by Alec Hawley, ASLA
Revisiting the lost plans of Frederick Law Olmsted and the history of San Francisco’s most iconic park to imagine what might be
For the first installment in this series, please see Ancient History Revisited, published on The Field last week.
While the supervisors and mayor of San Francisco were focused on directing development of San Francisco outwards to the Pacific Ocean, where land could be acquired relatively easily for their purposes, Frederick Law Olmsted’s report, to the contrary, wished to develop a park in what is now known as Lower Haight / Hayes Valley and City Hall, with a broad parkway connecting the Bay to the interior, along what is now Van Ness Ave.
Olmsted’s chief argument was a practical one, depicting the extreme challenges that San Francisco would face with the possibility of a Central Park-sized pleasure ground and Sylvan aesthetic.
This paragraph from an 1866 report for the city delineates his reasoning:
“Before any discussion can be had with advantage upon this subject, it is necessary that a clear understanding should be arrived at in regard to the special conditions to which the proposed recreation ground should be adapted. These may be either of a social character, such as the number and the habits and the customs of the people which are to make use of it, or such as are fixed by natural circumstances, as of topography, soil and climate. In regards to the social conditions, it is obvious that San Francisco differs from other towns which have provided themselves with parks, in the incompleteness of its general plan. San Francisco has a future more certain than any of these older towns, and its probable requirements are more easily to be anticipated. It is important, therefore, at the outset, that due attention should be given to the fact that a pleasure ground planned merely to meet the requirements of the present, or of the next ten to twenty years, will be an uneconomical undertaking, and a neglect of a very important municipal duty. The conclusion to which these considerations lead, is obviously that whenever a pleasure ground is formed in San Francisco, it should have a character which the citizens will be sure to regard with just pride and satisfaction. It should be a pleasure ground second to none in the world—a promenade which shall, if possible become so agreeable to its citizens, that when they go elsewhere they will remember it gratefully, and not be obliged to consider it a poor substitute for what is offered them by the wiser policy of other cities.”
Olmsted, in no uncertain terms, was challenging the supervisors and mayor of San Francisco to create a park “system” in a town with an incomplete plan and no great park space to speak of, that would serve their immediate and future generations by placing it directly against the oncoming wall of westward development. Had they listened, they may have saved more of the city from the devastating earthquake and fire of 1906, as Olmsted’s proposal for a Van Ness Avenue Parkway was partially a sheltered valley environment from the city, and would have doubled as a fire break.
On the topic of what would become a losing proposal, his smaller but more achievable Central Park for San Francisco, it is hard to agree. While I am unable to teleport back to the year 1865 to see it with fresh eyes, I can imagine what a great leap of faith entertaining a park on the scale of Central Park would be when looking westward only to see a few windswept trees, coastal scrub, and shifting sands as far as you could see. Living in 2020 and having the benefit of hindsight, Mayor McCoppin, the supervisors of San Francisco, and Olmsted’s successor, William Hammond Hall, made the right choice in fulfilling an unbelievable promise to San Franciscans in the form of our beloved Golden Gate Park.
Part of his hesitancy was that Olmsted understood San Francisco’s climate was not well equipped to handle the thirsty water requirements of a park in the style of New York or London. This is nothing short of visionary, given the impacts unfolding from increased climate change and our current, ongoing battle with droughts and fire. During his time in California, he toured Yosemite’s then-twin valleys with John Muir, and later came out in defense of the damming of Hetch Hetchy when the governing body of San Francisco was seeking to dam the valley to afford water for the westward expansion of San Francisco and Golden Gate Park. His remarks in the Preliminary Report poignantly describe what he believed the best possible makeup of a park system in San Francisco could successfully offer, while understanding that this uniqueness could create strength.
This excerpt from F.L.O.: A Biography of Frederick Law Olmsted by Laura Wood Roper (Chapter XXVI, page 304) illustrates his thinking:
“There is not a full grown tree of beautiful proportions near San Francisco, nor have I seen any young trees that promised fairly, except, perhaps, of a certain compact, clumpy forms of evergreens, wholly wanting in grace and cheerfullness. The question then, is, whether it be possible for San Francisco to form a pleasure ground peculiar to itself, with a beauty as much superior to that of other such grounds, in any way, as theirs must be superior to what it can aspire to in spreading trees and great expanses of turf. I think it can. At the same time, it should have such a form that when the city is much enlarged, it will so divide it that, without subjecting the trees and shrubs it contains to destruction during a great conflagration, it shall be a barrier of protection to large districts which would otherwise be imperiled. Taking Van Ness Avenue, I should add to it one tier of building lots on each side, which gives a space of 390 feet. Fifty five feet of this space on each side might be appropriated to streets into which the cross streets now falling into Van Ness Avenue would lead, without there being necessarily any change in the present plane. There would remain a space to be given up to the promenade and ornamental grounds 280 feet wide. Within this excavation would be made, varying in depth a little, according to the shape of the surface, but everywhere at least 20 feet deep. The sides of the excavation should slope as to leave a nearly level space at the bottom 158 feet wide. The upper parts of the slopes adjoining the streets should be everywhere planted with coniferous trees set closely and trimmed so as to form a lofty hedge or thick screen sufficient to break off the wind from the less sturdy plants within.”
