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The History of San Francisco’s Mt. Davidson Park

When I first moved to San Francisco in 1980, I was excited to find a tiny home on the slopes of the City’s highest hill. Just steps from my door to the park at its peak is the opportunity to be totally surrounded by a tall forest – a world away from the hubbub of the surrounding city. Time does not stand still and I have been amazed at how this unknown part of San Francisco has since been a focus of some who live elsewhere and want to change it. The inspiration for the book I wrote years ago was to remind us of why this gem came to be. 

Don Jose de Jesus Noe was the first owner of what we now call Mt. Davidson Park when it was part of a 4443-acre land grant by Mexican Governor Pio Pico in 1845. After California’s statehood in 1850, Noe’s cattle grazing Rancho San Miguel changed ownership several times, but the City’s highest hill remained relatively unchanged until German immigrant, Adolph Sutro, stopped mining the original Mt. Davidson in Nevada. Solving the ventilation and drainage problems with a five-mile tunnel into the silver-rich Comstock Lode made Sutro and his partners multi-millionaires. One of his first investments in 1881 was 1400 acres of Rancho San Miguel. At the urging of the poet, Joaquin Miller (one of the first to promote preservation of the Sierra Nevada forests), Sutro gave school children and the unemployed tree seedlings to plant on his land in celebration of the first Arbor Days. Sutro believed that the planting of trees and hiking in the forests they created would improve the mental and physical health of his fellow residents. (The east side of the is park treeless because it was owned by Leland Stanford). Sutro willed his original 1,400 acres (including the western slope of Mt. Davidson) to an educational trust so his forest land would be preserved for public recreation, but some of his heirs convinced the California Supreme Court to invalidate the will. They sold 700 acres to housing developer, A.S. Baldwin, for $1.4 million in 1911. Baldwin funded the building of a hiking trail to the top of “his” forested side of Mt. Davidson “for the pleasure of the public,” as part of his development advertisment plan.

A.S. Baldwin 1924 Subdivision Plan and Trail for Sutro’s Property

Over a decade later, however, the San Francisco Chronicle proclaimed “Mt. Davidson Unknown to S.F. Citizens.” The hilltop’s obscurity would change after Western Union official James Decatur took up that hiking invitation in 1923 and wrote about the experience: “As the group found themselves deeper in the wood … peace and quiet were so profound that it seemed almost unbelievable that the noise and roar of a great city was only a few minutes behind them … The solitude of the forest … conveyed a sense of vastness quite as real as one would experience among the age-old monarchs of the High Sierras …The undergrowth and flowers looked as if they might have been there for centuries … Decatur got Baldwin’s permission to organize an Easter Sunrise Ceremony atop Mt. Davidson on April 1, 1923. With over 5000 hiking there before dawn to hear the Dean of Grace Cathedral, Decatur and Baldwin decided to make it an annual event.

Attending the ceremony three years later, Mrs. Edmund N. “Madie” Brown, was also inspired – for a different reason. She wanted to put a stop to “the subdivider’s axe and steam shovel from destroying in ruthless fashion the beauties of nature on our beloved Mt. Davidson.” The Federation of Women’s Clubs joined forces with her “to preserve for San Francisco this wooded hill, Mt. Davidson, which will serve to provide our school children with the environment for nature study, the Boy Scouts with an outdoor playground for hikes and overnight camping, the Easter pilgrim with a place of worship on its summit at dawn, and the visitor with unsurpassed views from the highest point in the city.” Prominent citizens were interviewed, letters were written to individuals and organizations asking for their support, and publicity was secured through press and movie newsreels.

