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Articles » William Hammond Hall, Unjustly neglected pioneer
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Every so often, someone re-discovers William Hammond Hall and feels outraged that he has been almost completely forgotten. This time it is my turn.

In 1871, at the age of twenty five, Hall successfully completed the topographical survey for the proposed Golden Gate Park after submitting the lowest bid. (Figures 1 and 1A ) He then designed a classical park without ever having learned a thing about landscape architecture, became the park’s first Engineer and Superintendent and built the most important segments of the park’s structure over the next five years before being hounded out of office by trumped-up charges of negligence and conflict of interest. (Beatty; Clary; Hudson) What happened?

Achievements on this scale should have been commemorated, but there is no memorial to William Hammond Hall in Golden Gate Park today. Only the gardeners, who were feeling very disgruntled about twenty years ago, remember his name. They call themselves the “William Hammond Hall Society”.

The city of San Francisco had considered building a public park as early as 1852. Mayor McCoppin had his eye on a large uninhabited section to the west of the city. It is hard to realize that in 1860, the future site of Golden Gate Park was a howling desert, with blowing sand and almost no vegetation, a totally unpromising place to construct a park. (Figures 2, 3, 4 and 5) Known as the “Outside Lands”, this region had been in contention between the city and the Federal government since California became a state.

After considerable political manoeuvering, the city secured legal title to these lands. They wanted to build the park there to make sure they never lost this title. The city had consulted Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1860s. He told them it was an impossible site, and suggested they choose land in the eastern half of the city. Because of their political agenda they disregarded his advice.There were struggles with squatters on the Outside Lands, but in 1870, Order 800 was signed by Governor Haight and the park could go forward.The city solicited bids for a topographical survey.

William Hammond Hall’s education sheds only a little light on his future career. The Halls came to San Francisco from Hagerstown, Maryland in 1853, when William was seven years old. His father was a successful lawyer, legal counsel to Charles Weber, founder of Stockton. John Hall supported his son until he was about thirty years old. The correspondence in the Bancroft Library reveals an anxious son desperate for his father’s approval. (Jones; Margaret Buchanan Hall; William Hammond Hall papers)

He attended a private Episcopal academy in Stockton for seven years and was supposed to enter West Point as a cadet. The Civil War ended those plans. Instead, he was apprenticed to Colonel R. S. Williamson of the US Army Corps of Engineers, working as a “computer” and draughtsman. Gradually he worked his way up and gained experience in many spheres of surveying all over the Pacific coast. Watching General Barton S. Alexander cope with blowing sand while developing fortifications would turn out to be very useful. The general knew that England and the Netherlands had developed defences against the incursions of the sea over centuries. Hall benefited from the General’s studies of antique English and Dutch literature. When the challenge of Golden Gate Park came Hall was ready, with one exception: he knew almost nothing about landscape architecture.

William Hammond Hall was said to be “brilliant, idealistic and irascible”. (Young) This guaranteed he would make enemies. He was very keenly aware of how the world worked. His letters describe numerous efforts to promote himself by currying favour with rich and influential people. His father’s civic and political connections were important and one of his uncles held high office in the state.

None of this played a part in his submitting the lowest bid, $4860, nor in being awarded the contract, but there is no doubt he was in an excellent position to know about the contest extremely early and have an opportunity to think about the solutions. It came at a time he was between jobs and casting about for a way to earn money and distinguish himself, so he could marry his favorite cousin Emma “Katie” McHugh. (Papers of William Hammond Hall)

At this point it may be appropriate to try to place Hall in some larger context of great American landscape designers and architects. The answer is that he was a lonely figure, rising to a specific occasion with genius, but remaining a quintessential outsider.

