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Articles » Sydney Stein Rich – Gardener and Pioneer on Two Fronts
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“Can you handle a spade?” asked John MacLaren, fearsome and tyrannical Superintendent of the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Strong men quailed before him. It was 1929.

The candidate was a small Jewish woman born in Brooklyn, Sydney Stein. She was no easily intimidated. “Yes I can” she replied. “Good”, he growled, “You are hired”.


It all began with a bench. The bench had been dedicated to Sydney Stein Rich as a memorial in 1983.Who, wondered the staff at the Golden Gate Park Conservatory in the fall of 2001, was Sydney Stein Rich?

I became involved in the process when a friend at the San Francisco Garden Club, Lola Heer, returned from a meeting with the current director of the conservatory, Scot Medbury. Lola said, rather casually, “Scot wants to find out more about someone called Sydney Stein Rich. She worked at the conservatory in the 1940s.”

The conservatory is currently being carefully dismantled before being re-built to make it seismically sound. It was during the process of putting everything away that the workers paid closer attention to the bench. The San Francisco Garden Club has donated a lot of money to the conservatory over the years and participates closely in its activities.

As soon as I heard about Mrs Rich, I volunteered to do some research. Finding information about her personal and professional life has been a challenge. All that was known about her at the beginning was her position and the fact that she had died in the late 1950s. The year of her death was variously given as 1954 and 1959. Both these dates were wrong. She died on September 8, 1956.

The reason for commemorating her was that Mrs Rich was the the first Head Nurserywoman of the conservatory at the Golden Gate Park. Not too many Jewish people have been active in horticulture, and while women are deeply involved in botany, horticulture and gardening, few of them reach senior levels in those fields. Mrs Rich was remarkable on both scores

Early life

Sydney Stein’s father was Jacob Friedman, a Russian immigrant. Her mother was Eva Towaroski. Sydney was born in 1906. This information was on her death certificate.

In spite of her father’s name being Friedman she was known as Sydney Stein. The obituary notice in the San Francisco Examiner on September 10, 1956 listed her father as Abraham Stein. It also listed four siblings: a brother, Captain Peter Stein, a sister, Betty Stein, and two other married sisters, Esther Oppenheimer and Yetta Rosenstein.1

The inconsistencies in her maiden name were cleared up when I reviewed her applications to live at the Emanu-El Residence Club on four separate occasions, between 1922 and 1929. There was no Abraham Stein. That was an error on someone’s part.

Sydney Stein was born Sadie Friedman in Brooklyn NY. At some time after the family moved to California, her parents were divorced. The breakup of her home was the reason she applied to live in the hostel. Eva (Towaroski) Friedman got married again, to a man named Wasserstein.

The Wassersteins lived in Santa Rosa and King City, California at different times. Sydney listed her elder sister’s name, Yetta Friedman, as next of kin for emergency purposes because her mother was not close at hand.

On one of the first application cards at the Emanu-El Residence Club, Sadie (Sydney) Friedman began to use the name “Stein”, but this was cross referenced with “Wasserstein”. It seems she shortened her stepfather’s name to use as her own. Both first names, Sadie and Sydney, were noted on the cards.

The birth order of the children marked epochs in the family’s life. The eldest,Yetta (Friedman) Rosenstein, was born in Germany on July 5, 1898. Sadie (Sydney Stein) was born in Brooklyn, New York on March 19, 1906. Peter (Friedman) Stein was born on October 5, 1907, in New York. Esther (?Stein) Oppenheimer was born in California on September 28, 1915. She died in 1996 in San Francisco. There was no information about Betty.

From these bald facts its appears that the Friedman family reached New York at some time between 1898 and 1906. They then moved to California between 1907 and 1915. It is unclear why they decided to do that.

Becoming Sydney Stein Rich

Sydney Stein said she was graduated from the well known Lowell High School in San Francisco. The alumni association could not find any information about her either under the names of Stein or Friedman. It is possible she attended the girls’ division which later merged with the main school or that she did not actually graduate. The alumni do not have records on the former girls’ division.

