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Articles » The San Francisco Garden Club’s Vignettes of Early San Francisco Homes and Gardens, Published in December 1935
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Many aspects of San Francisco during and after the gold rush have been vividly described: its mud, its fires, the flimsy canvas stores, the barroom brawls and the transient polyglot population, but not many have considered its gardens.1 Gardens do not immediately come to mind in thinking about the San Francisco of those days. Joan Hockaday’s luminous The Gardens of San Francisco shows how erroneous this is.2 As the primitive settlement became increasingly prosperous and sophisticated, excellent gardens were created.

Harry M Butterfield, extensison horticulturist at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1921 to 1967 collected voluminous amounts of information about California’s horticultural history.3

One illustrative story concerns the Gillepsies, Charles and Sarah. They came to San Francisco in 1848 on the clipper “Eagle” from Canton, where they had been missionaries. Sarah Gillespie was an inspired gardener. In a very short time they had a house in Chestnut Street. In 1853, she entered a few passion flowers in the flower show promoted by Colonel J.L.L.Warren, the state’s first professional nurseryman. The following year she exhibited numerous varieties of fuchsia, calceolaria and other flowers. In addition to these achievments, Butterfield credited her with being the first person to grow seedling acacia trees in California, using Australian seed she brought with her from China.

Men who made money directly or indirectly from the gold amd silver mines wanted to spend it in highly visible ways. The desire to show off was irresistible for someone who grew up on an impoverished farm in New England or a potato patch in Ireland. A grand mansion with a garden to match was just the ticket..

The means to do this appeared simultaneously. Contractors appeared like mushrooms and nurserymen arrived by the dozen to oblige the clients. The trade began slowly enough but before too long there were flourishing nurseries in the city, the towns of the East bay and down in the peninsula. By about 1870, San Francisco had matured into a city and was no longer an unmodified hell’s kitchen.

Such a city needed all the trades and professions associated with normal existence. Families with small children began to move there. Residential districts for the middle class appeared. The very rich still lived in their gaudy palaces. Huge conservatories with rare hothouse plants still defined luxury, but grocers and schoolteachers enjoyed their smaller gardens and backyards just as much.

We know something about the charm and pleasure of those more modest properties from the pamphlet compiled by members of the San Francisco Garden Club in 1935, the Vignettes of Early San Francisco Homes and Gardens.4 (Figure 1 Cover of the Vignettes ) The club had been started in 1926 by a group of civic minded men and women.

Mrs William Hinckley Taylor convened the inaugural meeting at her residence, 2550 Broadway, on April 26. She had some powerful allies. Herbert Fleishhacker was elected Vice President, and Wiiliam H Crocker became Treasurer. Other wealthy and socially prominent women made up the rest of the fledgling board. They persuaded the legendary superintendent of the Golden Gate Park, John McLaren, to be the honorary chairman. The club’s mission was “.. the beautifying of the City of San Francisco and the banding together of those who are fond of gardens and flowers.”

The club’s first self imposed task was supplying trash baskets for the park. The San Francisco Garden Club has remained an independent organization till the present, and is not affiliated with any other garden clubs in California or the the rest of the United States.

Nine years later, in 1935, the club presented a program at which the older members shared memories of their families’ gardens. This meeting was the genesis of the Vignettes. Mrs Silas H. Palmer compiled the material and Mrs E. E. Brownell read it.

There were nine chapters in the unpaginated pamphlet when it was later published. There are thirty two pages of text in the modern five by six and half inch reprint given to every new member of the club.

Mrs Palmer was born Olive Holbrock in 1878, a native of San Francisco. She married Silas Palmer in 1903 and they lived on a great estate in Atherton, with handsome formal gardens. Mrs Palmer did not provide an introduction or foreword to explain why the members chose to preserve their memories at that time. The San Francisco Garden Club published three other similar pamphlets describing old gardens in San Jose, the East Bay and Marin. Maybe they felt obscurely that 1935 was a watershed year after coming through the Depression and seeing the confused state of world affairs, The physical remnants of the old gardens had largely been destroyed by then.

