – over the years it has succumbed to the elements and is ultimately falling in on itself. For this project I have chosen to photograph this building in its current state. Most people will never be able to enjoy this structure but will only be able to see it through my images. I like the thought of these images being a way to honor history and produce a permanent memory of a place that will never be the same. Through my photographs I stop time, help create a memory and help preserve this special place.

The Bunker Project

These are the bunkers and related structures of war in the Marin headlands.  Crumbling souvenirs of battles that never were…or that were waged elsewhere.  These seacoast fortifications ultimately were built to defend us from wars that never quite arrived on our shores.

Soldiers sat here waiting for the enemy to appear on the horizon, waiting to receive orders to fire and to be fired upon. No ships arrived however, and the nature of modern warfare rendered the bunkers obsolete.

Now the structures – not the soldiers, sit waiting.  Waiting for protection from the environment that is poised to overtake them. 

I enjoy military history and architecture.  The fortifications around the Bay Area constitute one of the best and most extensive museums of military architecture to be found in North America.  I decided to focus my attention on the structures in the Marin Headlands.

The bunkers date from the Mexican–American War all the way up to the Cold War. These structures and the area that surrounds them are being broken apart by the process of erosion and seismic activity – both of which are gradually ripping them from the hillsides.  Many cannot be seen because nature has completely taken over in some instances.  Damage done by Vandalism and graffiti is also a major factor in their defacement.

The whole process of these sites falling into disrepair is fascinating to me because of the irony that it represents.  Soldiers who were there to protect our country sat in these bunkers waiting for the enemy to appear on the horizon, waiting to receive orders to fire on those ships and expected to be fired upon. No ships arrived and the nature of modern warfare rendered the bunkers obsolete.

Now, nothing is being done to protect these structures – and it is sad to be losing them to neglect.

The Presidio of San Francisco

Doors have fascinated me all my life. It is often said that walls could tell many stories, but to me, doors are more revealing:  who has passed through them and when in history…for what purpose? An old door is the portal to the moments when lives encounter defining times of decision making – some of which may ultimately transcend daily life.

This is a series of doors in the Presidio that are effectively serving as time capsules to the past.  They no longer posses the ability to capture anyone’s transcending moments, because the structures they are part of no longer foster life.  Despite this truncation of function, these doors remain a representation of untold human activity – their inability to be opened and closed on a daily basis hasn’t changed their ability to remain as stewards over the memories that were once made behind them.