94 Years of Greening
San Francisco Garden Club (SFGC) is often described as “venerable.” In the same breath, it’s been said that the Club is “camera shy.” For 94 years, the Club has quietly participated in a broad scope of civic achievements; some grand, some grungy (e.g., in 1927, noting the litter in Golden Gate Park, the Club provided 500 woven rubbish baskets to hang from Park trees to collect the detritus.)
Over the years, the Club has rebuilt the Broadway steps, planted yew trees at the War Memorial Opera House, palm trees on Dolores Avenue, Chinese Elms on Arguello Street, and six acres of redwood trees at McLaren Park. In 2015, the Club planted 90 trees in Golden Gate Park to commemorate their 90th Anniversary.
But the Club doesn’t just write checks. Joining Mayor Frank Jordan’s 1992 Coalition for a Clean City, Club members personally swept Powell Street, from the cable car turn-around at Market over to Union Square, every month for a year, then presented the Mayor with funds to pay for ongoing steam cleaning.
The Club grew from strong roots: In the spring of 1926, San Francisco’s 150th birthday, Mrs. William Hinckley Taylor gathered 65 influential San Franciscans for tea at her home at 2550 Broadway and poured out her idea for forming The San Francisco Garden Club, stating the Club’s purpose as, “The beautifying of the City.”
By October, the Club had elected officers: John McLaren, the “Father of Golden Gate Park” was honorary president; Herbert Fleishhacker, vice-president; William H. Crocker, treasurer. Mayor James Rolf, Governor Friend Richardson and Alice Eastwood were honorary Vice-Presidents. Forty of the original group joined the Board of Directors, including Mrs. William Mayo Newhall, whose husband was president of the Stanford Board of Trustees; Mrs. Sigmund Stern, Mrs. Prentis Cobb Hale, and Mrs. William Mein, who also served on the Street Tree-Planting Committee. Other committees included “Small Parks,” “Window Boxes” and “Wildflowers”.
Garden Club newspaper clippings reveal that members opened 15 of their private gardens to visitors at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. Included on the tour was the garden of famous landscape architect Thomas D. Church. The Guide read, “Notice Mr. Church’s espaliered camellias and his distinctive manner of training vines on the walls.” Also on the tour were the gardens of Mrs. Colbert Coldwell (1937 Garden Club president) whose husband founded Coldwell-Banker, and Mrs. Alfred Sutro.
ln 1939, the Club originated the program, Floral Paintings Come to Life; floral exhibits complementing the art in the east wing of the deYoung Museum. The exhibition grew into Art in Flowers in 1950 and was held at the Legion of Honor for a number of years.
During the war years, the Club donated $7,000 (the equivalent of about $80,000 today) to Letterman General Hospital to furnish a recreation building for wounded soldiers, and raised funds for plantings to camouflage the hospital from unfriendly fire.
San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers With its membership of 325, the Club has been a leading supporter of the COF for many years, underwriting the original ponds and plant collections. In 1971, with a generous donation from past president Mrs. Elizabeth Hay Bechtel, the Club established the SFGC Conservatory Fund, restored the Victoria Pond, underwrote the new sprinkling system, and restored the Cloverleaf Pond.
The storms of 1995-96 severely damaged the COF. ln 1997, the Club organized the kick-off benefit, Arts and Flowers, for the restoration of the Conservatory. Shreve & Co. created a gold Conservatory facsimile brooch for “First Family” (major) donors. Madeline Haas Russell was honorary chair, Sandra Swanson was chair. First Family donors included the Charles Crockers, Elinor & Eugene Friend, Mrs. Ann Witter-Gillette, William Godward, Jessica McClintock, Marianne & Richard Peterson, Adrianna Pope, Alice Russell-Shapiro and Dede & Al Wilsey.
In 1998, the SFGC was responsible for placing the Conservatory on the 100 most Endangered World Monuments list by the World Monuments Fund. Also in 1998, then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton invited key members of the Club’s restoration committee to breakfast to celebrate the Conservatory’s National Trust status. Construction on a new conservatory could not begin until the plants in the damaged structure had been securely moved and stored. The SFGC, with $25,000 seed money, spearheaded the construction of the greenhouse to house the plant collections during the major reconstruction. Writing grants and securing donations, the Club raised $128,500.75, the price of the greenhouse. It opened in 1999 and construction began soon afterward. September 20, 2003 saw the historic grand re-opening of the COF. Since 1997, SFGC contributions to the Conservatory restoration have exceeded $500,000.
In 2006, the Club funded the Garden Conservancy’s Gardens of Alcatraz 220-foot planting trough; visible from space, invested in Nikolas Weinstein’s elegant glass entry sculpture at the Conservatory of Flowers, headed the re-landscaping of the Japanese Tea Garden, and spearheaded the Youth Education Program at SF Botanical Garden. Other civic participation includes Bouquets to Art at the Fine Arts Museums, the Fall Antiques Show, scholarships for UC Berkeley graduate landscape students and for horticultural students at City College. House and garden tours, luncheons, private donations, and grant writing help raise funds for Club projects.
In 2016, the club paid special homage to one of the original members of the SF Garden Club board of directors and life-long SFGC member, the pioneering botanist Alice Eastwood, through the restoration of the Alice Eastwood Legacy Garden at San Francisco Botanical Garden, established in her honor by the SFGC in 1971. It was Ms. Eastwood who famously saved more than 1900 of the Academy of Sciences’ irreplaceable rare specimens and early records as flames engulfed the Academy in the 1906 earthquake. In 1912, she returned to the Academy as Curator and reconstructed the collection, a priceless, irreplaceable Academy treasure. The SFGC has also long-supported floral and horticultural scholarships in her name.
“Venerable” or “camera shy,” the Club is thrilled to contribute to the city’s beauty.