Madie Brown

An editorial in the April 26, 1927 San Francisco Examiner supported City purchase of the land: “As the residential area advances, the forest goes down before the axe. In another year, it will be too late for the beauty of the summit to be preserved …” Three days later, a report to the Finance Committee of the Board of Supervisors recommended purchase of the summit of Mount Davidson “for a public park serving the needs of the West of Twin Peaks District and also serving as a recreation center and forest playground for the whole city. The acquisition will also preserve for all time the beautiful tree covered slopes of the mountain as an attractive scenic land mark in the city …”

The sum of $15,000 was approved to purchase the first 20 acres in 1927 with the support of Mayor Rolph and the first woman elected to the Board of Supervisors, Margaret M. Morgan. The park was dedicated on the 84th birthday of Park Superintendent John McLaren in 1929 with a plaque honoring Madie Brown: “who found beauty in flower and tree on this lofty hill. Through her untiring pleas, these acres have been set aside as a city park that all may enjoy their beauty and find refreshment of the soul.”

1929 Proposed Park Boundary

Attendance at the annual Easter Sunrise event skyrocketed to 30,000 by 1932, but nearby housing sales were slowing during the Great Depression. Fundraising began to build a permanent cross on Mt. Davidson, with the help of the developers and builders of the adjoining neighborhoods. The developer’s widow, Mrs. A.S. Baldwin, donated six more acres to the City park for the cross site. The architect of the city’s tallest buildings, George Kelham, was recruited to design the City’s highest monument on it’s highest hill. Built with $20,000 in donations, it took 30,000 feet of lumber to form the 750 cubic yards of concrete that covers 30 tons of reinforced steel. The foundation goes down 16 feet into solid rock. The 103 foot high cross faces due east. It is 10 feet wide at the base and tapers to 9 feet wide at the top. A time capsule under the granite slab at the base contains a copy of the deed of Rancho San Miguel to Don Jose Noe.

Mayor Rossi laying time capsule at the Mt. Davidson Cross dedication on March 5, 1934

Park founder, Madie Brown, asked President Franklin D. Roosevelt to dedicate it in 1934:

“As chairman of arrangements, I have dared to dream that you would press a button in Washington, D.C., which in turn would light for the first time this giant cross in San Francisco at its dedication on March 24. It seems most appropriate that you, who have brought light to many a darkened American home and who through your New Deal has instilled the principles of the Golden Rule into American business, should take part in this cross-lighting ceremony.”

President Roosevelt pressed a golden-keyed telegraph switch to light the cross at 7:30 PM before a crowd of 50,000. The cross was lit two weeks a year, thereafter, for Christmas and Easter.

During the remainder of the Depression and through the early 1940s, CBS Radio broadcast the sunrise services coast-to-coast. Seven acres were added to the east side of the park in 1941, as up to 75,000 attended the Easter events during World War II. More acres on the south side were added to the park in in 1950 as housing was built higher up the hill. After a soldier bound for the Korean War wrote of it being his last sight of home, funds were raised to light the cross year-round. Visible from 75 miles away, the twelve 1000-watt lights were turned off in 1976, except during Easter and Christmas weeks, because of the energy crisis. Live television broadcast of the sunrise ceremony began in 1977.

After the lighting of the Golden Gate Bridge was expanded in 1987, fundraising began to resume year-round lighting and obtain historic designation of the cross. However, in response to complaints that public ownership of a religious landmark was a violation of the separation of church and state, the city restricted the lighting to two hours before Easter sunrise. A subsequent lawsuit took ownership of Mt. Davidson to the California Supreme Court a second time. After losing a five-year battle, the city decided to sell the park land under the cross at a public auction to the highest bidder, rather than remove the monument. Neighborhood leaders formed the Friends of Mt. Davidson Conservancy to reduce the amount of park land to be sold to settle the lawsuit. They negotiated limitation of the public park property sale from 6 acres to .38 acre, with deed restrictions ensuring public access and protection of the open space in perpetuity. San Francisco voters approved sale of the park land to the Council of Armenian Organizations of Northern California in November of 1997. The historic lights turned on by President Roosevelt were removed, but portable lighting is allowed two days a year.

Nov. 1997 Voter Guide Map for Proposition F showing location of park land to be sold.

Also in 1997, the Recreation and Park Dept. changed the purpose of Mt. Davidson Park from recreation to propagation of native plants as part of the Natural Areas Program. In fulfillment of this mission, their plan to replace the middle third of the forest (10 acres) with shrubs and limit public access throughout the park will be implemented as funding becomes available.

