by Frank Dunnigan
San Francisco has countless statues, monuments, and memorials to acknowledge people, places, and events important to our collective history. While many of these public installations are located in the downtown area and other older neighborhoods, a good many exist quietly right under our noses on the western side of the city.
While Golden Gate Park is home to many of these pieces—something that long-time Park Superintendent John McLaren positively abhorred, actively planting enough flora and fauna to hide several of them—a large number of others are scattered in highly visible locations across the outside lands.
AIDS Memorial Grove—From a conceptual plan in 1987, to the dedication of the main portal in 1995, right up to the present, the National AIDS Memorial Grove commemorates a sad chapter in city history while revitalizing a neglected corner of Golden Gate Park. In an area previously known as the de Laveaga Dell, the grove holds the unique distinction of being a national memorial, yet it receives no federal funds. Supported by private donations, a dedicated group of volunteers maintains the grove as a place for quiet contemplation and renewal.
Balboa Street Shopping District—Among the newer neighborhood icons in the Richmond District are a pair of mosaic-accented concrete signs erected in 2014, marking the Balboa Street shopping corridor on the blocks adjacent to the Balboa Theater.
Bufano PEACE sculpture—Famed sculptor Benny Bufano (1898-1970) created this Madonna and child entitled "PEACE" for the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) on Treasure Island in 1939, though it was never displayed there. Sculpted of stainless steel and granite, with mosaic tile inlays, it remained in storage for years, and was eventually placed at the entrance to San Francisco International Airport in 1958 (where its rocket-like shape prompted newspaper columnist Herb Caen and others to quip, “What time is the blast-off?”). Construction of SFO’s new International Terminal forced the statue’s removal, and it was eventually relocated to Brotherhood Way in 1996. Other Bufano works in the western neighborhoods include "Mother Bear and Cubs" (1968) at University of California, San Francisco on Parnassus Avenue and "Penguins Prayer" on Lake Merced Boulevard.
Cliff House Totem Pole—Hand-carved by the Squamish Indian tribe of British Columbia, the 60-foot tall pole was acquired by George Whitney (then owner of the Cliff House), and installed on the sidewalk just north of the restaurant near a cluster of touristy gift shops. Although a winter storm in the 1950s snapped off a 25-foot section from the top of the monument, it has continued to intrigue visitors, and has now been relocated to a new spot, on the sidewalk just south of the Cliff House entrance.
Columbarium—Built by the Odd Fellows fraternal group for its cemetery (one of many in the old days of the Richmond District. See Dearly Departed), the neoclassical building was acquired by the Neptune Society in 1980, and restored to its original grandeur. With a recent expansion, spaces remain available for those who cannot bear the thought of leaving San Francisco, even in death.
Doggie Diner Head—Designed by a local artist in the 1960s, the smiling head of a dachshund in a chef’s hat and polka-dot bow tie smiled down from a pole above each of the chain’s locations for decades. One of the final surviving branches was near the San Francisco Zoo, and the iconic head was eventually acquired and restored by a group of preservation enthusiasts and placed in the nearby median of Sloat Boulevard in 2005.
Francis Scott Key Monument—Dedicated on July 4, 1888, the imposing monument to the composer of the Star Spangled Banner has had a long history in Golden Gate Park. Relocated multiple times to cope with changing traffic conditions, the monument was eventually placed near the Steinhart Aquarium. A nearby construction project in the 1960s forced the monument into storage for several years, and there was some discussion of moving it to the campus of Francis Scott Key School at 43rd Avenue and Kirkham Street in the Sunset District. After restoration work was complete, though, it was returned to the Music Concourse, a few hundred feet west of its previous location.
Holocaust Memorial—Located at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, the memorial is the work of artist George Segal (1924-2000), and was dedicated in 1984. Using bronze, painted white, the scene depicts the horrors of concentration camps, with a lone standing figure suggesting the famous 1945 photo by LIFE magazine photographer, Margaret Bourke-White, depicting the liberation of Buchenwald.
Japanese Tea Garden—Located adjacent to the Golden Gate Park Music Concourse, the Tea Garden is a souvenir from the Midwinter Exposition of 1894 that contains many monuments of its own, including the tall moon bridge over a lake, the temple gate and pagoda, plus a seated Buddha statue.
Legion of Honor—Prominently displayed in front of the museum are two equestrian statues by sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington (1876-1973): El Cid, a Castilian military leader in medieval Spain, and also Joan of Arc, the young peasant girl who led the French army to victory before being burned at the stake by the English at age 19. A copy of the Rodin sculpture, "The Thinker," sits in the courtyard entrance.
Laguna Honda Hospital—A painted stone image of Florence Nightingale, known as Lady of the Lamp (referring to an 1857 poem by Henry Longfellow), was cast by a Swedish immigrant Peter David Edstrom (1873-1938) and displayed at the GGIE on Treasure Island. Dedicated to the founder of professional nursing, it was later installed at city-run Laguna Honda Hospital where it remains today.
Larsen Park—An enormous boulder with a dedication plaque has been facing the streams of traffic along 19th Avenue since its dedication in 1928—a massive public thank you to Danish immigrant Carl Larsen, who donated two city blocks of land to the people of San Francisco for a public park.
