by Frank Dunnigan
Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -
In today’s rapidly changing world, we can all be grateful for many things that have helped define the San Francisco experience, including some well-preserved elements from earlier times. As we celebrate Thanksgiving later this month, we can be grateful that many elements of the city’s past are still present today. Here are just a few of the many sites in the western neighborhoods for which we can all be thankful.
Golden Gate Park Aerial, Dec 1964 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
GOLDEN GATE PARK — The crown jewel of San Francisco’s public park system, Golden Gate Park was originally proposed in the 1860s. It was designed by engineer William Hammond Hall (with influence from landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead) and strongly shaped by his successor, John McLaren, a native of Scotland who eventually became Park Superintendent. Much of the planting was designed to control the shifting sands that made up three-quarters of the park’s area, and to promote the westward expansion of San Francisco. Work commenced in 1870, and now with 1,017 acres, this was a vast undertaking that took decades to complete. The Panhandle area on the park’s eastern end was the result of some property owners to the north and south who refused to sell their holdings to accommodate an even larger footprint for this treasured public amenity. See more than 4,000 images of Golden Gate Park over the years, plus additional stories, podcasts, and history minutes on file in the WNP Archives
Third Cliff House, circa 1909 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
CLIFF HOUSE — Founded in 1863, there have been three distinct buildings at the site, according to local historian John Martini. The first, opened during the Civil War, had many alterations and expansions over the years. It was purchased in 1881 by Adolph Sutro, who operated it until a fire burned it to the ground in 1894. Sutro then replaced the original structure with an entirely new building that resembled a giant Victorian-era wedding cake. It operated from 1896 to 1907 when it, too, was destroyed by fire. The present structure was built by Sutro’s daughter, Dr. Emma Sutro Merritt, and opened in 1909. It was acquired in 1937 by the Whitney Brothers, who also owned nearby Playland-at-the-Beach. Under the Whitneys, the building was updated several times, including a post-World War II exterior modernization with redwood siding. In the 1970s, a surf-themed mural covered the exterior upper walls, and in 1977, the property was acquired by the current owners, the National Park Service. The departure of long-time concessionaires Dan and Mary Hountalas in December 2020 marked the latest in a long line of breaks in the restaurant’s operational history. Recent news reports share that a re-opening under a new operator is on the horizon. Read about
changes to the 1909 building and explore Cliff House memories in this 2021 Streetwise column
View south on Sunset Boulevard between Ulloa and Vicente Streets, September 11, 1931 - Horace Chaffee, SF Department of Public Works; courtesy of a Private Collector.
SUNSET BOULEVARD — Built in the early 1930s, the original plan for Sunset Boulevard envisioned an angular roadway from 19th Avenue and Lincoln Way directly to the Zoo. However, property owners generally viewed such plans negatively because changes to the standard street grid would cut off portions of rectangular lots — many of which were already seeing homes built — thus leaving irregular parcels that might prove difficult to sell or build upon. In the end, the route was realigned to an area stretching from the south end of Golden Gate Park directly to Lake Merced Boulevard, with a planted center median and borders. Originally posted with signs announcing “Commercial Vehicles Prohibited” and with no stop signs or traffic lights until the 1960s, Sunset Boulevard was an efficient north-south route through a rapidly developing neighborhood, but for automobile traffic only. Also, at a time when the 1906 fire was still clear in the memories of many local residents, Sunset Boulevard was regarded as a potential fire-break in a vast sea of small homes built mostly of wood.
Hear more in Outside Lands Podcast #38
Twin Peaks Tunnel, December 24, 1917 - Horace Chaffee, SF Department of Public Works; courtesy of a Private Collector.