In 1925, Sydney Stein lived at 300 Page Street, San Francisco. This was the address of the Emanu-El Residence Club. It had opened its new building in 1922. At this stage of her life, Sydney Stein was very poor and had to take any work she could find to survive. The application cards noted that she had worked as a stock girl and saleswoman for $15 a week at several business establishments in the city. The hostel charged $3 a week for full board.

While she lived at the club, Sydney caught the eye of Matilda Esberg. Mrs Esberg was a truly dedicated volunteer in the Temple Emanu-el Sisterhood. Regardless of whether she was on the board or a committee, Mrs Esberg was always ready to help a young Jewish woman improve her life.

Sydney told Mrs Esberg that she wanted to work in the open air. She had filled in as a gardener on a large estate for several months, during the absence of a friend who was the regular gardener. The experience convinced her that this was how she wanted to spend her life.

Mrs Esberg believed this was a very worthy goal and sponsored Sydney at the newly established California School of Gardening for Women at Hayward, later merged with Stanford University. Presumably she entered the school in1926, the year it began. She graduated in July 1927. This school was one of the earliest horticultural training colleges for women in the United States.

Miss Stein married Neville J. Rich Sr. in 1946, when she was forty years old. They lived at 3027 Webster Street in San Francisco. The obituary in the San Francisco Examiner mentioned two children: Neville Rich Jr. and Elizabeth Wertheim. These were not Sydney Stein’s children. Neville Rich had married Anne (Barrie) Rich in 1926. Anne was the mother of Neville Jr. and Elizabeth. Neville Rich Sr. and Anne were later divorced. Neville Rich Sr. died in 1979.

Anne Barrie’s marriage to Neville Rich Sr. had been announced in the San Francisco Chronicle in August 1926.2 Neville Rich did not insert an announcement of his second marriage in the newspaper.


Much of the information about Sydney came from an invitation card which someone had saved and deposited in the San Francisco Public Library’s Koshland History Room. The card had been placed in the Golden Gate Park conservatory folder by itself without any annotation.

The invitation was to dedication ceremonies at the conservatory in honor of Sydney Stein Rich, to be held on September 12, 1983, twenty seven years after her death. Unfortunately, the host was not identified but the card did include a brief list of her accomplishments. They were very impressive and provided me with a point of departure. Untangling each strand led me to successively richer sources of information and ultimately to answer the question: who put the memorial bench in the conservatory and why.

In addition to her extremely difficult and demanding job, Mrs Rich was very active in the Jewish community of San Francisco. She was listed as a special counselor at Camp Twonga, a camp for Jewish families and children near Yosemite. A very significant responsibility she shouldered was serving on the board of the Emanu-El Residence Clubs.

After she left the Golden Gate Park Mrs Rich acted as a special consultant to the old established firm of florists Podesta Baldocchi, sharing her expertise in flower arranging. In another “first”, she was the first woman to be a member of the Laborer’s Union.

The Emanu-El Residence clubs

The club was part of a neighborhood center and settlement house started by the Temple Emanu-El Sisterhood for Personal Service in 1894. In addition to a boys club, sewing circle, kindergarten, classes of many sorts, mothers club, medical clinic, (the nucleus of Mount Zion Hospital) and employment bureau, the women later recognized the need to provide inexpensive and safe housing for poor or immigrant Jewish women in San Francisco.

Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger of Temple Emanu-El was the force behind this center. From about 1880 to 1920, poor Jews from Eastern Europe poured into the United States. He was deeply concerned that San Francisco might develop a version of the Lower East Side in New York: overcrowded, squalid and somewhat distasteful to the respectable brethren in San Francisco. Rabbi Voorsanger turned to the Sisterhood and tapped into their energy and charitable impulses. Mrs P. N. Lilienthal founded the organization. The purpose was to provide direct service to needy and deserving immigrants, rather than give them cash.

