by Arnold Woods
Everyone spends time at a playground when they are young. As we age, we again visit playgrounds with our children and grandchildren and revel in them again through their eyes. San Francisco was at the forefront of the development of modern playgrounds in the United States. Children’s Playground in Golden Gate Park is often cited as the first American public playground, though Boston might have beaten them to it by a year or two. Nonetheless, Children’s Playground has been delighting children for over 140 years.
The playground got its start with a $50,000 bequest from the trustees of the estate of former Senator and businessman, William Sharon. It was unclear whether this bequest was something Sharon wanted to do or was something that the estate trustees decided was a good idea.1 Initially there was talk of using the money for a lake or a music hall or a marble archway park entrance. The latter idea was actually approved and was to be placed at a Stanyan Street park entrance between Fell and Oak.
Construction on a marble archway designed by architect John Gash started in 1886.2 However, Park Commissioner William Hammond Hall stepped in to put a stop to it, convincing the Park Commission that the money should instead be used for a children’s playground. A “children’s quarters” had been part of the original Golden Gate Park plan. The archway was not completed and was demolished instead.
On Saturday, December 22, 1888, the “Sharon Children’s Quarters” and Sharon Building were dedicated and opened.3 2000 people came out for the ceremony despite the threat of rain. At noon, a rainbow appeared as if to give blessing to the playground. Commissioner Hall gave a speech to the crowd stating at the beginning that “[a]ll children are invited to this playground, be they rich or poor, each one having equal rights and privileges.”
The Sharon Building by the playground was built to provide refuge for mothers and children in poor weather. It was designed by architects George Washington Pearcy and Frederick F. Hamilton in a Victorian Romanesque style. It featured a playroom on the lower level and a coffee and refreshments area on the upper level.4 It was later damaged in the 1906 earthquake and fires in 1974 and 1980, but has been fully restored each time.
Among the children’s activities at the playground were gondola swings, slides, see-saws, a maypole, a boys baseball field, and a girls croquet court. Then there were the rides. Children could enjoy a ride in a cart pulled by a goat…
…and donkey rides. The animal rides are long gone and the children’s playground has been updated and improved over the years.
In 1890, a merry-go-round was constructed at the Children’s Playground and it began operation in January 1891.5 It was capable of carrying 100 riders and allowed children to rock the “horses.” The reports about this merry-go-round opening indicate that it replaced a prior one. It was in turn later replaced with a carousel from the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in 1939-40. Herbert Fleishhacker donated $14,000 to purchase it and have it moved to the Children’s Playground. That carousel was shut down because of safety concerns in 1977, but was restored and reopened on June 30, 1984.
Today, children continue to enjoy the playground and the Sharon Building now houses the Sharon Art Studio. The non-profit organization offers classes in all types of art for both children and adults.
Listen to the 2018 Outside Lands Podcast about Children’s Playground.
1. “How notorious tycoon William Sharon left SF’s children a still-popular landmark,” by Greg Keraghosian, SFGate website, May 23, 2021.
2. “San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park: A Thousand and Seventeen Acres of Stories” by Chris Pollock (Westwinds Press, 2001).
3. “Opening of the Sharon Playground,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 23, 1888, p. 16.
4. “San Francisco Municipal Reports, Fiscal Year 1888-89”.
5. “New Merry-Go-Round,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 29, 1890, p. 10.