It is hard to know where to start in sampling the riches contained in this fragile volume. Perhaps it is best to begin at the beginning. Anna Wheaton Beaver reached further back into the city’s history than any one else in the club. She was born in San Francisco in 1853. Her parents George and Mary Beaver came from Pennsylvania for their honeymoon in 1852. (Figure 4 Mrs George Beaver, Anna Beaver’s mother) George Beaver worked for James Patrick and Co.

Anna Beaver never married. She died at her home, 1940 Broadway, in 1937, at the age of eighty five. Miss Beaver presided over the San Francisco Ladies Protection and Relief Society for more than fifty years. She was one of the founders of the San Francisco Symphony Club, the Opera Club, and the California Historical Society. Clearly she survived the great earthquake and fire. The Garden Club was another of her activities.

Her recollections went back to the 1850s, when her parents bought a well known house on Market Street, between Fifth and Sixth Streets. This house did in fact have a conservatory where the men went to smoke cigars after dinner and the children played on the floor but its contents were quite modest. Potted cyclamen, cinererias, calceolarias and primroses adorned shelves specially constructed for them. The piece de resistance was a marble fountain.

Outdoors, their garden was in two sections, both surrounded by a high fence. Pink mallows bordered a large grass plot (“never called a lawn”) in the back. Her mother had the first croquet set in San Francisco. Anna remembered the scent of star jessamine and heliotrope growing at the side of the house, a glorious wisteria, a tasseled red fuchsia. and too many roses to recount.

Alice Hooper McKee had grown up on Rincon Hill in the 1870s. She was much younger than Anna Beaver, born in 1873. Her parents, John and Mary Hooper, came from Maine. Alice Hooper married Allen McKee MD, an eye specialist. Looking back to her childhood from 1935 she thought that the American sector of the city already had a settled and mature look. Large trees and well maintained gardens gave her this impression. The Hooper garden was clearly delightful. It too contained fuchsias, but Alice was fascinated by a cactus which seemed to climb over a fence and brought forth white bell- like flowers every spring.

Another member of Mrs Mckee’s generation, Evelyn Norwood Breeze, said that “my grandmother’s garden is firmly fixed in my memory”. Her grandmother was Mrs John Hooper. We do not know if Evelyn was related to Alice McKee. The garden was at 557 Harrison Street, at the corner of Stanley Place.

The front garden consisted of lawns and many century plants (Agave) which were quite rare in those days. From the front one went back through a side garden to the rear where there were flower and vegetable beds. A laurestina hedge separated the two. On the other side of the house her grandmother had a “rockery” protected from the wind by a tall glass screen. There Mrs Hooper grew ferns and vines she had brought back from her visit to Trinidad in Humboldt County years before. This visit had left a very deep impression. She talked a great deal about the flowers and trees she had seen growing in that northern port.

Samuel Pond, 1872 -1954, was the only man invited to give his reminiscences. He chose to describe Nob Hill in the 1870s, and considered the houses of the “Big Four” more than the gardens. Gardens were “set back from the street, with sloping lawns and shrubbery adjacent to the house. Few annuals or perennials were planted”.

A great grand daughter of Robert Woodward, Ethel Malone Brown, 1914 to 1983, gave a loving description of the famous Woodward’s Gardens. These were public pleasure gounds on two blocks of Mission Street, at 13th and 14th Streets. (Figure 5 Woodward’s Gardens)

The project began almost accidentally. In 1866 a charitable organization requested Mr Woodward’s permission to use his elegant private grounds to hold a benefit for the veterans of the Civil War. Once the public had seen how handsome this garden was, they began to wander in quite uninvited at all hours. One of his daughters expressed outrage. “We might as well be a public pleasure ground” she huffed. Building on this thought Robert Woodward created a public garden for all and sundry as a business in 1868.

Mr Woodward wanted his gardens to be educational as well as diverting. He started out with a museum in which an eccenric old German taxidermist, Herr Gruber, held sway. The gardens were furnished with rare and exotic plants. Palm trees sat side by side with orchids and pitcher plants. Later more extravagant landscaping was designed by Boninge, Woodward’s former gardener who made his own fortune in silver.

The gardens lasted until the 1880s. Woodward died in 1879 but the more serious threat to the garden’s popularity was the rise of Golden Gate Park and other more raucous forms of entertainment.