Merced Manor Reservoir—While most San Francisco reservoirs are purely utilitarian, the Merced Manor site along Sloat Boulevard is a monument to the “City Beautiful” movement. Constructed in 1936, the machinery is concealed within a grand building, with architectural embellishments highlighting the presence and the power of water in our lives.
Mothers Building—Constructed in 1925 as a resting spot for mothers and small children, the site became the San Francisco Zoo gift shop for many years until it was closed to the public in 2002. The interior upper walls were decorated in 1938 with a series of murals by two San Francisco artists, Dorothy Pucinelli and Helen Forbes, depicting Noah and his ark of animals, a theme clearly related to the setting. In disrepair since 2002, a fund-raising program is now underway to provide for a complete restoration.
Music Concourse—The Music Concourse of Golden Gate Park is home to dozens of memorial statues, all of which this author and his University of San Francisco classmates had to count and identify on 1974’s First Annual Amateur Auto Rally and Competitive Cruising Classic. These include Spreckels Band Shell, Miguel Cervantes Memorial, Robert Emmet Memorial, Rideout Fountain, Baseball Player, John McLaren, Roman Gladiator, Apple Cider Press, Pioneer Mother, Sphinxes, Junipero Serra Monument, Giuseppe Verdi, and James Garfield Memorial.
Playland Memorial—The Midway, the bumper cars, the diving bell, and the carnival games that once made up Playland-at-the-Beach were gone after Labor Day weekend of 1972. Even the old 5-McAllister MUNI line had its destination signage updated to “5-Fulton—OCEAN BEACH” a few years after Playland’s demise. At the northeast corner of LaPlaya and Cabrillo, there is a tiny cluster of images where, in May of 1981, Mayor Dianne Feinstein dedicated a memorial plaque to the late, great amusement park.
St. Anne of the Sunset Church—A sculptural frieze above the entrance depicts biblical history from Abraham to Christ. Largely unnoticed until the church was repainted in three different contrasting shades in the 1980s, the characters were designed by Sister Justina Niemierski of Mission San Jose when the church was built in 1930.
St. Francis Wood Fountain—Created by architect John Galen Howard in 1912, and emblematic of the City Beautiful movement in the early twentieth century, the classic fountain sits at the intersection of Santa Ana Avenue and St. Francis Boulevard in St. Francis Wood. Many teens in the 1960s may have memories of dumping dishwashing liquid into the fountain to produce bubbles, though the St. Francis Wood Homes Association, responsible for maintenance of the fountain, now adds an anti-foaming agent to the recirculating water to prevent this sort of thing. The fountain was severely damaged by a young driver early in the new millennium, but has since been restored to its original quiet elegance.
Sundial—Dedicated in the then-developing residential neighborhood of Ingleside Terraces in 1913, the sundial is one of the oldest pieces of public art in the western neighborhoods. (More information on the Giant Sundial)
Super Bowl 50—If ever there was a monument that local residents did not like, this was it. In anticipation of the February 2016 game, National Football League officials installed ten large signs (each weighing about 1,600 pounds) and placed them around San Francisco where many were promptly vandalized and subsequently removed.
Sutro Heights—Adolph Sutro built his home in the 1880s on land above the Cliff House, where he displayed many works of art throughout the grounds. Over time, the buildings and much of the statuary deteriorated because of the fog and salt air, and most of the site was torn down by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) prior to World War II. Some of the statues were buried and later found, and restored, while some others have been reconstructed based on fragments unearthed at the site, and then matched with vintage photos. One piece, a reclining 12-point stag, was recast in the 1980s and is now on display at Lands End Visitor Center (opened December 2012). Likewise, the lion statues at the entrance to the park were recast by the National Park Service in the early 1980s, and put on public display at the site.
Tiled Steps (Kirkham Street, 16th Avenue, Lincoln Park, and other city locations)—A civic beautification project that began more than a decade ago has spread throughout San Francisco. With many utilitarian (read: ugly) concrete stairways built in the 1930s, local residents have identified several places where civic infrastructure has been improved with art. The first location was the 16th Avenue Steps (located at 16th and Moraga Street in the Sunset District), designed by artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher, who led the creation of the 163 mosaic panels depicting animals, birds, and fish that were applied to the step risers. The installation was dedicated in the summer of 2005.
USS San Francisco Memorial—Built at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in nearby Vallejo from 1931-1934, the USS San Francisco sustained heavy damage in the Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942. A total of 77 officers and men from the San Francisco were lost. When the ship was brought back to Mare Island for repairs, massive sections of the bomb-damaged hull were preserved and fashioned into a memorial installed in the area above the Cliff House in 1950.
World War II Memorial—A curved wall of California granite, set in a grove of pine and cypress trees in the Presidio overlooking the Pacific Ocean, bears the names of armed forces members who were lost or buried at sea between 1941 and 1945, including those who died at Pearl Harbor. The monument was dedicated in 1960.
Zoo—As the San Francisco Zoo slowly but surely sheds its Works Progress Administration (WPA) architecture from the 1930s, it is acquiring more in terms of both natural habitats and animal-inspired works of art. In recent years, sculptural pieces that allow children to climb and explore have been added, including kid-friendly representations of a hippo, grizzly bear, cougar, tiger, hawk, barnyard dogs, and others.
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