Landscape Architecture

Frederick Law Olmsted and his disciples established the profession in the United States. The great man generously recognized Hall’s accomplishment and commended him for it in a letter Hall cherished all his life, (papers of William Hammond Hall) but once the park was finished William Hammond Hall returned to civil engineering and never did any landscape design again. This does not mean we cannot learn from his work or that his solutions to the problems of terrain and climate are irrelevant. Controlling the shifting sands, first with shrub lupine, and later with beach grasses, would be triumph enough. (Figure 6) His successors built upon these foundations continually. He himself always worked to defend the park’s open lands, and fought off many later attempts to subvert them. (Jones)

To overcome his deficiency in landscape architecture and horticulture he bought many books on these subjects during his tenure as superintendent of the park. What was available in the 1870s? There were monographs and treatises by eighteenth and early nineteeenth century landscape architects such as Humphrey Repton as well as texts from France and Germany. We are fortunate in being able to find out exactly what books he chose.

Among Hall’s papers in the Bancroft Library, I found copies of two letters he sent to booksellers in New York and Philadelphia, requesting particular volumes. (Figure 7) He requested the following:

Alphand Promenades de Paris number 38

Hughes Gardening Architecture

Piebreck Picturesque Garden Plans

Robinson Parks and Pleasure Grounds

Robinson Gleanings from French Gardens

Moisy Fountains (sic) de Paris

Repton Landscape Gardening

Loudon Encyclopaedia of Gardening

Kemp How to Lay Out a Garden

Copies of other letters show he would also ask people if they could recommend any useful books on these subjects. (Figure 8) (Papers of William Hammond Hall)

The speed with which he read and acted on their content is staggering. Maybe the most profound influence on his choice of style was that of “Capability” Brown. Hall later recognized that the topography, climate and other requirements of the Pacific coast would need a different school of landscape architecture from the ones which had served well in Europe and the eastern states of North America, but his immediate goal was to create a “wild, woodland park”. He had to use whatever ad hoc methods he could devise. (Reports to the Board of Park Commissioners)

Golden Gate Park

How did he approach the problems of the new park? He attacked the entire project with supreme confidence. This was no puny undertaking. Thousands of tons of earth had to be moved. Grassy lawns were required where sand dunes undulated. The model of Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park in New York was clearly an inspiration to him, down to the flow of traffic and placing of trees.

One marvels at the sure-footed way he proceeded, with knowledge only recently acquired from books. To name only one detail, he understood that an historic place like this needed imposing entries. Birkenhead Park near Liverpool announced its significance in this manner. (Figure 9) Hall built an elaborate entrance gate to his park.

During the survey, he had discovered that two hundred and seventy acres of the thousand acre lot were surprisingly fertile, with small oak trees, shrubs, lupines and strawberry plants growing quite successfully: “….this portion may at once be converted into an attractive resort. The remaining seven hundred and thirty acres, stretching down to the ocean beach, is a waste of drifting sand.” (Reports to the Board of Park Commissioners) The soil in the area east of 14th Avenue was a dark sandy loam, with excellent natural drainage. There were no marshes or stagnant pools and many small underground streams provided the park with plenty of water. In addition Hall found eight small lakes surrounded by willow trees.

Hall began with this relatively fertile section, the Panhandle. Almost at once he revealed his acute understanding of what later became known as ecology. The park needed an enormous number of trees to stabilize the soil, to act as wind breaks in the cold foggy climate and for aesthetic purposes. He had started a nursery very early and planted out innumerable saplings of blue gum eucalyptus, Monterey pine and Monterey cypress in the Panhandle.

Each sapling was planted in the shade of the native scrub oaks. This protected the infant plants until the new trees were sturdy enough to stand up to the powerful winds off the ocean. A letter sent to his deputy during a brief absence emphasizes his philosophy of leaving every piece of pre-existing growth in place, no matter how unattractive or scrubby it may have seemed. (Papers of William Hammond Hall) (Figure 10)

Two long drives were constructed from east to west, one along the northern boundary of the park and the other along the southern edge. (Figure) He wanted grand sweeping meadows with curving vistas between them, rather than straight stiff lines of trees. This would not only please the eye but discourage people from driving through the park too fast. “Planting straight rows of trees would be cutting off one side completely from the other, destroying all charm of vistas and landscapes laid open by the other method.. ..the disposition of curving walks adds greatly to the apparent extent of the park in the passing from one pleasure ground to the other without a road for a visible driving line….”. (Reports to the Board of Park Commissioners)

