31 March, 2009


The Mechanics' Institute Library at 57 Post Street is a wonderful place. Don't let the name mislead you, it's a general interest private library with membership open to all. It's located in a beautiful building. The lobby was recently restored, but that isn't the nicest thing about this location; it's got to be the staircase. Elaborate spiral staircases may be a dime (or 7.4 euro cents) a dozen in Europe, but they're pretty rare in San Francisco. This would be a beautiful example anywhere.

28 March, 2009


In Sutro Heights, one of San Francisco's most beautiful parks, can be found, almost forgotten, reminders of an elegant and cultured past. Located around the lawns and shrubs are lions, deer and the goddess Diana. These statues are among the remains of the estate of San Francisco mayor Adolph Sutro.
His home was surrounded by landscaped gardens, fountains and a conservatory. He generously opened the grounds of this Eden on Sundays to the citizens of his City. His home is gone (demolished in the 1930s) and today his estate is a beautifully situated and well-maintained city park with incredible views of the Pacific. It's located on the bluff above the Cliff House. There are several benches on the parapet at the top of the park where hours can be lost.

27 March, 2009

Signs of the Times

Cities handle change in very different ways. San Francisco can be quite resistant to change for a place with a reputation for "setting the pace" in so many ways. We seem to like things as they are, at least superficially. This is especially true of the "look" of our City. Still, so much change is really beyond our control. Natural disasters and economic forces will always alter our environment. It's hard not to see the signs of economic distress in The City of late. I've come across a couple of interesting examples; this shop on Kearny took down the sign of its last tenant and has revealed its former incarnation as a hat store, and this former Washington Mutual branch on Polk and California has a new name. The hat shop will have a new tenant soon, I hope. I pray that Chase will spend a little of that bailout cash on a new permanent sign (could they have done the new sign MORE cheaply?) Other sad changes; Morrow's Nut House on Geary has gone after over 60 years in the same location, as has the See's Candies shop on Polk (the oldest outlet in the chain, it's been on Polk since 1936).
Little losses perhaps, but threads in the fabric of The City that was.

17 March, 2009

The Colvmbarivm

With the unfortunate demolition of the great Coronet Theatre, drivers along Geary Blvd. now have a view of the Odd Fellows (now Neptune Society) Columbarium for the first time since the 1940s. The view won't last long, as the new construction is progressing at a rapid clip. The Columbarium was built by British architect Bernard J. Cahill in 1897 as the centerpiece of the 167-acre Odd Fellows Cemetery. It's open to the public daily and no San Franciscan interested in history should hesitate to visit. Harvey Milk has a place here, look for him on the right just after you enter the building. Magnificently restored, it affords hours of fascinating exploring. It's also a poignant reminder of the toll of the AIDS epidemic; many niches are filled with the remains of men, young and old, tragically taken before their time. It's located at 1 Lorraine Court, off of Anza St. between Stanyan and Arguello.

12 March, 2009

The Best Seat in the World

This has to be among the most beautiful views from a bench, in a park, on the planet. Yet here it is, empty. That's fine with me, because I could spend hours here taking in the magnificent vista. My pathetic little camera-phone photo doesn't do this place justice. Located in the aptly named Grand View Park, the view takes in the entire northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula from the Pacific to the Bay. You can approach the park from the west by ascending the beautifully tiled Moraga Stairway (lower photo).

09 March, 2009


The music concourse in Golden Gate Park is unusual in that it's a highly organized, structured landscape. It represents the European ideal of a manicured public space, where the rest of the park, more or less, seeks to emulate a sort of wilderness. From the clay ground cover, to the fountains and monuments (note how most of the park's statues are found in the vicinity), from the grandiose Spreckels Temple of Music, to the pollarded* Elm and Sycamore, it's a buttoned-up sort of place. Originally the site of the 1894 Mid-Winter Exposition, the concourse has undergone a major renovation since the construction of the new De Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences. It's a wonderful place for people watching on a busy day (there are many since the reopening of the Academy).
*A tree whose top branches have been cut back to the trunk so that it may produce a dense growth of new shoots.

06 March, 2009

Ghosts of Hollywood in Chinatown

Chinatown offers so much of interest for the amateur historian, it's easy to overlook the not-so-obvious history of many locations in this fascinating part of San Francisco. One such place is the Sun Sing Center on Grant Avenue near Jackson. Opened in the 1920s as the Mandarin Theatre, it originally featured performances of Chinese Opera. It later became a movie theatre, where I was lucky enough to be able to see several Hong Kong epics in my youth. After closing, along with several other Chinatown cinemas, it became a rather fascinating shopping mall. It's now a warren of DVD, CD and mobile phone retailers and a great resource if you're a Chinese movie fan. Speaking of films, cineastes may recognize this as the theatre that Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles duck into in the classic "Lady from Shanghai". The interior is still pretty much intact.
So much history if you look around.

04 March, 2009

Mountain View in Oakland?

Not that I'm feeling the least bit morbid, but my wanderings have found me in several cemeteries of late. They're marvelous places for history buffs, nature freaks and the exceptionally contemplative. I made a special trip across the bay to Oakland to visit Mountain View Cemetery. Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (the father of New York City's Central Park) in the 19th Century, the place is one of the Bay Area's under-appreciated treasures. Here we find the final resting place of many California's famous (and infamous). Walking amongst the tombstones is like leafing through a who's who (or who used to be) of San Francisco and California history. I took a photo of these stones because they reminded me, strangely enough, of the great stone carvings of Easter Island ... on a much smaller scale, of course. Did I mention the fantastic views of The City?