Within three years the sisterhood had assisted two hundred and eleven familes and a hundred and nineteen single men. Another hundred and forty eight were rejected. They were not deemed to be deserving

The demand for residential assistance grew very quickly. Mrs Esberg was among the first to recognize this.Thirty young single women were housed in dormitories in 1910. Over the next few years, three houses were rented and used for this purpose. The house mothers tried very hard to make them home-like and not institutional. Ethel Feineman worked there from 1915 to 1937 and was much loved and respected. At one point deserving young non-Jewish women were also allowed to live at the clubs.

After the First World War ended the sisterhood commissioned Julia Morgan to design and build their own premises. Julia Morgan worked with her associate Dorothy Wormser. They completed the building on December 18, 1922. The Emanuel Residence Clubs ran for many years.

Eventually the club at 300 Page Street closed because it was in an older section of the city. Most of its residents had prospered and moved away. It was no longer needed. This building is still very attractive today. It was sold to the Zen Centre in 1969.

Sydney Stein lived at the clubs on four separate occasions, between 1922 and 1929. Each time she was there for several months. They clearly helped her over some very difficult periods in her life. It is not surprising that she felt gratitude and loyalty toward them. The first reference to her being on the board of the Emanu-El Residence Clubs was in October 1940. She served in one capacity or another until 1955, the year before she died.

In 1986, Lynn Fonfa wrote an article “The Emanu-El Sisterhood: Agent of Assimilation”. She mentioned Sydney Stein:”Through the Matilda Esberg Horticulture Fund, a few residents were sent to the California School of Gardening (including Sydney Stein, now honored by a special bench in Golden Gate Park).”3

Sources of her inspiration

During the period she was growing up, women did not become working gardeners very often. There were the very few women nursery owners such as Kate Sessions in San Diego but it is highly unlikely that Sydney Stein would have heard of her. Nothing is known of the friend who worked as a gardener on an estate nor why Sydney joined her. It may simply have seemed much pleasanter than working in a cramped store or office under constant supervision.

Nevertheless, more may have been at work than is apparent from a superficial review. Two major new political and social movements were reaching their peak while Sydney was growing up.

Even though she was busy simply trying to survive, she would not have been completely immune to the ferment over the emancipation of women and Zionism. No matter how hard the sisterhood tried to make conventional Americans out of the new citizens, ideas had to percolate down to her. She inhabited a Jewish microcosm, and was in touch with several dominant older women..

The Emancipation of Women

Women had been trying to achieve equality with men for over fifty years in America. Voting rights were the key question. In October 1911, California women were enfanchised by a state constitutional amendment.4 This occurred eleven years before the vote was extended to all the women in the United States.

For many reasons, women in the western states were more advanced politically. Wyoming (1879), Colorado (1893), Utah (1896) and Idaho (1896) were the first states where women could vote. In San Francisco, a Sephardic Jewish woman, Selina Solomons, was a tireless agitator for the right to vote. She wrote a book about the triumph in 1912: “How We Won the Vote”.5

Comfortable married women such as members of the sisterhood were often opposed to these political reforms. Regardless of anyone’s particular views, the topic was on everyone’s mind and furiously discussed.

Western women were also taking the obvious next step very early, entering the professions and working at jobs previously only held by men. World War I hastened this process. Thousands of men were drafted. If women had not stepped in, production would have been seriously compromised.

In England, many women went to work on the land. D. H. Lawrence immortalized this in his novella “The Fox”. Two English women, former “land girls”, were to influence Sydney Stein very directly, but that was after she reached the California School of Gardening for women and not while she was still deciding what to do.


Sydney’s choice could also have been subtly or indirectly influenced by the powerful concept of Zionism. While many Eastern European Jews were escaping from Tsarist tyranny new ideas about the capacity of the Jews to direct their own destiny were emerging. A thousand years of discrimination in Europe had left the Jews confined to a very few occupations. They were prohibited from owning land in most places and could not become farmers or practice agriculture.

