This coming Saturday, April 19, 2014, the cross on Mt. Davidson will be lit on Easter Eve as has been every year since 1926. The 103-foot high cross presently sitting atop San Francisco’s highest hill was dedicated in 1934. It was built to last with 750 cubic yards of concrete placed around 30 tons of reinforced steel that is anchored in a concrete block foundation that goes down 16 feet into the bedrock below. Many may not know that the massive solidity of this structure may due to it being the 5th cross built on Mt. Davidson for the annual Easter sunrise event.
The first cross was erected on Mount Davidson in 1923 for an Easter Sunrise Service organized by James Decatur and led by Dean J. Wilmer Gresham of Grace Cathedral. With over 5000 hiking before dawn to attend, the event organizers decided to continue it every year thereafter. Built in what was once a remote area of San Francisco, the 40-foot high wooden cross lasted for two more sunrise services, before it was burned down by “young boys building campfires too close to it,” in Dec. 1925. A 2nd and much more elaborate replacement cross was built in 1926. It was described as being nearly 100-feet high. Wired with electrical lamps, it was the first to be illuminated every night during the week before Easter.
Few pictures of the older crosses exist and thanks to John T. Williams, I am able to share, with his permission, newly discovered and copyrighted images of what may be the only ones existing of the 1926 Mt.Davidson Cross being painted on March 3, 1928. In the picture above, see John’s father, James Williams, on top of the cross, with two other crew members just below.
The early crosses were located on the eastern downtown viewpoint atop Mt. Davidson, at the edge of the old property between Leland Stanford and Adolph Sutro. The cross pictured above didn’t make it through the winter, being destroyed by flames in December 1928. By March 1929, the San Francisco Examiner reported a 3rd cross being constructed: “big cross on Mt. Davidson lighted with wands of electrical lights.” It was also described as being more permanent, 76-feet high, and decorated with 300 lights. Purchase of the summit by the City for a public park was also completed in 1929.
One more temporary cross would be built on the hill before the fireproof one was constructed in 1934 at a new location further west. Surviving earthquakes and a trip to the California Supreme Court, it was once lit year round. Lighting is now restricted to two days a year and the permanent lights were removed to settle the lawsuit. The new owners, the Council of Armenian Organizations of No. California, now cover the cost of a portable generator to continue the tradition of illuminating America’s largest cross on Easter Eve with spotlights totaling 48,000 watts. See more historic pictures from John Williams at http://mtdavidson.org/mount-davidson-cross/.