Articles,  Features

Playground Dream Made Real by $50,000 Bequest (Part 4)

Saturday, 16 January 1943

The fourth in a series of articles on the life of Uncle John McLaren is presented herewith by The Call-Bulletin. Their author, the late J. Lawrence Toole, noted San Francisco newspaperman, was a friend of the man who developed Golden Gate Park.

By J. Lawrence Toole

The old Ocean House neat the Ocean Beach, old time mecca of San Francisco’s fashionable and carriage folk, was still a popular resort when John McLaren came to the park more than half a century ago, and his face lit up with memories at the reading of these bits from an old article.

“The Ocean Side House was for a while a favorite resort,” said this chronicler, Amelia Ransome Neville, a figure in San Francisco society of the ’60s and ‘70s who wrote books between dances. “The Hall McAllisters gave a big dance there and we drove out another night for Mrs John Felton’s dance. But the place soon deteriorated.

“The Vanderwaters’ old white horse Stevedore, drawing a comfortable rockaway, and San Mateo, driven by D.O. Mills, and Lucky Baldwin tooling the first four-horse English coach to come to the West, and James Ben Ali Haggin driving a pair of iron-grays – were all familiar sights on the road. Mrs. S.J. Hensley’s blue seashell carriage, drawn by four horses; the flowered bonnets of the ladies bobbing above white fur robes in the flaring seashell, and Mrs Milton Latham’s brown barouche with yellow wheels, lined wit blue satin and drawn by two milk white horses, the first seen here, were other bright details of the daily procession.”

“Aye,” he said, “I remember well what the roads looked like then. Gay, verry, verry gay they were. Everybody rode or drove then. I had a fine horse myself, which I rode most of the time, though sometimes I hitched it to a buggy the joined the parade. You don’t see such horses and carriages now that the automobile has come.”

Finishes story

And he remembered well when the Victoria Regina was the jewel and pride of the Conservatory. Let’s have Mrs Neville quoted a little higher up, tell a bit of its story which John McLaren finished. 

“‘The Victoria Regia,’” she wrote, “was a pond lily, the largest in the world, brought from the tropics to bloom in a pool in the conservatory. As I look back now its blooming is one of the high lights of the 1880’s. Every one talked of it… Every one went to the park to look at it. In single file the citizenry passed around the pond to marvel at the great flare of petals as it lay like the top of a pool table on the water.”

I can remember, tho, the thrill I got when I saw it first, long before I came to the park.

“Yes,” said McLaren, “and we still have the Victoria Regia. But it’s no sensation any more. It is just one of thousands of plants in the greenhouses. I can remember, tho, the thrill I got when I saw it first, long before I came to the park. It comes from Brazil you know. I first saw it in bloom at the Duke of Devonshire’s place in Lancashire. He used to bring guests in a special train from London to see it bloom. It is at night that it blooms full and it is most beautiful. Five feet across its petals are, making a saucer big enough for a boy to swim in. Great care is taken of it you can be sure.

Loved Children, Too

Next to flowers and plants and trees, John McLaren loved children, and one of his first thoughts when he took over the park was for the countless children with no place to play in the bustling crowded city that spread east of and southwest of the park. There was scarcely any city directly south of the park then and less than that north. 

“But the big Mission District was there,” he said, “and it fairly teemed with young ones. And they had neither park nor playground. There was plenty of room here. There just had to be a playground for the wee ones.”

“I used to watch the little ones come troopin’ over the sand dunes frae the Mission, and I’ll never forget their first joy in the playground,” he said, thinking back. “And I never will.”

In 1887, the year McLaren was appointed park superintendent, the park commissioners found themselves with $50,000 bequeathed by Senator William Sharon. Trustees of the Sharon estate, F.W. Sharon and Frank G. Newlands, had suggested erection of a huge memorial arch.

“It would be a fine thing,” McLaren chimed in at every discussion, “to use that money to make a grand children’s playground.”

Dream Becomes Real

The park commission was won over. Within two years the children’s playground of McLaren’s dream was a reality, and from that time to this it has been a joy to the children of San Francisco. 

The Children’s House at the playground, the first building of its kind erected in America, or McLaren insists, anywhere else, remains an object lessons and model for park governing bodies all over the United States.

“The Children’s House was designed by Percy & Hamilton, big architects here then,” said McLaren. “I remember sending plans of it and of the Playground to park people in Boston, which had nothing like it at all at that time. They thought our Playground was wonderful and later on copied it a bit. But so did many another big city, later on. 

“That merry-go-round you can see at the Playground, and ride on if ye like, was one of the first thing we made sure of. It’s pretty near the same right now as the day it was put there, except, maybe for a wee bit of paint and things like that.

I’ll wager there no a man, or a woman, in San Francisco who was a young one here in the last fifty years but has had a ride on the Playground horses

“Aye, them horses have been going round and round a long time, about fifty years, and they’re not through yet. D’ye ken, I’ll wager there no a man, or a woman, in San Francisco who was a young one here in the last fifty years but has had a ride on the Playground horses.”

Now there are donkeys and goats and things to keep the wooden horses company and give the children fun, and a hundred other contraptions for their entertainment, but the merry-go-round remains the big attraction, or one of the big ones.

Fun for All

And a tale is told of an imposing elderly couple, richly dressed visitors, coming there, not so long ago, accompanied by a chauffeur and standing awhile near the merry-go-round, watching it go round.

“Look, there they are,” the woman cried.

And then, a little later, they got aboard, after carefully picking their mounts and rode around, and around and around, without ever unclasping hands, except once or twice, when the lady lifted a little handkerchief to her eyes. John McLaren wouldn’t vouch for the tale and many another like it.

That’s a bit of the story of the Children’s Playground, which McLaren regarded as the gem of the Park, and where, year after year, he watched the children of the city gather in May Day Festival.

“They come in the thousands now by street car and bus and automobile,” he said, “but when they first came here for May Day, most of them had to trudge over sand dunes, a lot of them for miles. But they came, I remember the first festival, in 1892 it was, I think, just a few years after I got there. I believe every young man in the city was here.”

Typical of one side of John McLaren, his great affection for children is the story of the playground. Typical of another side, his deep and abiding love of nature, is the story of Stow Lake and the waterfall that cascades into it – Huntington Falls.

(To Be Continued)