Theodore Herzl came along and blew all that away. Jews should live in their own country, he wrote, and not be unwanted residents in someone else’s. Herzl believed that reclaiming the land of Israel had to be done by the Jews themselves, with their own hands. Agriculture was essential to the Jews becoming a nation, throwing off the ghetto mentality. The problem was that most Jews had no experience of farming.

In the United States collectives sprang up to train young men and women for this crucial task. California Jews established themselves in the egg and poultry business, buying many farms in Petaluma, north of San Francisco. One such poultry farmer was Yehudi Menuhin’s uncle.

In spite of the Emanu-El Residence Club being an engine for assimilation and integration into American society there probably were a few young Zionists living there. Even if Sydney was not inspired to become a Zionist, the notion that she could choose an outdoor career would no longer seem implausible.

One wonders about Mrs Esberg’s motives in sending some of the Emanu-El girls to the school of gardening. It is highly unlikely she was either a feminist or a Zionist, though not totally impossible. What is more likely is that she wanted to get the young women out of the stifling pre-ghetto atmosphere and break the cycle of employment in factories, shops and offices for low wages. She was not concerned about turning them into “ladies”.

Sydney Stein’s younger brother Peter also followed an unexpected career. He became a master mariner and captained John Wayne’ private yacht.

California School of Gardening for Women

Born in England but brought up in Ausralia, Maude Gibson was heir to a generous fortune in the textile industry. During World War I, she volunteered at a hospital and became extremely friendly with a woman physician, Anne Martin. Dr Martin had had a different childhood. She was the daughter of a lumber mill operator in Stockton and had gained her education through her own efforts.

At the end of World War I, Miss Gibson bought an old farm in Hayward, Alameda County and moved there with Dr Martin.They were joined by another woman physician, Edith Meyers of Dry Creek in Union City. Miss Gibson and Dr Martin each adopted one of a pair of siblings, Hugh and Elizbeth. The two physicians saw patients in smaller buildings on the property.

The old farm house was pulled down and Miss Gibson built an elegant mansion in the Spanish style, “La Granja”. Many authors, musicians and artists visited them and formed a delightful coterie. Residents of Hayward who survived until the 1970s recalled the charm and beauty of the property and its lively atmosphere.6

Miss Gibson wanted an English woman landscape architect, “with a National Diploma in horticulture”, to design her grounds. She advertised in the London Times. Judith Walrond Skinner accepted the position. She brought Margaret Slaney with her as her assistant. Both women had worked on the land in the Great War. They were graduates of the Studley College of Gardening in Warwickshire. The little group of women, Gibson, Martin, Walrond Skinner and Slaney, thought it would be a good idea to set up a school of gardening for women, to allow others to develop such a career.

Miss Walrond Skinner prepared a rigorous curriculum to cover two years, but also offered brief courses lasting eight weeks. Students had to learn soil chemistry in a classroom. They studied botany, plant nomenclature and recognition, fertilizers, pruning, identificaton of pests and pest control, landscape design, plant propagation and the care of every type of plant in the grounds.

There were only two other similar schools in the United States: the School of Horticulture in Ambler PA, and the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Gardening and Horticulture for Women in Groton MA.

Thirty years earlier, in the 1890s, Beatrix Jones Farrand, the designer of the Dumbarton Oaks estate in Georgetown, chose to become a landscape architect. She was a niece of Edith Wharton. Formal education in this profession had hardly begun for men and there were no facilities for women. She apprenticed herself to Charles Sprague Sargent at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University and he in turn prepared a course of study for her in Europe.7.

