Sweeny Observatory: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at OpenSFHistory images.

I love hiking in San Francisco in later autumn and winter, especially on clear days. Prime destinations to enjoy the angled sunlight and crisp air are found on Twin Peaks, Bernal Heights, and Lands End. One prime viewpoint for San Franciscans of the 1890s is now lost to us (outside of old photographs): an odd amphitheater in Golden Gate Park known as Sweeny Observatory.

Thanks to a bequest of $8,000 from Thomas U. Sweeny, on September 9, 1891, a castellated observatory of red-tinted concrete was dedicated atop Strawberry Hill, the prominence that Stow Lake now encircles. The trees that one needs to peek around today were yet to come; at the time, the 409-foot high hill was mostly bare and named for the wild strawberries that grew on its slopes.

Sweeny Observatory shortly after opening in 1891.
Sweeny Observatory shortly after opening in 1891. The glassed-in second story around the sides is yet to be added. (wnp37.00588-L.jpg, copy negative of a stereocard, courtesy of a private collector.)

We think of observatories as homes for telescopes, but Sweeny’s edifice was more of an arcaded windbreak for the hilltop. A gravel path wound up and led carriages right into the center of the circular amphitheater. From a distance, the observatory appeared as a decorative crown on the hill or a half-collapsed fortification from antiquity. A glassed-in second story was added in 1892 to accommodate more guests at a time and offer a more elevated view. A plaque set on a crenelated entry arch read “Park Panorama, Gift of Thos. U. Sweeny, 1891.”

Now we take it for granted that wealthy donors have their names on hospitals, schools, museum wings, and park elements. From Alvord Lake to the Murphy Windmill, just about every lake, grove, path, and gate in Golden Gate Park has a rich person’s name on it. Sweeny’s donation was perhaps the first in the park with a proviso that his name be attached. Golden Gate Park historian Ray Clary wrote in The Making of Golden Gate Park. The Early Years: 1865-1906 that when the park commission accepted both Sweeny’s offer and naming condition they were “completely reversing former park policy that the park was to be rustic in nature and that all forms of personal advertisement and self-aggrandizement were to be prohibited.”

Clary also mentions that the observatory greatly offended the first park superintendent, William Hammond Hall, who designed the park to be naturalistic and free of monuments such as castle observatories.

Southeast side of Sweeny Observatory about 1893.
Southeast side of Sweeny Observatory about 1893, with second story completed. (wnp26.397, photograph by Isaiah West Taber, copy negative courtesy of a private collector.)

View of Strawberry Hill from Stow Lake, circa 1894.
View of Strawberry Hill, Huntington Falls, and Sweeny’s Observatory from Stow Lake. (wnp27.0558, A. J. McDonald photograph, print courtesy of a private collector.)

The floodgates to naming opportunities were now wide open. Huntington Falls were made to drop from a holding pool in front of Sweeny Observatory down to the new Stow Lake, and a full and picturesque reimagining of scrubby Strawberry Hill was completed for Midwinter Fair visitors to enjoy in 1894.

Sweeny (whose name was often spelled “Sweeney”) owned a lot of land in today’s Inner Sunset District. From his home, about where 7th Avenue and Judah Street meet today, he had a clear view of his observatory until his death in January 1900. A bequest in his will to “complete” the edifice was successfully contested by Sweeny’s heirs, despite a Park Commission suit to recover it.

The observatory met its practical end on the morning of April 18, 1906, when the great earthquake made the folly a true ruin. William Hammond Hall, according to Clary, saw divine justice: “Apparently, a Higher Power has taken matters into His own hands.”

Ruins of Sweeny Observatory after 1906 earthquake.
Ruins of Sweeny Observatory after 1906 earthquake. (wnp27.5474, Stoddard photograph, print courtesy of a private collector.)

Ruins of Sweeny Observatory after 1906 earthquake.
Ruins of Sweeny Observatory after 1906 earthquake. (wnp37.01243.jpg, copy negative courtesy of a private collector.)

For many decades the remains of the observatory moldered in a heap at the top of Strawberry Hill. Gardeners mined chunks to use as border walls and fill throughout the park. Even into the late twentieth century a notable pile of concrete remained to give testament to its existence. Today, one is hard-pressed to find any sign, and Sweeny’s name is unknown to all but a few historians.

Sweeny Observatory about 1895.
Sweeny Observatory, about 1895. (wnp33.00563.jpg, Agnes Manning Collection, copy negative courtesy of a private collector.)

Woodward’s Gardens: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

A closer look at OpenSFHistory images.

Now the site of apartment flats, body shops, small warehouses, and a gas station, the northwest corner of 14th Street and Mission Street was once the home of Woodward’s Gardens, a pleasure resort that its founder dedicated to “education, recreation, and amusement.”