Despite its popularity for huge civic events during the 20th century, two trips to the CA Supreme Court, debates over its landscape, and an significant increase in the city’s density, San Francisco’s highest hilltop park quietly remains as a peaceful forest oasis thanks to the philanthropy of Adolph Sutro and Madie Brown – as if frozen in time since a 1923 newspaper article entitled Mt. Davidson Unknown to SF Citizens exclaimed:

“Once on the way you might imagine yourself in the wildest part of California. The woods appear vast and silent. There is no sign of life along the way. And yet you are still in a city of over 600,000 inhabitants and on every side below you are thousands of closely built homes. No other city in the world offers such a contrast. “

George Davidson – Pioneer West Coast Scientist

When I say live on Mt. Davidson, many of my fellow San Franciscans respond by saying “where is that?”

View west: Mt. Davidson seen left of Bay Bridge.

View west: Mt. Davidson seen left of Bay Bridge.

View east: forested Mt. Davidson from above Sloat Blvd.

View east: forested Mt. Davidson from above Sloat Blvd.

GeorgeDavidson

George Davidson

 

Despite it being the city’s highest hill, even more obscure to most, is who was George Davidson? Oscar Lewis wrote the first detailed biography of our neighborhood mountain’s namesake in 1954 and lauded the pioneer scholar as having a dominant role in the beginning of scientific activity on the Pacific Coast for more than half a century, 1850-1911.

As head of a U.S. Coast Survey party in 1850, he prepared charts and other navigational aids for the sudden surge of Gold Rush ships coming to West Coast. For forty-five years he charted virtually every mile of the coastline from the Mexican border to northernmost Alaska. His navigational data was known by West Coast mariners as “Davidson’s Bible.” Davidson’s Quadrilaterals, the base lines he measured in the Sacramento Valley and in southern California, upon which the primary triangulation of the Pacific Coast states is based, is considered one of his greatest achievements.

Elected President of the California Academy of Sciences in 1872, many consider him the “father of western science.” One of the few in the Academy with formal scientific training, he began work to move it to a larger space, open exhibits, hold public meetings, host noted scientists from around the globe, and collect funds to build a brand new museum. Under his leadership, the Academy would become a major force in the development of astronomy on the West Coast and California becoming home to some of the finest astronomical instruments in existence.

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George Davidson outside his Lafayette Park observatory in San Francisco

Davidson established the first astronomical observatory on the Pacific Coast in what is now Lafayette Park in San Francisco. Millionaire Gold Rush landowner, James Lick, was persuaded by Davidson to use his fortune to build the world’s first permanent mountain top observatory on Mt. Hamilton, as a gift to the University of California. This observatory set the standard for nearly every major astronomical facility built since and gained fame by bouncing lasers off mirrors placed on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. Oakland’s Chabot Observatory, one of the best available for public use, was built by Anthony Chabot at the urging of Davidson.

Expeditions to Japan and Corro Roblero to study the path of the planet, Venus, were led by Davidson and his geographical exploration of Alaska in 1867 resulted in his recommendation that the U.S. purchase the territory from Russia. He studied irrigation and reclamation methods in China, India, and Egypt. The route for the Panama Canal was mapped by Davidson. He held professorships and served on the Board of Regents for the University of CA during his tenure there from 1870 to his death in 1911.

Davidson wrote in 1900 that he had traveled 401,888 miles during his lifetime – roughly sixteen times the circumference of the world. An incredible accomplishment given the modes of transportation available at the time. The result of his many explorations and discoveries is that many geographical features are named for him, including our Mt. Davidson here in San Francisco. As a longtime member of the Sierra Club, the group successfully petitioned the Board of Supervisors to name San Francisco’s highest hill for Davidson when he died in 1911. John Muir was to lead the dedication on Feb. 22nd. Drizzly weather caused Muir to cancel and the ceremony was led by the club’s vice-president, Prof. Alexander McAdie.

