Articles,  Features

S.F. Regarded “Unlovely City” Until — McLaren Put Beauty in Parks and Streets (Part 12)

Wednesday, January 27, 1943

The Call-Bulletin presents, herewith, the twelfth of a series of articles describing the life and work of Uncle John McLaren, “father” of  Golden Gate Park. The articles were written by the late J. Lawrence Toole, noted San Francisco newspaperman.

By J. Lawrence Toole

The San Francisco John McLaren saw in the early ’80s when he drove up from one or other of his tree-planting jobs in San Mateo, was a rather unlovely city. Around it, of course, just as they had been, possibly, since time began, were the bay and the mountains and the ocean, but within its incomparable setting the young city itself seems to McLaren’s eyes, raw and uncouth.

“I used to think,” he said, “that nature had stopped where its streets began, like it was afeard of the miles of sand on which nothing could grow. They’d made a wee beginning on Golden Gate Park then, here at the east end. But ootside of that almost nothing has been done in the way of parks for the people, or playgrounds for their children. And there wasn’t an awful lot of them then, with no place to play except in the streets or in the sand.”

The first years McLaren put in as park maker left him little for any interest outside the job of making grass and trees and flowers grow where nothing but drifting sand dunes had been.

“I knew from the very first,” he’d tell you, “it was a hard job I had before me, and would take a long time to do. But I was sure from the start it would be done. My job was to being nature to the city. There was the biggest part of Golden Gate Park as I found it,” and he pointed, as he has done often before, to a photograph of seemingly interminable sand, – “and ye know yerself what it is now. It has taken a long, long time, but it is done.”

Job Is Perfect

Yes, it’s done, that job John McLaren undertook years ago in Golden Gate Park, and the job he has done is perfect. A few municipal parks in America may be larger, but none, anywhere, is more beautiful than this park John McLaren made out of sand.

But it was not of his glorious achievement in park making and landscape gardening, nor of the enchanting  glimpses of nature at her most beautiful he revealed to San Francisco, that John McLaren was most proud. If he was proud of anything, it was the joy succeeding generations of children took in his parks and gardens, the happiness and health they gave and the affection children gave him in return. 

“Always I’ve had the young ones of the city in mind,” he’d tell you, “Why, man, when I came here first the wee ones had hardly any place to play in the sun except between rows of buildings like hedges along the streets: no green place to put up a Maypole or roll an Easter egg. Now just look at them” — it happened to be Easter Sunday and his car had stopped at a favorite spot of his near the Children’s Playground, first and finest in the United States — “there are thousands of them in the Park today and they’re all happy. Every year when I see that it does my heart good.”

Proud of Work

A hint of the joy the old man took in the happiness of children was divulged  in a new brightness that came into his eyes as he drove a visitor around the park that day. At every turn of the road, the vista revealed was different yet, in a way, the same. Forests and groves of trees, sparkling lakes, dazzling banks and beds of flowers, lawns smooth and soft as green carports, statues and buildings glimpsed through shimmering foliage, and everywhere, at every turn, youngsters at play, thousands of them of every age with parents and elders stretched and grouped on the grass in the sun and in the shade.

Watching the vent and frail old man huddled in his seat with eyes tirelessly peering, it was hard to realize that all the hd come into being in his lifetimes, and that he had planted nearly every blade of grass, tree an flower passed. 

Signs innumerable, on trees and roads and flower beds, are scattered through the park, but nowhere can be found the sign “Keep Off the Grass.” No other public park in America can claim that distinction. 

“There never have been any in my time, “ said McLaren with a smile. “Why should there be? The grass and the trees and the flowers were put there for the people and the children to enjoy. They don’t hurt things much. That’s a fine thing about San Francisco folk. They love the park too much to do it harm. There’ll be no ‘keep off’ sign as long as I am here.

Grass for Children

“Keep youngsters off the grass? I’d as soon think of keeping them off the tennis courts and the playing fields. If that had been done San Francisco wouldna have made so many champions as it has. No, I canna remember all the tennis champions and the baseball starts that started in the park. But I’ve watched a mighty lot of them grow up from wee ones in the Children’s Playground to become famous.”

Small wonder he can’t remember all the San Francisco boys and girls who started their careers in sports on the courts and diamonds he made for them in Golden Gate Park. This list is a long one, too long even to be more than indicated here. 