In the ten years the Hayward school existed, the students and faculty laid out an astonishing array of gardens within the grounds. Even a dry recital is inspiring: a flagged rose garden, a spring bulb garden with crocus, scillas, snowdrops and grape hyacinths, a fragrant pergola, an iris garden, herbaceous borders and a rock garden. Every aspect of the work was done by the women themselves, preparing the soil, carrying the heavy flagstones and anything else that was necessary.

The school moved to Stanford in 1936. One of the last students was Elsa Uppman Knoll. She had started out at Stanford University but transferred to Hayward to learn the craft of gardening. She became part of the faculty at “The Farm” after the merger and subsequently worked at “Sunset ” magazine.

Dr Martin moved to Oakland and died in 1963. Miss Gibson moved to Switzerland as the second world war threatened and died in the late 1970s. They both wanted to deed the estate to the City of Hayward, but as it was not technically within the city limits, the offer was declined. The school had been an almost Utopian institution, but is now replaced by a shopping center.

Working as a professional gardener

It is hardly surprising that a pretty young woman working in a “man’s” field would attract some attention. Three articles were written about Sydney Stein Rich in the San Francisco newspapers. The first one was fairly brief, in July 1927, noting her graduation from the new school. It had a slightly saucy photograph of Sydney bending over her potting table and was prominently placed on the page “above the fold”.8

Seven years later, a reporter once again found her story interestng.9 This time she was photographed in a much more sedate pose. The article ran to two columns, also placed at the top of a page. It ranged over many topics such as how she handled working with the men gardeners at Golden Gate Park, how she could not keep her hands pretty and soft because of constant heavy work and how she liked to go dancing.

She was very careful about not stirring the prejudices of her male colleagues. Although she would have liked to wear shorts on hot days she did not do so, knowing that the men would have been annoyed. She said “they treat me like a sister”. One important duty she had assumed at the park was coaching the entry level gardeners to pass their examinations and obtain a certificate in horticulture.

Sydney told Virginia Coontz, the reporter, that she did not want to become a landscape architect or work on a large private estate. Simply being a journeyman gardener was enough for her. It had not been easy to get the job in the park. John McLaren turned her down more than once. Finally in 1929, he gave in. The question about being able to handle a spade was not academic. For the first year she worked at the park, she was kept busy spading.

Twelve years later, in January 1949, another story appeared. The women’s editor of the San Francisco Examiner, Marion McEniry, interviewed Mrs Rich. Ms McEniry’s patronizing tone is very grating to modern sensibilities. She described Sydney as “a small, neatly put-together little trick with an aura of competence about her”.10 The rest of the interview was glowing, so the initial tone was not meant to be demeaning. It was merely how things were said in 1949.

The article contained considerable detail about the enormous difficulties of getting thousands of cyclamen plants, cinereria, Easter lilies or other plants to flower perfectly at the correct time. Very large public displays at the park and in the conservatory were needed seven times a year. The tension could be nerve wracking if the weather was unusual. Careful control of temperature was the key to Mrs Rich’s success in meeting the challenges.

The story also referred to Sydney Stein Rich’s finding rare and unusual tropical plants for the Pond House. It seems she had deep horticultural skill and knowledge. Ms McEniry followed Sydney home and described her house in Webster Street. It was small and very charming, with delicate French grey furnishings, “everything in small scale perfection”.

Belonging to the union

The gardeners at the park were city employees. Sydney Stein was the first woman to belong to the Laborer’s Union. The park gardeners later named their union the William Hammond Hall Society, after the engineer who actually created the park and was then completely forgotten and ignored. The name of the union was meant to be a hint to the authorities.

In December 1980, the union newsletter carried an announcement that five women had been accepted as permanent gardeners for the first time.11 The author noted that some women had been allowed to work as temporary employees during World War II but none had ever been permanent. The five women taken on in 1980 owed their positions to the settlement reached in a 1978 law suit claiming discrimination. The requirement of being able to lift a hundred and forty pounds from ground to shoulder was lowered to one of eighty pounds.

