Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres is a retelling of King Lear set on an Iowa farm, complete with a drowning in a pond and some poisoned sausages. Golden Gate Park is 17 acres larger than that Midwestern parcel, and its drama is no less Shakespearean. Roughly as big as nine Vaticans or two Monacos, it’s a little bigger than New York’s Central Park, whose junior architect (Calvert Vaux) and width (half a mile) it shares.
Those urban greenspaces bookend a country whose history is intertwined with the closing of the frontier and the bringing of a whole pilfered continent under fruitful cultivation. Of the two, Golden Gate Park’s genesis is the more improbable and marvelous. The shifting dunes that once formed the “Outside Lands” were initially regarded as a wasteland inhospitable to most vegetation, but horticulturalist John McLaren had vision and patience. In an achievement comparable to the prospect of growing potatoes on Mars, McLaren terraformed the landscape, introducing hundreds of species to California and grooming the park over the span of decades starting in the 1870s.
The City Beautiful Movement, which originated in Chicago around 1900 and sowed a spirit of civic grandeur nationwide, viewed parks as “lungs for the city.” As verdant sites of comprehensive design that provided respite from the grind of urban life, city parks embodied humanity’s dominance over nature. Just as importantly, they filled up with monuments and neoclassical architecture, inculcating the citizenry with an improved aesthetic appreciation tinged with moralism. Have a picnic next to a bust of Cervantes or a plinth with Ulysses S. Grant on it, and you might go forth and read Don Quixote or serve your country.
That top-down mentality lasted through the mid-20th century. Had the 1948 master plan been executed, Golden Gate Park would have been denser with freeways than even Downtown. Thankfully, it was spared, and the contemporary park remains home to charming anachronisms, like a rhododendron dell or the anglers’ ponds dyed the same blue as a miniature-golf water hazard.
As a rule, the closer to the ocean you go, the statuary becomes sparser and the opportunities for organized recreation increase. Golden Gate Park isn’t entirely artificial, however. The live oak grove just north of the Conservatory of Flowers predates it, as do the Chain of Lakes on the western end (although they’ve since been modified). And the California bay trees in the natural basin that is now the National AIDS Memorial were sufficiently shielded from the elements to grow there; they’re natural, too.
McLaren was exempt from the city’s mandatory retirement age for civil servants (60) and lived out his days in the lodge that’s now Rec and Park’s headquarters. He was sort of like James from James and the Giant Peach, making a cozy home in Central Park out of the enormous pit — and indeed, the statue of McLaren contemplating a pine cone in a three-piece suit has a Hobbit-like air. After serving as Golden Gate Park’s superintendent for more than half a century, he died in 1943 at age 96, and lay in state as San Francisco’s most honored citizen.
What would he have thought of things like the 1967 Human Be-In or the Panhandle Stage at Outside Lands: horrible nuisances or maximum appreciation of a unique public resource? We’ll never know. The most loving tribute may be in the murals in the Beach Chalet at Golden Gate Park’s western edge. Among the cyclists and the bathers and the lady in a hat fashioned from newspaper who’s also reading Mark Twain is another wondrous figure: a regal woman in a fur-trimmed purple coat, on a green bench, hand-feeding a squirrel. Golden Gate Park is for everybody.
Read more from SF Weekly‘s Golden Gate Park issue:
Keeping certain species out of Golden Gate Park is a decades-old battle.
Sharon Meadow Has Been Renamed Robin Williams Meadow
Comics and goodnatured city dignitaries gathered in Golden Gate Park on Friday to mutilate some Robin Williams jokes in honor of the late comedian.
Golden Gate Dog Park Renovation Will Separate Large Dogs From Small
How do we break it to dogs that the $2.4 million upgrade to their park-within-a-park isn’t coming for another year?
Volunteering at the National AIDS Memorial Grove
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