Veronica Kinzie furnished two sets of recollections for the pamphlet. Mrs Robert A Kinzie, 1878 -1972, was a sister in law of Mrs Silas Palmer, the compiler of the Vignettes. Her first contribution covered Mayor James Phelan’s San Francisco garden, totally destroyed in the 1906 fire. (Figure 6 Mayor James Phelan) She tracked down significant details about the structure and planting of the garden.

Phelan had bought his house on Valencia and 17th Streets in 1875 for $53000 from the former mayor, James McCoppin. There were sweeping lawns along the wide carriage drive and a high cypress hedge enclosed the whole place. Mrs McCoppin had planted numerous roses and Phelan maintained the rose garden very carefully. Moss roses, “Marechal Ney”, Tea roses and a fine “Black Prince” were among the most cherished of the bushes. Heliotrope, all types of lilac and fuchsia abounded. The greenhouse was filled with cutting flowers. An orchard contained cherry trees, an espaliered fig tree and many other prize varieties of fruit. Perhaps the most striking feature of the garden was an enormous old weeping willow tree which fascinated people travelling by in the street car.

This rich and complex garden dated back to the early 1850s when McCoppin was mayor. He had the vision to know that the city needed the Golden Gate Park. He also saw to it that the four smaller lots on which parks stand today were safeguarded in perpetuity: a true public servant

The memory of a grandmother’s garden forms the core of Sophia Pierce Brownell’s essay. Mrs Edward Erle Brownell, 1879 -1976, recalled her grandmother, dressed in a long camel hair shawl and black straw bonnet, fiercely trimming shrubs and bushes while the gardener hovered on one side and a nurse tried to get her to rest on the other. She was said to be a “semi-invalid”, that wonderful Victorian catch-all phrase for anything or nothing.

The garden was at 1730 Jackson Street, and ran between Jackson and Pacific Avenue at Franklin Avenue. Carriages entered by this lower gate, surrounded by hydrangeas, helianthus, coreopsis, lavender, Matilija poppies, gypsophila, forget-me-nots and scilla in season. Many roses climbed over a fence, Testouts, Reine Marie Henriette and Hermosa. At one time there had been a cypress hedege instead of a fence but it did not do well and was replaced.

The house had been built in 1872 by Mrs Brownell’s grandfather Talbot. He imported two marble lions from Italy to ornament his lawn. Later they were donated to the San Francisco Yacht Club. Nothing was spared to make the garden fragrant and inviting. It had another bed with standard roses: La France, Marie von Houtte, Perle du Jardin, Sofrano, Rainbow, Duchess of Brabant, Gloire de Lyon, and Papa Gantier. Heliotrope, wisteria, syringa and clematis had been lavishly planted. There were cacti, unusual at such an early date, gladioli, geraniums of many stripes as well as a phenomenal holly tree and shrubs of all sorts. This was truly an amazing garden for a city that was only about thirty years old.

Emma Sutro Merritt, 1856 -1938, stubbornly defied her very powerful father Adolph Sutro to become a physcian when this was not considered seemly for the daughters of the very wealthy. She met her future husband, Dr George Merritt of Oakland, at medical school in San Francisco. Emma Merritt recalled the day in 1879 her father drove through the Golden Gate Park to examine a house for sale high on the bluffs by the Pacific Ocean.

This was the genesis of Sutro Heights. The house dated back to 1863. Sutro modernised it and landscaped the grounds extensively. He established a nursery and conservatory, planted many trees and so-called “ribbon beds” which spelled out words and phrases. One bed read “Welcome All to Sutro Heights”. The famous Palm Drive was a special sight in itself. Sutro was delighted when the public began to visit his garden and feel quite at home in it. He considered it his duty as a wealthy property owner to encourage such visits, as part of noblesse oblige.

While the young trees in the “Sutro Forest’ were still small, he surrounded them with a slat fence to protect them from the strong winds coming off the sea. Sutro believed in planting trees. He participated enthusiastically in Joaquin Miller’s 1886 Arbor Day. A thousand people assembled on November 27, 1886 at Yerba Buena to do the work. Sutro had given 50 000 trees to be planted by the schoolchildren of Oakland and San Francisco.

