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Local Knowledge: Golden Gate Park

What once was known as the Outside Lands, would come to be known as Golden Gate Park. Vast and looming in beauty, Golden Gate Park originated in 1860 on the cusp of what was then the western border of San Francisco. Before there was an actual Sunset District, there were billowing sand and shore dunes stretching from the Pacific, upon which the park would come to life. Built as an outdoor recreational center to rival New York’s Central Park, Golden Gate Park houses such monuments as theDe Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences, its prolific Windmills, Kezar Stadium—the initial housing center for our very own 49ers—among many other major features.

As plans for Golden Gate Park’s inception began, field engineer William Hammond Hallstarted surveying the land and drawing up topographic maps of what would be the park’s site in 1870. Hall resigned after a number of disputes pushed and pulled the initial park plan back and forth over budgetary disputes—including an alternative plan to build a racetrack in the park’s place instead. Alas, Hall’s assistant John McLaren took over the project over, and soon what was once a bleak landscape of rolling sand dropping into Ocean Beach began to transform into a beautifully painted tapestry of green. Countless trees were planted to stabilize the dunes, and by 1879 over 100,000 trees were built across 1,000 acres.

McLaren sought out a huge variety of global tree species around the world, bringing a uniquely worldly aura to Golden Gate Park and the peninsula as a whole. Among the plethora of trees included Blue Gum Eucalyptus, Monterey Pine, and Monterey Cyprus. As the vision for Golden Gate Park became a reality, and other foundational features like Stow Lake, and the Conservatory of Flowers came to fruition, McLaren denied retirement at age 60 in order to continue with his endeavor to create a world class park. McLaren was granted permission to bypass retirement and remain the park’s superintendent for a grand total of 53 years. McLaren died in 1943 in his home, McLaren’s Lodge, which was nestled in the heart of Golden Gate Park.

The towering Dutch windmills that govern the southern and northern entrances to the park’s west were plotted in the early 20th century. In their heyday, these towering giants pumped water throughout the entirety of the park. Both windmills have since been renovated on an ongoing basis to preserve their original enduring character, and still stand tall as decorative memorials.

The park’s landscape and features changed throughout the 20th century due to the inevitability of natural disasters—earthquakes, fires, Mother Nature doing what she does best— but was a particularly vital backdrop during the 1960s Summer of Love movement. Not unlike North Beach for the beats, Golden Gate Park was home to the psychedelics, the hippies, and the loving folk that defined an especially hazy era of San Francisco’s colorful history. While Kezar Stadium hosted enormous bands like Led Zeppelin, the thin strip off-shoot of the park’s eastern border, now famously known as the Panhandle, was the site of the Human Be-In festival, an event famously embodying San Francisco’s counterculture spirit.

Today, our Golden Gate Park is still a staple of beauty and solitude. While many residents regretfully neglect the park’s fruitful and momentous history, there are still a number of monuments, tales, and even music festivals that keep its enduring legacy aflame. Between Outside Lands—the annual gargantuan music and arts festival named so appropriately to honor the parks origin—the iconic refurbished windmills, and even the bison roaming just east of Chain of Lakes serve as reminders for San Franciscans about just how lucky we are to claim Golden Gate Park our own.

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