NamingMtDavidson

Two other mountains have been named for Davidson: above Virginia City, Nevada, and on Nagai Island in Alaska. Also in Alaska is the Davidson Glacier, Davidson Inlet, Davidson Bank, and the Davidson Range. Many more geographical locations bear his name, including the Davidson Seamount is southwest of Monterey and there is a NOAA ship named Davidson. As part of his coast survey work, Davidson named many geographical features and locations along the Pacific Coast, but he never named anything after himself. He went to great lengths to research if a name already existed from previous explorations and to sort out multiple names and spellings given to a place by native Americans, the early explorers, Spanish settlers, and subsequently, Americans. His preference was to use the earliest name and standardize its use and spelling, commenting once, “I found for Sausalito ten or twelve spellings and for Bonita four or five, to say nothing of different names applied for the same locality.”

Our little mountain named to honor George Davidson’s high number of achievements, serves as an inspiration to all of us who enjoy the City park at its peak.

Sources: George Davidson, Pioneer West Coast Scientist, by Oscar Lewis; California Wild Spring 2003

Historic View of San Francisco’s Bus Route 36

Before the Miraloma Park Improvement Club had a completed clubhouse in 1940, residents were busy fostering the neighborhood activism that is still in place today. One of the first projects was to get a bus line to the new neighborhood. To celebrate their success, the Club distributed a flyer entitled “Hooray for the Buses” in advance of the first bus arrival on Sunday, July 23rd, 1939, at 2PM:

“Let everyone in the district be on deck to welcome the first one. … The Honorable Mayor Rossi will pilot the first bus from Forest Hill Station to the corner of Evelyn Way and Portola Drive where he will be met by other City officials — the Municipal Band — several units of the American Legion — the Parkside Post No. 505 of the American Legion and their Junior Auxiliary Drum Corps — Boy Scout Troop 85 Drum and Bugle Corps and bicycle parade. The Municipal Band will lead the parade over the new bus route and return to Evelyn Way and Portola Drive, at which time he will address the group. Please join in and show the Mayor how we appreciate this long awaited service.”

A newspaper article following the event, “Many Dignitaries at Miraloma Fete,” noted that the celebration set a “new high in enthusiasm.” In addition to the Mayor, other dignitaries included Lewis Byington, President of the Public Utilities Commission, Commissioners John Murphy and John McCallum, City Attorney John J. O’Toole, and Supervisor James B. McSheehy, were greeted by club president Lloyd H. Berendsen:

“In the plaza at Miraloma Park, Mr. Berendsen told of the projects being fostered by the Miraloma Park Improvement Club for the benefit of the district and the city, especially school and playground and enlargement of Mt. Davidson Park to include the wonderful wildflower fields. Mayor Rossi promised his assistance when funds were available. [Seven acres on the east slope were added to the park in 1941]. Mr. Byington expressed the gratification of the Public Utilities Commission in being able to install the new service. The MPIC committee in charge consisted of Alexander Ratray, Boyd Oliver, Charles Dechent, Hoyt Colgate, James J. Yates, Frank Fickett, and William C. Ward.”

The San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency has put together a wonderful photo archive of the system’s history online. Katy Guyon of SFMTA found a blueprint of the original route dated for its 1939 inauguration. (Copyrighted Image Courtesy of the SFMTA Photo Archive, http://SFMTA.com/photo).

FFBusRoute7July1939

As you can see, the 36 Teresita was originally “7 Miraloma.” Katy found some more information in the book entitled “Inside Muni,” published in 1982 by John McKane and Anthony Perles:

“7 MIRALOMA – Service commenced from Forest Hill Station, serving Twin Peaks Tunnel on July 23, 1939 via Laguna Honda Blvd., Portola Drive, Evelyn Way, and Teresita Blvd. to Rio Court. Line extended to Melrose Avenue on June 8, 1941. Coaches moved from Arguello Garage to 24th and Utah [Garage] on January 8, 1945. Line again extended to Foerster and Monterey, on October 6, 1945. Extended to Brighton and Grafton (K [street] car line terminal) on February 16, 1946, via Judson, Phelan, Ocean and Brighton to Grafton. Further extended on June 5, 1947, via Grafton, Garfield, Beverly, and Worcester to Junipero Serra Blvd., returning via Worcester, Junipero Serra Blvd., Garfield and reverse of route. Line moved from Utah Division [Garage] to the new Ocean Division [Garage] on August 1, 1948. Line renumbered 36 MIRALOMA on February 1, 1949. … 6-17-56 Terminal rerouted to Sickles & Mission. 9-10-80 Renamed 36 TERESITA.”