It is clear that none of the modern gardeners knew about Sydney Stein Rich. She had been a permanent employee and member of the union long before the war. Her promotion to Head Nurserywoman in 1940 may have owed something to the shortage of men during war time, but otherwise she was accepted entirely on her own merits.

The bench

Sydney Stein Rich died of malignant hypertension, an illness which today could be treated effectively. She was only fifty years old. Interest in her activities diminished once she was dead. Her husband and stepchildren moved on with their lives. Only her younger sister, Esther Oppenheimer, kept her memory alive. In the 1970s, Esther began trying to create a permanent memorial, working with the staff at the Golden Gate Park conservatory.

Mrs Oppenheimer and a friend of Chinese extraction would take Chinese food to the conservatory staff from time to time. They would all sit and talk about her late sister over this lunch. She asked Tom Bass, then in charge of the department, what would constitute a good permanent memorial. He suggested a bench.

The Conservatory Auxiliary, volunteers who supported the conservatory enthusiastically, adopted the suggestion. They raised the money and had a bench constructed. Invitations were issued for a dedication ceremony on September 12, 1983, almost twenty seven years to the day that Sydney Stein Rich had died.

There are still a few leads which could be followed, such as her volunteering at Camp Twonga, but enough has been said to show that she was a dedicated professional with a strong sense of duty, and loyalty to those who helped her when she needed it most.

This article published in Western States Jewish History Vol. 34 Summer 2002


I am grateful to many people for generous help.

The director of research at the California Genealogical Society, Frederick S Sherman, assisted me with important facts about Mrs Rich’s life.

The archivist at Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, Paula Freedman, directed me to the archive of the Emanu-El Residence Clubs at the Western Jewish History Centre at the Judah Magnes Museum in Berkeley. She also found references to Sydney Stein Rich and the board of the Emanu-El Residence Clubs in the temple’s archives.

Aaron Kornblum at the Western Jewish History Centre helped me search the admission cards for the Emanu-El Residence Clubs in the 1920s.

The librarian at the California Academy of Science found references to Sydney Stein Rich, a former member. The January 1949 story in the San Francisco Examiner had been donated to the academy in 1979 by her sister, Esther Oppenhemer. Neville Rich Sr had given Sydney’s books on horticulture to this library.

Mrs Neville Rich Jr, (Leila) was exremely gracious when I rang her out of the blue and asked for information. Her husband, Neville Rich Jr, permitted me to describe details about his family and to reproduce the photograph of his father Neville Sr with Sydney.

George Waters, editor emeritus of Pacific Horticulture, came to San Francisco many years after Sydney Stein Rich had died, but he was aware of a number of people who had known her. He gave me useful names and phone numbers.

Tom Bass, retired from the Golden Gate Park conservatory, had never met Sydney Stein Rich, but knew something about her. He gave me a snapshot of her which was in his office when he started to work there.

Jim De Mersman at the Hayward Historical Society found me several records about the California School of Gardening for Women.

Notes and References

San Francisco Examiner September 10, 1956

San Francisco Chronicle August 1, 1926

Fonfa, Lynn “The Emanu-El Ssterhood: Agent of Assimilation” The Californians March /April 1986 34-38

Silver, MK “Selina Solomons and her quest for the sixth star (womens’ suffrage)” Western States Jewish History XX1[^4] Summer 1999 301-318

Solomons, Selina How We Won The Vote New Woman Publishing Company, San Francisco 1911

Sharp, David “The Women of La Granja” Hayward Area Historical Society Adobe Trails Summer 1992

Pitschel, Barbara “Report on the Collections of Beatrix Jones Farrand at the University of California, Berkeley with notes on her Life and Work.”. Researched by Barbara M Pitschel in satisfaction of LIS282B requirements. May 1987. (unpublished photocopy)

San Francisco Chronicle July 25, 1927

San Francisco Chronicle August 15, 1934

San Francisco Examiner January 16, 1949

William Hammond Hall Society Newsletter III(9) 2 1980