TWIN PEAKS TUNNEL — The Twin Peaks Tunnel opened up vast tracts of land in the western neighborhoods for the development of homes and businesses. Shown here in December 1917 following a construction effort of more than three years, regular streetcar service began just over two months later in March 1918. This one civic improvement, more than any other single element, helped to define the western neighborhoods that we know today. The OpenSFHistory photo archive has nearly 300 images
of the Twin Peaks Tunnel over the years. Learn more with Outside Lands podcast #262
, this 2009 SF West History Minute video
, and this 2009 Streetwise column
Legion of Honor, September 1966 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
MUSEUMS — San Francisco’s largest public arts institution operates in the western neighborhoods. The de Young Museum opened in 1895 by Chronicle publisher Michael de Young, and the California Palace of the Legion of Honor was built by philanthropist Alma de Bretteville Spreckels in 1924. They originally operated as separate entities, but since 1972 they have been merged into a single operation known as The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Shown here in 1966, the Legion of Honor underwent significant maintenance, refurbishment, seismic retrofit, and a below-ground expansion from 1992 to 1995. In 2003, the Avery Brundage collection of Asian art, housed at the de Young since 1966, moved to a new home at the former Main Library building in Civic Center and became a fully independent museum. A new de Young Museum building opened in 2005. (Historical footnote: Michael de Young’s two daughters and Alma Spreckels were in the upper echelons of San Francisco society for most of their lives, but the de Young sisters refused to speak to Mrs. Spreckels because of a family feud dating back to 1884. That year, Alma’s husband Adolph shot Michael de Young in response to a Chronicle article that was critical of the Spreckels family’s sugar company — an incident for which Adolph was eventually acquitted in court.) Other west side museums to be thankful for include the California Academy of Sciences and the Walt Disney Family Museum. Learn more about the history of the de Young Museum
and Legion of Honor founder Alma de Bretteville Spreckels
Golden Gate Bridge, circa 1960 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
GOLDEN GATE BRIDGE — A dream of locals for many decades, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge (shown here in 1960) saw construction commence at the depths of the Great Depression in January 1933. The engineering achievement was accomplished both on schedule and under budget — two characteristics that are seldom seen in more recent undertakings. Read, see, and hear much more about this iconic element of San Francisco in this 2012 SF West History Minute video
, this 2016 Streetwise column
, and Outside Lands podcast #266
16th Avenue Steps, 2007 - Photo by Mark Roller.
TILED STEPS — Nearly 100 years ago, San Francisco embarked on a significant public works project to create durable concrete pedestrian stairways in many hillside locations. Just in this millennium, city government made them more user-friendly with the installation of handrails, while local artists began to develop plans for the addition of decorative ceramic tiles on the risers of the steps. The first installation occurred on the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps in the Golden Gate Heights neighborhood nearly 20 years ago in 2004, with completion and dedication one year later. Read more about local tile step installations in this 2014 Streetwise column
Stern Grove Aerial, 1959 - photo by Moulin Studios; courtesy of a Private Collector.
STERN GROVE — Thanks to the generosity of Rosalie Meyer Stern, San Franciscans of today can visit a meandering urban forest adjacent to Sloat Boulevard. Musical concerts, students attending school events, and dog walkers have enjoyed this local oasis since the late 1930s. By 2005, much of the original infrastructure was deteriorating, but the privately-operated Stern Grove Foundation raised $15 million for an extensive upgrade. Read more about the history of Sigmund Stern Grove in this 2017 Streetwise column
Playland at the Beach, circa 1955 - Courtesy of a Private Collector.
IT’S-IT — When the concessions once known as “Chutes at the Beach” were placed under the collective oversight of George Whitney in the late 1920s, they were renamed “Playland-at-the-Beach,” and there was a concerted effort to improve operations. Under Whitney’s management, food concessions were more organized, and a new treat was introduced: two freshly baked oatmeal cookies surrounding a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and then dipped in rich dark chocolate. Dubbed the IT’S-IT, they were produced by hand and sold from a storefront facing the Pacific Ocean (and adjacent to an iconic Mexican restaurant, The Hot House). The new culinary treat was an immediate success. After the closing and demolition of Playland in 1972, the name and recipe were purchased and manufacturing was moved to a South of Market location, which was significantly expanded in 1976. Distribution increased to include thousands of retail locations in California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Arizona, Texas, and New York, with manufacturing later moved to a new, larger facility near the San Francisco International Airport.
Shaw's Ice Cream, 1940 - Courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
SHAW'S -- Operating at 122 West Portal Avenue since the early days of the shopping district, just after the 1918 opening of streetcar service through the Twin Peaks Tunnel, Shaw's was once a 50-store chain of ice cream and candy stores that radiated out to the suburbs. In February 2020, the original store location was suddenly empty and sporting a “For Rent” sign. By August of that year, new owner Diana Zogaric had recreated the classic Shaw's design and products, including a large collection of PEZ dispensers, and it reopened for business by the holiday season. The Zogaric family continued putting finishing touches on a thorough renovation in the first week of 2021. Read Richard Brandi's 2002 article
on the history of Shaw's, and this this Hoodline article
about the store’s 2020 closure and subsequent reopening.
Contribute your own stories about western neighborhoods places!