600mPictorialFlyerp1

She also noted that “the 7 Miraloma/36 Teresita started as a Muni line with ‘motor coaches’ (early Muni buses—the first kind Muni had instead of streetcars, seen above at Rio Court). Then, in 1944, Muni merged with its main competitor, the private, for-profit transit company Market Street Railway. In the mid and late 40s, Muni started the process of physically merging all of Muni’s routes with Market Street Railway’s routes, which was very complicated—in particular because the two systems had been designed to compete with each other so there was a lot of redundancy in the routes. As part of this process, the 7/36 route was changed a bit and the line eventually got a new number in 1949.”

The original route, which turned around at Rio Court, was extended with the building of Miraloma Park south to Forester St. and once went all the way to the K streetcar terminal and Junipero Serra Blvd. Additional changes included a turnaround up to the top of Mt. Davidson and at the Balboa Park BART station. When BART was completed, it funded the “Miraloma Ranger” shuttle service for commuters to get a quicker ride to and from the Glen Park station. The shuttle was discontinued and now the 36-Teresita route ends at Mission and Cesar Chavez Streets via Glen Park BART station. Its connection to the Forest Hill Station has continued. Now if we could just get it to run more frequently and on time!

Adolph Sutro: The Father of Tree Planting in California

My appreciation of the unique forest Adolph Sutro created near my San Francisco home on Mt. Davidson (below) over a century ago, has peaked my curiosity into why he planted it. It lead to my seeking his personal papers and researching other sources. Except for his papers, almost every other source referenced the Adolph Sutro: A Biography by Robert E. Stewart, Jr. and Mary Francis Stewart. Not wanting to leave any stone unturned, I recently read their 243-page out-of-print book published in 1962.

MtDavidsonTrees

 

The most comprehensive researchers of Adolph Sutro to date, note that his interest in nature started with his childhood in Aachen Germany, “He spent much time in the forests near his natal city and was often accompanied by a botany teacher on his walks. The teacher used to say, ‘My son, live ever near to Nature’s heart, for to depart from Nature is to depart from happiness. choose companions among such as love trees and little children. the man who loves these can never commit a crime.’ ”

Once he came to America and began building his famous four-mile long tunnel into the silver-laden Comstock Lode in Nevada , he decided to create the model town of Sutro at the entrance in 1872. It included plans (below) for broad sidewalks, two tree-lined boulevards, and four parks. According to the Stewarts:

“Sutro started developing an interest in trees which would stay with him all the rest of his life. He owned a few trees before, but now saw in them a way to benefit mankind. He would have trees planted along Florence and Tunnel Avenues at company expense and the sale of the lots would be contingent upon the purchaser’s planting and caring for a tree in front of his house. Trees were good for people. They improved the appearance of a town, they furnished shade and brought other benefits, so trees the people must have. … each eleven-acre park was planted with trees and alfalfa. There were 2,000 Lombardy poplars in North Square and cottonwoods in South Square. On the Moore ranch a tree nursery had been established and 1,000 honey locust, 500 spruce, 1,000 elms, 500 sugar maples and 4,000 Lombardy poplars were being cared for.”