There is one last vignette which recalls a beloved nurseryman in San Francisco at the end of the nineteenth century. Veronica Kinzie wrote about Charles Abraham and his Western Nursery with warmth and affection. Abraham was one of nine children in a poor German family. He came to San Francisco in 1877 after serving classical apprenticeships on great estates in Germany and the Crimea. (Figure 8 Charles Abraham)

He had learned about sub-tropical plants in the Crimea and he proceeded to import much of his stock from Australia, New Zealand and South America. Abraham brought the fire flame tree, Hoheria or bride tree, and bougainvillea as well as rare fruit trees from an old Chinese temple garden to San Francisco. It was he who encouraged local gardeners to grow heliotrope and fuchsia so extensively. He also imported cuttings of five thousand olive trees from Italy. They were distributed throughout California and grafted onto the old Mission olive trees brought by the Franciscans. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, there was an explosion of interest in novel varieties of olive trees.5

Charles Abraham’s personal integrity was absolute. If a client, no matter how wealthy, failed to express the proper concern for the welfare of his plants, he refused to sell to her. On the other hand, he might spend an hour going over everything in great detail with a poor person buying a tiny geranium.

Apart from these delightful stories about his behavior, Abraham was a true professional. He had saved an irreplaceable hand written inventory and catalogue of the first serious nurseryman to open in San Francisco, William C Walker. Abraham worked closely with Alice Eastwood, Curator of the California Academy of Sciences Herbarium. He shared his treasures with the Golden Gate Park and the University of California.

Abraham brought his mother and other relatives over from Germany to help him in the nursery. After he died in 1929, his niece continued the firm.

William C. Walker, not to be confused with the notorious “filibuster” William Walker of Nicaragua, ran a nursery at Folsom and Fourth Streets. This corner now houses the Society of California Pioneers, a most fitting replacement. Originally a lawyer from the South, Walker came to California in 1849 for the gold rush. He stayed to sell plants and flowers to those who had succeeded in finding gold, from whatever source.

Many other nurseries provided flowers and shrubs in San Francisco soon after the gold rush. Colonel J. L. Warren of Boston was the very first professional nurseryman in the state, opening a shop in Sacramento in 1850, but by 1883, there were over a hundred and sixty nurseries in California, sixty seven of them in San Francisco alone. Adolph Sutro bought the 50,000 trees for his Arbor Day gesture from George Miller in Oakland. Miller tragically died quite young in a railroad crash.

The San Francisco Garden Club has decided to collect stories about the gardens of the present members. It is currently in its seventy fifth year and expects to produce another volume of garden memories before it turns eighty.

This article published in The Argonaut – Journal of the San Francisco Historical Society Winter 2001 12 (2) 6-18

Acknowledgments

The San Francisco Garden Club permitted the author to prepare these animadversions on its “Vignettes of Early San Francisco Homes and Gardens” and gave further encouragement by appointing her Honorary Librarian to the club.

The author is very grateful to Frederick Sherman, research associate at the California Genealogical Society in Oakland, for his assistance in bringing the ladies of the San Francisco Garden Club in 1935 to life for this essay.

Susan Haas, archivist at the Society of California Pioneers, identified photographs of former members of the San Francisco Garden Club in the collection and gave permission for them to be reproduced.

Patricia Keats, librarian at the Society of Californiaa Pioneers, assisted the author.

The acting director of the library at the California Historical Society, Tanya Hollis and Wendy Welker, photographic archivist for the society, were both very helpful.

References

Barker, Malcolm E 1996 More San Francisco Memoirs -1852 to 1899 : the Ripening Years San Francisco Londonborn Publications

Hockaday, Joan and Henry Bowles 1988 The Gardens of San Francisco Portland, Oregon Timber Press

Taylor, Judith M. and the late Harry M Butterfield 2003 Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800-1950 Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Xlibris Press

Vignettes of Early San Francisco Homes and Gardens 1935 Privately published San Francisco, San Francisco Garden Club

Taylor, Judith M. 2000 The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree Berkeley California Ten Speed Press