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Streetwise: Monument to the Deceased

by Frank Dunnigan
January 2022

Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -
During my first week of high school at the old St. Ignatius on Stanyan Street, in September of 1966, San Francisco was experiencing a typical September heat wave. Glancing out one of the classroom windows on the west side of the building, searching for the first wisps of incoming fog, I caught sight of an old, domed structure a few blocks away, near Geary & Arguello. Thinking it was a misplaced piece of Civic Center architecture, I soon learned that it was “The Columbarium”—one of the last vestiges of the Odd Fellows Cemetery that used to occupy a large chunk of the neighborhood

Columbarium at the Odd Fellows Cemetery. Operated today by the Neptune Society, circa 1905 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
Odd Fellows one of the City’s major burial grounds in what eventually became the Richmond District (Calvary, Laurel Hill, and Masonic were the others). Opened in 1854 and eventually covering 167 acres, Odd Fellows was run by the large fraternal organization. Perpetual endowment care of gravesites was not practiced in those days, and upkeep of grounds and monuments was a responsibility mostly left to family and friends of the deceased. Within two decades or so, two of those local cemeteries—Odd Fellows and Masonic—began to experience financial difficulties and poor maintenance because many of their gravesites were no longer visited and cared for. The area’s other two nearby cemeteries—Laurel Hill and Calvary—were in slightly better financial shape and were able to preserve a better level of care for their grounds, with loved ones of their deceased inhabitants still visiting with sufficient regularity. By the mid-1890s, the organization running Odd Fellows Cemetery eventually decided that cremation, then gaining in popularity in the United States, was a low-cost, low-maintenance solution to their financial challenges.

Large crowd, many of whom are wearing at the Odd Fellows Cemetery, possibly for the burial of an important Civil War veteran, circa 1908 - Bauchou Family Photographs - Courtesy of Peter Linenthal / Potrero Hill Archives.
Designed by London-born architect Bernard Cahill and opened in 1898, the copper-domed, neo-Classical Columbarium was designed to harmonize with another Cahill-designed building on the property—the Crematorium, built in 1895 and situated farther west on the property. With rich interior ornamentation, the Columbarium proved to be a popular alternative to the far-off Colma-based cemeteries that were then being developed as alternatives to any further expansion of San Francisco-based burial grounds. With more than 5,000 individual spaces originally available beneath a magnificent domed skylight, mosaic tile floors, statuary, and stained glass windows, the Columbarium was an architectural treasure from the time it first opened, and the cemetery continued to draw large crowds.

View from second level of interior courtyard beneath Columbarium dome, July 16, 2016 - WNP Photo.
Unfortunately for the Odd Fellows organization, the expansion of homes and businesses into the Richmond District was accelerating as the 20th Century began, and the battle was soon on, with many San Franciscans insisting that “the cemeteries must go”. In 1902, the Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance banning any further sale of cemetery lots with the city limits, and in 1910, cremations were also prohibited. Those who owned spaces within San Francisco, were permitted to use them as the need arose, but without the sale of additional spaces, income for cemetery maintenance dried up. The Crematorium, adjacent to the site of the present Rossi Pool (built in 1957) was the first major portion of the cemetery to be demolished once cremation was outlawed in the World War I era.

Crematorium at Odd Fellows cemetery, erected in 1895, circa 1905 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
The battle between preservationists and developers continued for some time, and the Odd Fellows organization subsequently developed Green Lawn Cemetery in Colma, and their San Francisco cemetery site was officially closed in 1923. By the late 1920s, many families sensed that forced removals by the City were about to take commence. Many of them chose to begin relocating the graves of loved ones at a personal cost to themselves, and others, fearing the eventual demolition of the Columbarium, did likewise. Maintenance of the entire parcel declined rapidly, and by 1933, remains that had not been removed, were disinterred and relocated to Colma. Set for demolition in 1934, the Columbarium was ultimately preserved, but was neglected for the next several decades.

View north from Odd Fellows Cemetery, possibly Broderick Monument in the background behind trees, 1910s - Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector.
Once the land had been cleared, new homes and businesses began to occupy the site, and Rossi Playground occupied a large portion of the property, fronting on Arguello Boulevard.

View north to men grading Odd Fellows Cemetery. WPA workers moving earth while converting Odd Fellows Cemetery into Rossi Playground. Columbarium in center distance. Roosevelt Junior High (now Middle) School at far left, December 26, 1933 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
The Columbarium eventually faded into the past, and following the construction of the Coronet Theatre nearby in 1949, it remained obscured from the views of most passersby. Ownership passed through many different hands until the building was acquired by the Neptune Society in 1980.
Over the last four decades, there has been a detailed cleanup and restoration program, plus some tasteful additions of new resting places (capacity of 8,500 today), on both the interior and exterior of the original building. Virtually all of the previously vacated indoor niches have now largely been sub-divided and re-sold to new owners who are happy to retain a San Francisco address into perpetuity.
Among the notable names of Columbarium occupants are Supervisor Harvey Milk, twin sisters Marian and Vivian Brown, members of the Folger coffee family, Chet Helms (music promoter of San Francisco’s 1967 Summer of Love), musician Jose Santana (father of Carlos Santana), as well as family members associated with several nearby street names (Eddy, Steiner, Haight, Page), as well as San Francisco’s post-Fire Mayor, Edward Robeson Taylor.
As time went on, the wide swath of Richmond District cemeteries was generally forgotten by the public. There were, however, some unfortunate reminders of the past. A number of local property owners, while conducting landscaping or home remodeling projects, have come across overlooked caskets and other stark reminders of what had once occupied the neighborhood.
Read more about the history of Richmond District cemeteries in Woody LaBounty's 2001 article.

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