A Brief History of Golden Gate Park Memorials

Various foundations over the years wanted people to remember dead men, but park officials detested monuments.

Statues in Golden Gate Park don’t take center stage. The reason? Longtime superintendent John McLaren simply despised them.

What McLaren — who was Rec and Park’s superintendent for 53 years — did not despise was the money that came along with them. So, to be at peace with the presence of statues in the park, McLaren had them placed to the sides and cloaked in shrubbery, to keep a natural feel. It was an if-you-can’t-beat-’em-hide-’em approach.

Thanks to those free, donation-supported San Francisco City Guides tours, SF Weekly got an introduction to some seemingly random statues, plaques, and memorials in the expansive park — which, by the way, almost included a freeway at one point, as well.

Basically, historical societies and foundations paid for people today to wonder why there’s a statue of the former president of Czechoslovakia hidden by the Rose Garden. (Tour guide Kathy Long didn’t know why, either.) These are our favorites, some of which are more inexplicable than others.

Henry Halleck

Perhaps unknown to San Franciscans is Major General Henry Halleck. Known less-than-affectionately as “Old Brains,” he served as California’s Secretary of State and helped craft the state’s Constitution. He also has a connection to the Transamerica Pyramid, which replaced an early Financial District office building he developed that was plugged as one of the first fireproof buildings. It survived the 1906 earthquake, but not urban renewal.

General John Pershing

Pershing was stationed at the Presidio in 1914 and dealt with the personal tragedy of losing his wife and three daughters in a house fire while he was away. By the end of his career, he served in multiple wars and earned the nickname “Black Jack” for leading the Buffalo Soldiers. The nickname was intended to be derogatory, but Pershing was proud to work with African-Americans.

Thomas Starr King

King led the antislavery crusade in California during the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln credited him with preventing the state from forming its own republic. He was also an environmentalist who wrote a book about Yosemite National Park. A mountain there is named after him, as are a San Francisco elementary school and the block-long diagonal that connects Geary Boulevard to O’Farrell Street.

Chaplain William D. McKinnon

This statue is especially out-of-the-way off John F. Kennedy Drive, but it’s of the chaplain with the military during the Spanish-American War. McKinnon also taught at Santa Clara University.

Liberty Tree

One can imagine McLaren liked this one, since it’s a huge tree off John F. Kennedy Drive with a plaque somewhere at the bottom that you have to crawl to find. The Daughters of the American Revolution planted this “Liberty Tree” in 1894, on the anniversary of the Battle of Lexington.

George Washington Elm Tree

Another tree, but with a plaque you can actually find. The Sons of the American Revolution supposedly cut the tree where George Washington first took command of the army at the Cambridge Commons and planted it here, but Long is skeptical. The one that stands today is a replant from 1958.

Memorial Grove

In a grove of redwood trees, north of the de Young Museum and across John F. Kennedy Drive, sits a memorial to all the San Franciscans who died in World War I. As Long pointed out, there’s power in reading the names of individuals who lost their lives rather than listing them as a lump sum. The National AIDS Memorial Grove is also in Golden Gate Park, near the eastern entry.

James Garfield

East of the Conservatory of Flowers and on a little hill sits former President James Garfield, probably one of the more noticeable statues from afar. It was unveiled a few years after Garfield’s 1881 assassination, which occurred just months into his presidency. Long says that at that time, Americans were still debating the Civil War, which Garfield fought in as a Union soldier. He can rest in peace knowing that Americans are still debating its legacy.

Star-Spangled Banner

Those relieved — or disappointed — they don’t have to go up in arms over a Confederate monument can settle for one of Francis Scott Key, the writer of our newly controversial “Star-Spangled Banner.” Setting aside the original racist language in a now-omitted stanza, Key railed until his death against the anti-slavery movement and in favor of sending enslaved people to Africa instead.

John McLaren

Another statue that McLaren vehemently fought against and lost to was one of himself. San Franciscans owe a lot to McLaren for making San Francisco parks what they are today, and can say hello to his ground-level monument in Rhododendron Dell, off John F. Kennedy Drive and near the museums.

Other statues not in the City Guides tour include Don Quixote and Sancho Panza looking up to their creator Miguel De Cervantes; Irish patriot Robert Emmet, donated by former Mayor James D. Phelan; Buddha in the Japanese Tea Garden; and one of a woman with two children, dedicated to pioneer mothers.

For a complete schedule of City Guide’s tours visit sfcityguides.org.

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