In tennis it includes famed champions like Maurice McLaughlin, Clarence Griffin, William Griffin, William Johnston and the Kinsey brothers, and skirted racquet wizards like Helen Jacobs, Alice Marble and even Helen Wills, who played a lot at the park, and a host of other girls who became famous players. 

And in baseball the list would include nearly every famed San Francisco players who has helped make baseball history, starts like the Lazzeris, Gomezes, Di Maggios, Rhynes, Kamms, Waners and Averills. 

All of these, and thousands before them, took the first steps in their chosen sports in the park John McLaren made. 

Foe of Idleness

Never, even in his youth and prime much given to active sports of any kind, except to drive a fast team on his own speedway in the park, before the coming of automobiles, or a little bowling on the green, on grass he had planted where grass never was before he came, McLaren, in his last years, contented himself with an occasional game of draughts or dominoes. Quite often he was to be found with that group of old men whose life is behind them and who while away sunny hours in the little tree-bowered pavilion set apart for them by Alford Lake There, bent over a checker board in silence, McLaren was likely to steal an hour from the day to be with other men whose memories were of times long past.

Not often, though, did he allow himself that luxury. He was a stickler for discipline, as every man and woman under him found out, and he abided strictly by the Park Commission’s office in the lodge, keeping the hours set for the staff and a lot more he had set for himself; for idleness, when there was anything to do, he couldn’t endure. 

His usual working day began at 7 after a simple breakfast – he liked rose, the oatmeal breakfast of his boyhood days. He ate lightly, like a bird, his housekeeper said, and sometimes when his day was done, took a wee nip of good Scotch with his only smoke of the day.

Most of the day was spent out of doors, as had been most of the days of his life, puttering among his trees and ferns and flowers, inspecting park work and watching experiments with new plants constantly going on in nursery and conservatory.

Park in Mission

In later years the great new park that carries its own name and fame to posterity, the John McLaren Park, in the Mission, occupied much of his time and all of his devotion, for to him that park was a cherished dream come true. 

“For years and years and years,” he’d tell you, “I’d hoped to see a fine big park in the Mission. Not a landscaped and garden park like this, but a park with noble trees to cut off the wind, and wide lawns and fields and commons with swimming pools and playfields, where all the working folk of the Mission and their children could play close to their own homes.”

When San Francisco celebrated John McLaren’s 80th birthday, and his fortieth anniversary as superintendent of parks, it officially made John McLaren Park a reality by appropriating the funds for the purchase of the site.

That McLaren birthday was a great occasion. The entire city celebrated. School children bearing gifts, trooped to the lodge. One, a big engraving, was inscribed: “The children of San Francisco playgrounds send greetings and loving wishes to John McLaren, their friend.”

Flowers for his birthday flooded the City Hall and after a torrent of adulatory official oratory, the late James Rolph Jr., then mayor and McLaren’s great and good friend, announced the park had been named John McLaren Park. 

Tears in His Eyes

McLaren had tears in his eyes as he sat grinning though the ceremony. On a memorable day a month later his old eyes were dim again with tears as, with reins around his neck, he guided a plow horse along the first furrow turned in the earth for the new park – the park of his dreams.

Herbert Fleishhacker and the other park commissioners and the mayor and all the officials of the city’s government and hundreds of the children who called him friend were there to watch that furrow turned and cheer the plowman.

As he gee’d the horse to start, he paused a minute and turned to Fleishhacker to say:

“This,” he spoke slowly with a little shake in his voice, “is the first step in my supreme effort, I’m going to try and make this the most beautiful park of all.”

(To Be Continued)

The full Call-Bulletin 13-part series of articles on John McLaren:

Part 1: “Keep Busy, Best Motto”: Golden Gate Park Creator | Part 2: Dune Squatters Hard to Move | Part 3: McLaren Gave Credit to Aides in Park Work | Part 4: Playground Dream Made Real by $50,000 Bequest | Part 5: Scot Enlisted Wealthy S.F. Men to Aid in Park | Part 6: Expert Made Stow Lake By Lining It With Clay | Part 7: Windmills at Park Brought McLaren Joy | Part 8: Big Fern Tree Garden Pride of Park Builder | Part 9: Park Sand Set by Europe Grass | Part 10: Midwinter Fair of 90’s Gardeners 1st Triumph | Part 11: Gardener Knew Artists Who Made Park Mecca | Part 12: S.F. Regarded “Unlovely City” Until — McLaren Put Beauty in Parks and Streets | Part 13: World Honored Park’s Gardener