SutroModelTown

After finishing the tunnel project and selling his stock in it, he purchased the Sutro Heights property overlooking the Pacific Ocean for his home in San Francisco in 1881. The Stewarts astutely observed:

“If Sutro had elected to tear down the Tetlow cottage and erect a massive monument in its place he would have been behaving in a manner typical of many of his contemporary millionaires. As real estate prices rose he could have had his share of ghastly turrets, solid gold bathrooms, or vaulted ceilings. Nob Hill was studded with enormous homes, many of which owed their existence to Comstock fortunes. … What another man might have spent on a dwelling, he spent on the gardens around his home. While Flood, Fair, Crocker, and even Mark Hopkins built costly homes, Sutro made do with the old Tetlow cottage … With the forester growing trees by the thousands, Sutro also began considering ways of getting them planted and growing all over the city.”

As many other sources have noted, the Stewarts confirm the pivotal event where Sutro was honored as the Father of Tree Planting in California:

“One person to whom Sutro talked about trees was Joaquin Miller, the poet. … Together they planned California’s first Arbor Day, November 27, 1886, and with a large group of state officials they went by government boat to barren Yerba Buena Island and planted 30,000 trees. Simultaneously the school children of San Francisco were holding similar exercises and planting trees given by Sutro at the Presidio and at Ft. Mason. Eventually Mt. Parnassus (now known as Mt. Sutro) was planted. Sutro continued to provide trees for the children each year, and is estimated to have given away millions of seedlings of cypress and of Pinus maritama which he imported from the coast of the Black Sea.”

Instead of using his Comstock Lode fortune to enrich himself, the Stewarts’s research revealed that Adolph Sutro spent his “large sums of money for his favorite objects — trees, shrubs, and books,” to enrich the lives of his fellow San Franciscans, leaving us a beautiful forested landscape (1948 view of Mt. Davidson forest below) and the finest private library in America!

Mt.Davidson1948,jpg

Welcome

Welcome to the Harold G. Stoner blog for news about one of the Bay Area’s most artistic architects. Since my book, Bay Area Beauty: The Artistry of Harold G. Stoner, was completed earlier this year, I continue to discover more about this amazing man. This blog has been created to share what I have found.

Stoner’s Innovative Community-Oriented Site Plan

The on-going effort by Google Books to scan historic journals has recently revealed what may be the earliest magazine article published about Harold G. Stoner. “A Well-Designed Group of Small Houses,” in the December 1922 issue of The Building Review, notes that “a group of three houses [designed by Harold G. Stoner] at Ingleside Terraces in San Francisco, planned to face a common lawn, but with entirely separate rear gardens, has aroused no small amount of interest among builders and home-owners of this region.”

The cottages still located at 160, 170, and 180 Urbano Drive, which follows the original one-mile long course of the historic Ingleside Racetrack, are seen below as they looked in 1922 – before they were surrounded by many more homes.

Urbano Drive 1922

Ingleside Terraces was one of the first residence parks built in what was considered the outsidelands of San Francisco – the area west of the Twin Peaks which city dwellers initially considered to be suburbs as revealed in this article. “A mere house, after all, is not in itself a home – there must be a yard or garden for the children to play in – some trees, shrubs and flowers and a bit of lawn or terrace, else why bother to go out of town! … when one has decided to build, sacrificing apartment-house conveniences and the three-minute walk to business to a thirty-minute trip night and morning, he feels he that he is entitled to a few feet of earth to play upon, and decidedly objects to being crowded on a narrow lot with the next door neighbor within handshaking distance.”

Here Stoner may have first utilized a community-oriented site plan that he would later replicate in nearby Monterey Heights, as seen here along Monterey Boulevard.


“The three lots comprising this plot [on Urbano Drive] are fifty by one hundred feet each and terraced to the street level. The central house is set back about one hundred feet from the street, while the others facing each other present an interesting side-view with southwestern exposure … The plan as here described, of a group of detached houses is especially appealing to friends, acquaintances or members of a family who want to live near, but not with each other, and is an expression of the ‘community’ idea with modifications which is becoming more and more popular in planning suburban dwellings.”

In Balboa Terrace, Stoner reduced the threesome plan to pairs of homes that face each other as seen in this example on San Leandro Way. Stoner not only emphasized community in his site plans, but also in his home designs which he highlighted in one of his advertisements, “Here the feeling of a real home is found and one awaits with an anticipation of pleasure, the invitation of the host to enter.”