Neither turf nor shade trees, elements essential to the landscape effects of eastern & English parks, could be counted on to flourish on San Francisco’s sand hills, but the city was full of pretty little gardens. This fact suggested to Olmsted that the ornamental parts of the Pleasure Grounds should be compact, protected from the cold winds and fogs that flowed upon the city, and rich in detail. It should be easy of access and equipped with sheltered resting places and an extensive system of drives and walks.
It is clear while walking, running, or bicycling through Golden Gate Park and the Panhandle, that Olmsted’s vision for a specifically peculiar landscape that is based on the climatic conditions of the Bay Area was not heeded initially. While it cannot be confused easily with New York’s Central Park or London’s Hyde Park, the addition of Monterey Pine, Cypress, and Eucalyptus trees spread across rolling lawns lends a very Sylvan and English essence to its structure.
When Olmsted’s proposed location for a pleasure ground and grand promenade was rejected in 1867 the mayor and supervisors sought and found William Hammond Hall during a discussion pressed for by Olmsted on the feasibility of obtaining some of the Presidio Military Grounds for public parklands (which, 130 years later, would become a park). Hall was a 24-year-old engineer from the Army Corps asked to develop a survey and plan for the area of Golden Gate Park. He spent a few years seeking help and advice from the elder 43-year-old Olmsted, including finding someone to complete horticultural and forestry tests in the plot surveyed for Golden Gate Park; this task was also laid out as essential in Olmsted’s preliminary report. Hired likely due to the fact that he was a talented engineer, however lacking any understanding of horticulture required to accomplish such a task, Hall attempted to find any former employees of Olmsted, Vaux & Co. Instead, he found another 24-year-old, John McLaren, who was employed at the time by Leland Stanford, himself in negotiations with the mayor and supervisors on obtaining a sole license to provide transit along Golden Gate Park out to the Pacific Ocean. John McLaren, a Scottish-born but California-based land manager and horticulturalist, developed the area now known as Golden Gate Park. The promenade that was to be all of Van Ness Avenue became the Panhandle, with the oversight and blessing (though I am sure with some regrets) of Olmsted.
Using the horse manure from the busy streets of San Francisco, windmill-driven pumped groundwater, native and imported bent grass seed, along with native dune plant species and intensive forestry practices of tightly planted trees (later thinned) to provide windbreak, Hall and McLaren sought to advance the Pleasure Grounds of Golden Gate Park and the Panhandle, all while conferring with Olmsted, as is evident in his 1886 letter of support of their 17-year endeavor.
Clearly Mayor McCoppin and the Board of Supervisors would rather have provided their citizens and businesses with as much impetus as possible to purchase property and stay in San Francisco, a key takeaway from the Preliminary Olmsted, Vaux & Co. Report, as well as consolidate their efforts and have to fight fewer possible legal battles by pursuing the Outside Lands property. These did prove to be intelligent decisions for the city, its progress, and (I cannot argue with) how large and lovely the park is. I doubt any citizen of San Francisco would feel as enriched if they had been as practical and followed Olmsted’s proposal for a smaller pleasure grounds.
That said, what I hope all will appreciate is that much of what Olmsted wrote in the preliminary report was correct and there is still much advice to be heeded, though he may have been incorrect in some assumptions.
In his original push, he promoted the idea of avenues of respite that also doubled as emergency relief in the event of fires or earthquakes. He had visited on the heels of a deadly earthquake, cholera outbreaks, and fires that leveled nearly all of San Francisco, and saw this as an opportunity to redirect the city towards smart growth with more immediate results by placing it adjacent to its developmental edge.
Yet, he never saw the feasibility of a Central Park ‘West,’ more concerned as he was with immediacy. Now, Golden Gate Park has arguably become the central spine of a contemporary renewed push for avenues of ‘respite from dust and noise in the city,’ and as Hall adopted most of what Olmsted originally proposed but realigned it, there is a strong resemblance to Olmsted’s proposal for Van Ness Avenue amidst this park he so thought was impossible.
Car Free JFK has become much of what he envisioned the city needed in his original proposal 155 years ago, and it speaks volumes to why we should revisit this ‘ancient’ history. The SF Chronicle has reported on the SFMTA findings from Car Free JFK, highlighting a 600% increase in bicycling and over double the amount of walking. The combination of programs across San Francisco such as the Shared Spaces Program, Slow Streets, and Car Free Avenues, hint at a complete network that is transforming San Francisco from a predominantly auto-centric city (roughly 90% of our curb space is allotted to cars) to a more heterogeneous mix of walking, biking, busing, and cars. The city is taking notice. Businesses are adapting to life in public space, and children, families, and adults are learning to navigate the city in an entirely different way that hints at a greener and more sustainable future.
To be continued: stay tuned for the third post in this series, to appear here on The Field soon!
Alec Hawley, ASLA, is a landscape architect in San Francisco.