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The Ohlone Indians were the first to inhabit the land around what was later to become Mission Dolores Park. They had inhabited the area for several centuries before Spanish missionaries arrived in 1776 to establish Mission San Francisco Dolores. Thereafter, the Ohlone shared the land with Spanish ranchers and shopkeepers until the 1849 Gold Rush, when new settlers, gamblers, and tavern keepers joined the mix. In 1861, the site was purchased by Congregation Sherith Israel for a cemetery, which became inactive in 1894.
From Cemetery to World-Class Park
As the City surveyed and auctioned off land, almost no provision was made for public open space or parks. In the official survey of 1849 only four parks, Portsmouth, Washington, Union, and Columbia Squares, were provided, each a block or portion of a block within the city grid. An 1860s plan by Frederick Law Olmsted, a prolific landscape architect, for a large municipal park was never realized. Since most subdivision within surveyed blocks was carried out by private entrepreneurs who were intent on maximizing profits, parks were not a serious consideration. San Francisco was not unusual in this lack of provision for public open space. The urban park movement was in its infancy in the 1840s and 1850s, and it was not until 1858 that planning began for Central Park in New York City, the first large urban park designed and built by a municipality for its citizens. During much of the 19th century, cemeteries functioned as parks and open space for urban residents. Often the only large landscaped space in a city, cemeteries were used for strolling, picnicking, and contemplation. San Francisco is unusual in utilizing a former cemetery to create one of the city’s largest parks in the Mission Dolores neighborhood.
Discussions about transforming the old Jewish cemeteries into a public park soon commenced. The Mission Park Association organized in 1897 for the purpose of securing improvements to the Mission neighborhood, the most populated but often overlooked neighborhood of the city. Its primary goal was to establish a park of international quality, combined with a zoological exhibit. The Jewish cemeteries were among several sites suggested for the new park. The group met significant opposition to its cause, with popular sentiment deeming such a park unnecessary, an undue burden to taxpayers, and a scam to fill the pockets of greedy real estate developers; Golden Gate Park already served the city’s needs. Mayor James Phelan also opposed calls for investing in a Mission park.
In 1903 the association started a new campaign for the city to purchase the cemetery land and transform it into a park. More than 1,000 property owners from the southern reaches of the city organized to pass a bond measure that secured funds to purchase the former Jewish cemeteries. The bond measure passed overwhelmingly, a beneficiary of the City Beautiful Movement that had taken hold of San Francisco. The City sold bonds in 1904 to purchase the former Jewish cemeteries and, in February 1905, purchased the land with the promise to its original owners that the site would always remain a place of beauty. After years of delay, development of a park for the Mission District began. In a dramatic change of tone from its position of opposition years earlier, the city vowed to create “one of the most beautiful parks that now adorn San Francisco.”
Early Park Designs
Several designs were suggested, but artists, landscape architects, and architects agreed that “in deference to the historic interest attached to that portion of the city by reason of the famous old Mission Dolores, the general scheme of adornment should be on the old mission plan.” In reality, proposed designs represented three major trends in architecture that dominated the San Francisco Bay Area during the early 20th Century. A design by G. P. Neilson, for example, featured a rationalized landscape of level ground ornamented with formal gardens, bisecting pathways, and monumental, Classical architecture. This design reflected the Parisian influence of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, then the most prestigious architectural school in the world and highly popular among the Bay Area’s younger generation of architects. Arthur Matthews was a preeminent figure in the local Arts and Crafts movement. His design called for a combination of simple artistry and nature, with trees forming a natural archway at the entrance of the park. Only Romer Shawhan’s design captured the Mission days and reflected the third regional style. He envisioned a largely pastoral landscape of undulating pathways bordered by trees and shrubs that led to simple Spanish colonial style buildings. A formal fountain stood at the center of this design.
The following excerpt from the San Francisco Call summarizes the plans as finally adopted by the Park Commission in 1905:
“The park will contain a miniature lake 300 by 50 feet, so constructed that children can wade in it in warm weather. A magnificent stone stairway will lead down to the water from Church and Twentieth streets. On one end of the park a 12-lap cinder track will be laid, and inside the circle made by it will be erected an outdoor gymnasium. There will be two tennis courts in the grounds and two baseball grounds. A large bowling green will be laid out in the other section. The Supervisors have been petitioned to have that section of 19th Street which runs through the park declared a boulevard. No teams will be permitted to run through it and the block will be made a true boulevard. The garden effect will be semi-tropical and the entire park stocked with broadleaf plants. A row of palms will border the entire square and an avenue of trees will be planed along the inner edges.”
Then the earthquake and fires of 1906 struck. At the time, the improvements to the land had been some terracing and grading (completed by the Barnum & Bailey Circus, which leased the land for its 1905 tour of San Francisco).
Dolores Park has changed dramatically since the early 1900s. For close to 100 years, its 13.7 acres have offered open space, green slopes, and recreation to a richly diverse neighborhood. At the turn of the century, community residents were mostly working class Irish, Italian, Scandinavian, and German immigrant families. Following World War II, they began to move out of the neighborhood and were replaced by new immigrants from Mexico and Central America. Today, people come from the Mission, Noe Valley, and the Castro to enjoy the park while they await repair of some of its outmoded facilities. Constructed in 1906, it has undergone some renovations, but significant problems remain.