Woodward Gardens – theme parks may have started here!

Time Before Now – May 1866  – The unpopular President Andrew Johnson vetoed the Civil Rights Act that became the 14th Amendment, New York City’s Bellevue Hospital began using the civilian ambulance (right) and Swiss inventor Alfred Nobel came up with dynamite, creating a bigger demand for Bellevue’s ambulances.

May 4, 1866

On this day, San Francisco’s a pre-Disney wonderland, Woodward Gardens, opened to the public.  For a quarter San Franciscans could stroll through four acres of  lush plantings and Victorian embellishments. 

Garden’s ornate observatory

It was state fair meets the Met.  Unlike anything on the left side of the Mississippi, the gardens contained four museums, an extensive art gallery, restaurants, amusement rides  and a 5000-seat pavilion for band concerts and musical reviews.  

The park boasted only the second aquarium in the country, added in 1873, as well as one of the largest, most enlightened zoos.  The animals, a main attraction, were seldom caged, generally housed in natural settings.  With a little something for everyone, however, they were surrounded by a taxidermy side show that featured  the odd and grotesque, including a five-legged dog and a calf with two heads.

Kids could get in for just a dime.  Some of the biggest attractions for the younger set; California’s largest roller rink, camel rides, and Sunday afternoon hot air balloon ascensions. 

It was all the brain child of Robert Blinn Woodward, often called the “P.T. Barnum of the West.”  Born in Rhode Island, like so many other Easterners, he got rich during the Gold Rush.  But like Woodward himself, his route to wealth was a degree off plum.   Owner of the What Cheer House, (right) his popular hotel catered exclusively to men.  Both women and booze were banned in his establishment.  Neither seemed to hurt its profitablity.

His home and  spacious grounds between Mission and Valencia at 13th and 15th streets covered four entire city blocks.  Purchased from explorer turned politician, Senator John C. Fremont (left) in the early 1850s, Woodward turned the property into a showplace.  An inveterate collector, he spent a decade making improvements.  Sculptures and rare plants raised the profile of the location while residents contrived ways to get invited in for a closer look.

Woodward, according to contemporary accounts, decided it was only a matter of time before the public demand for access was overwhelming.  In response he went on lengthy excursion to Europe, spending  more thousands on artwork, horticultural and geological specimens.  After moving his family to Napa, he opened the gardens to paying customers.  Still considered a country estate, a system of horse-drawn “bob-tail cars” brought San Franciscans down Mission Street from the central city right to the park entrance.  

Entrance to Woodward Gardens

Woodward constantly captured the public’s attention with new exhibits and exotic attractions.  Everything from Japanese acrobats, East Indian fire eaters and Roman style chariot races dazzled visitors on weekends.  One of the first Edison phonographs went on display, advertised as the amazing machine that could recreate the human voice.  Tame deer, peacocks, flamingos and domestic animals wondered the grounds.  For a time the park was home to Monarch, one of the last remaining California grizzly bears, reportedly the model for the state’s Golden Bear flag.

But Woodward,  just 55, died on August 22, 1879.  Deprived of his lively imagination and considerable promotional skills, the park began to lose its luster.  In addition, the city’s fledging Golden Gate Park was growing and became accessible by street car.  Plus it was free.

Continuing to operate until 1891, Woodward’s fanciful paradise was finally shuttered for good and the thousands of artifacts auctioned off in 1894. 

A sizeable portion of them were snapped up by  Adolph Sutro, (left) a Prussian-born engineer who had gotten rich at Nevada’s Comstock Lode with his “Sutro’s Tunnel.”   Many of his purchases were moved to the Sutro Baths, his palatial public pools surrounded by Victorian gardens next to the legendary Cliff House.  

Sutro Baths

His second incarnation of  the city’s landmark tavern was a monument to Victorian excess.  Rebuilt in 1896, it survived the 1906 earthquake only to burn to the ground a year and a half later.

Cliff House Number Two, 1896

Sutro’s philanthrapy led to politics. He served as a populist mayor of San Francisoc from 1895 to 1897 and  died shortly after leaving office in 1898.

Both of these inventive entrepreneurs suffered from a loss of legacy.   Woodward’s enterprises have since been reduced to a pair of historic markers, mostly unnoticed by visitors and San Franciscans alike.  The site of the former What Cheer House is noted only by a bronze plaque at the back end of the Leidesdorff Street Wells Fargo Bank. (Right, outlined in red) 

By comparison, Woodward Gardens fared even worse.  Grafitti-pocked California Historical Marker Number 454,  if you look really closely, can be found on the lower left wall of the small building on the southwest corner of Mission and Duboce Streets. (Right, outlined in red)

Mayor Sutro did only slightly better.  The remains of his  luxurious baths burned to the ground while being razed in 1966.  The cause of the fire was determined to be arson, the developers having collected the insurance and skipped town.  It’s skeleton foundations are now part of the National Park’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

The ruins of Sutro Baths

The iconic Cliff House is the single survivor of the pair of enterprising Victorians.  Sutro’s eldest daughter, Dr. Emma Sutro Merritt, a San Francisco practicing physician, commissioned the firm of Reid and Ried to rebuild the fabled landmark restaurant. 

Cliff House Number Three

The third Cliff House, opened in 1935, had all the charm of a Howard Johnson’s and prospered for the next nine years.  It twice fell victim to security closures during both World Wars by its proximity to Fort Miley Military Reservation.   The fourth Cliff House is today still a landmark with two restaurants overseen by the National Park Service and sole proprietor of some of the best views of the Pacific.

Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, is one of the largest and the third most popular public park in the nation.  Spread over more than 1,000 acres, it includes the De Young Museum, showcasing American fine art, the California Academy of Science, the Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, as well as a wide range of outdoor venues including the Japanese Tea Garden, Shakespeare Garden and Rose Garden, windmills, lakes, ponds and historic landmarks.  

Administered by San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department, it was entered in to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.   Hours and admissions for the many attraction vary.   Non-San Francisco residents are advised to request updated and complete information on admission fees and hours of operation for various areas they may wish to visit.  For more information, go to sfrecpark.org/770/Golden-Gate-Park.  

 In accordance with CDC and state guidelines, some venues may currently be closed.  See the website above for complete information.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.