In 1895, a San Francisco Call reporter wrote: “There are three particular places in California that have acquired world-wide fame, and these are the Yosemite Valley, the old Cliff House and Woodward’s Gardens. Possibly the latter is more generally known than either of the other two.”

Robert Woodward’s private estate ran up the hill from Mission Street to Valencia Street, and he had a view east across sandy hillocks, scattered homes, and marshland to the bay. With the city encroaching on this formerly country home and after having to deal with some disastrous floods of the area, Woodward decided in 1866 to move to Napa and turn his landscaped Mission District grounds into a park open to the public (for a quarter admission).

Woodward's Gardens about 1877.
Turrill and Miller image of Woodward’s Gardens on the northwest corner of 14th Street and Mission Street. (wnp13.010a, courtesy of a private collector.)

The main attractions to the first visitors were the well-tended grounds with ponds and quaint bridges; the conservatory of flowers and rare plants; the Moroccan-inspired “summer house” observatory on the hill; and Robert Woodward’s art and curiosity collection housed in what had been his residence.

Woodward's Gardens about 1870.
Thomas Houseworth & Co. stereoview card of the Woodward’s Gardens summer house on the hill. (wnp24.321a, courtesy of a private collector.)

Entrance to Museum at Woodward's Gardens, 1869.
Edward Muybridge photo of the entrance to the Woodward’s Gardens museum, formerly R. B. Woodward’s home. (wnp37.00554, courtesy of a private collector.)

Whereas other pleasure resorts in the area—the Willows, Hayes Park, and City Gardens—went through unsavory periods as rough beer gardens and weekend hangouts for hoodlums, Woodward’s Gardens had a more elevated reputation. Robert Woodward was a temperance man and drunken toughs found no home in his establishment. Sunday schools, science academies, and benevolent societies arranged picnics, gatherings, and field trips to Woodward’s Gardens from as far away as Sacramento.

The best comparison one can make today to explain the role Woodward’s Gardens played in San Francisco is to imagine the de Young Museum, Academy of Sciences, Botanical Gardens, San Francisco Zoo, and Conservatory of Flowers combined into a block and a half—then add balloon ascensions, instrumental band concerts, a boardwalk sideshow, and rotating companies of circus performers.

Statues and odd arrangements of taxidermies enlivened the gardens, while Woodward’s menagerie of live animals included sea lions, bears, birds, reptiles, deer, jaguars, tigers, beavers, ferrets, elk, reindeer, foxes, kangaroos, wallabies, emus, eagles, pheasants, monkeys, and, for a couple of weeks, a headless rooster. A pedestrian tunnel ran under 14th Street to the zoo grounds across the street, now where the massive brick Armory stands. Children had ponies, donkeys, and camels to ride; goat-pulled chaises to drive; and mechanically-driven sailboats to circle around upon:

Woodward's Gardens, 1870s.
Families strolling, boat ride on little lake, summer house observatory on hill. Check out the kids rolling down the grassy incline! (wnp24.0075a, courtesy of a private collector.)

Camel rides at Woodward's Gardens, 1869.
The camel rides at Woodward’s Gardens, about 1870. (wnp37.00569.jpg, Eadweard Muybridge stereoview, courtesy of a private collector.)

Woodward created the West Coast’s first aquarium, where a “monster crab” was displayed, and, in 1871, put up a forty-two-foot-high pavilion near the Valencia Street frontage where conventions, skating, and circus performances were held.

Alongside serious scholarly displays on minerals, plants, and technological innovations, there were carny exhibits such as a window with the imprint of a ghost on the pane (supposedly a murdered woman). Admiral Dot, a 15-inch-tall man, and Chang, the Chinese Giant, standing at eight feet, both gave receptions to visitors. As many as 15,000-20,000 people would pack the place on Sundays, with Woodward’s own transit line delivering them to the main gates. In 1879, the entire student body of San Francisco filled Woodward’s Gardens to greet U. S. Grant a few months after he finished his second term as president.

Robert Woodward died in 1879. His heirs kept the Gardens running while his estate was in probate for the next decade and a half. But the creation and maturation of Golden Gate Park meant many of the offerings of Woodward’s Gardens were available to the public for free. In April 1893, most of the curios were sold at auction (with Adolph Sutro buying many to later display at his Sutro Baths). Two years later the grounds were auctioned off for development. Only the pavilion remained in service, used for big boxing matches and political rallies before it burned to the ground in the fires following the April 18, 1906 earthquake.

Grand Stairway and Italian Terrace at Woodward's Gardens. Band stand at left.
Grand Stairway and Italian Terrace to the refreshment pavilion at Woodward’s Gardens, about 1870. Band stand at left. (wnp37.01040.jpg, Lange & Newth image, courtesy of a private collector.)