Other ideas could not be carried out. Hall wanted to put some of the roads at a lower level, just as had been done in Central Park, but this was only partially completed.The budget was always tight. Once he had laid out the Panhandle, he could concentrate on the sand dunes. A big problem was that plants which should have taken hold could not survive long enough to put down strong roots. By accident he learned that soaking wet barley seeds would give the shrub lupines he planted time to get rooted. The barley, which had been spilled from a nose bag by a dray horse, germinated a few days later, supplying a nidus for other seeds. He immediately reproduced these conditions on a large scale, and brought in thousands of tone of manure, topsoil and other organic matter to enrich the sandy soil. (Jones) Subsequently he found that beach grasses also stabilized the soil.

By 1876, the park was more or less completed. It extended to the place where the Conservatory now stands. The public recognized its beauty and function. Six hundred people visited the park daily, and twice that number at weekends. Hall might have continued on successfully but for the machinations of one Daniel Sullivan, a blacksmith he had to dismiss for padding his bills. This man was unfortunately elected to the state assembly and one of his first actions was to get even with Hall. (Clary)

Bogus charges of stealing park property for his personal use, cutting down trees unnecessarily and wasting water were advanced. Hall and his supervisors defended themselves vigorously. While everyone realized there was no merit in the case, his salary was halved and he was essentially forced to resign. Sullivan made sure the bonds to pay for the park were blocked in Sacramento. Finally, all three commissioners resigned too. Not so subtle political messages were embedded in Hall’s defeat. His family was from Maryland,with important southern connections, and San Francisco had championed the Union side in the Civil War. These wounds were still raw.

Vengeance for his unfair treatment probably lay behind his fleecing of San Francisco twenty years later. Hall had always had an eye out for the main chance, and was not quite so naive financially as his daughters thought in their well-meaningapologia for him. He knew that the lands in the Tuolumne watershed would one day become very valuable for their water. (Clary) Hall bought two parcels in the Cherry Creek area in 1900 for $165,000. When the city needed his land for the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, he demanded $1,000,000. The city leaders were irate, but he held firm, only selling the land for $800,000 in the end. Hall died in 1934 and has been forgotten. No doubt his later actions did not endear him to official San Francisco, but one always hates a person whom one has wronged.

This article published in The Argonaut: Journal of the San Francisco Historical Society 14 (2) 70 Winter 2004


Very little has been printed about William Hammond Hall, but anyone wishing to learn more about him can read the following:

Beatty, Russell A 1970 “Metamorphosis in sand” Calif. Hort. J. 31 (2) 41-47

Clary, Raymond H 1987 The Making of Golden Gate Park: the early years 1865 to 1906 San Francisco, California Don’t Call It Frisco Press

Deblinger, Larry San Francisco Examiner, August 27, 1989 Weekly column on the environment

Hudson, Roy L 1970 “Brief history of Golden Gate Park” 31 (2) 38-41

Jones, Mary Ellen “William Hammond Hall: an engineer with vision” Bancroftiana no. 96, May 1988 10-12

Reports to the Board of Park Commissioners by William Hammond Hall, Engineer and Superintendent of the Park 1871 -1876

“The Development of Golden Gate Park and particularly the management and thinning of its forest tree plantations: a statement from the Board of Park Commissioners, together with Wlliam Hammond Hall, Frederick Law Olmsted and John McLaren” 1886 San Francisco Bacon and Co.

Academic Thesis

Young, Terence George 1991 “Nature and Moral Order: the cultural significance of Golden Gate Park”, submitted to satisfy the requirements for a master’s degree at the University of California at Los Angeles (Helen Crocker Russell Library)

Manuscript Sources

Hall, Katherine Buchanan 1957 Biographical sketch of her father William Hammond Hall, handwritten (Strybing Arboretum, Helen Crocker Russell library)

William Hammond Hall papers, Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley (BANC Mss: 86/152 c)