A leather bar in Liberty’s shadow

This past August, we mustered our resolve and our masks to board a plane and cross the country from San Francisco to Philadelphia.  My husband was born in nearby Wilmington Delaware, and I was looking forward to finally meeting his brother and sister in law, and other family and friends. I was also very excited to be visiting the historic location of one of my favorite musicals, in which a number of men in wigs and stockings argued and danced vigorously and sometimes wittingly, railing against the injustice of those in power.   Nope, not “Hamilton”, but “1776”.   As a teen, it was the first “professional” touring musical my Dad and stepmother had taken me to see all the way in Los Angeles from Corona – and I had enjoyed the soundtrack many times. 

The trailer is awful, but the movie and music are wonderful!

But of course, it’s been 50 years since I first heard Adams, Jefferson and Franklin sing about liberty and courage, and much in our world has changed – as have I.  We were somewhat concerned initially about whether it was “safe” to go – interestingly, some of the greatest numbers of unmasked faces in public were to be seen in Wilmington, where the Biden’s are just “folk” like everyone else (well, to some).  Happily, we remained unaffected and enjoyed a wonderful trip, and as we stood in Independence Hall, and then in line to view the Liberty Bell, it had many memorable moments. 

Philadelphia too has changed much over the years, like all big cities – we took a bus tour, visited some museums, and since I had never been to the area, being a gay history buff as well as a history buff, we wandered into the area just a short stroll from where the Declaration of Independence was signed, known affectionately as the “gayborhood”.    We found a wonderful variety of eclectic shops, restaurants, homes along narrow cobbled streets – and I was delighted to pick up a few books at the nation’s oldest LGBTQ bookstore, where a few new volumes are dwarfed by several floors of older books on all kinds of subjects.   

But of all the gayborhood businesses we visited, the one that seemed the most filled with history – even though not my own – was a bar called the “Bike Stop”.   When I had taken up riding a motorcycle in my own early coming out years, I enjoyed going on rides with a gay biker club in Los Angeles, called the Satyrs (read about them here) – like many, they had formed in the years when the emerging communities formed in major metropolitan centers, offering those men who found their way to a new kind of life, and less of a sense of isolation, the opportunity for friendship, belonging, and support – and, in time, the basis of political influence, and impact beyond those areas that few predicted would ever come to pass.  

Yep, that’s me on my Indian Chief, Labor day weekend 2012 …. and yes it was loud!

The bars these men frequented, were the “infamous” leather bars, and not everyone visiting rode bikes – many just wanted sex.  Movies like “Cruising” and magazines reported a distorted view of that time and way of life – I was not part of those days but being closeted and far removed from anyone gay in my own circle, I was fascinated by the portrayals and pleasures it seemingly offered.  Now, having met men whose lives were intertwined with those events, I realize the gift that such bars and clubs offered to so many who had been rejected and left out, were deeper than the brief encounters portrayed then (and now) in more salacious publications and films.  They offered family to those that had none – to those who felt they did not belong anywhere else.  Although that history was not a part of my own – the feelings certainly were. 

Walking through this darkened bar, opened in 1982 (but with a history stretching much further back in time as shown in this excellent article), I was deeply moved.  I had known that loneliness for much of my life, and not found any sense of real community until I let myself accept those regions of my heart that others had encouraged me to crush.  Seeing the pictures of these men, relaxed, having fun, standing unashamed were more than moving to me, they were in a way, sacred.  I knew that many of these men probably, within a few years of the pictures on the wall, died of AIDS – and that others lived, and with friends and growing acceptance in other communities, worked hard to raise money for the care of those ailing, and the search for a cure. 

Various cases around the bar are barely visible – especially in the darkened corners – but the photos are still striking, fully of life and energy and joy.  The pins from various clubs and bike runs are framed;  the artwork that 30-40 years ago was cheap bar promotional material now sells for thousands of dollars in galleries, and the banners and awards that were bestowed upon those deigned representative of the aspirations and values of this niche community may no longer even be noticed by the current denizens.  Yes, bars have changed, and technology changes how like-minded people connect (or isolate); but they are also adapting to the changing populations of the city, and the mindsets and priorities of those who, different perhaps in what they seek on the outside, still long for belonging inside (click to read)

Another photo of the bar denizens in the dusty display cases – where are they now, I wonder?

I realize as a “maturing” white gay male, of my era – even though I did not take the same steps in life as the men in those photos, or many who are in my circle today – for some, serve as a bridge from that era to the future.  What I find fascinating is that no matter what the issue is, there are always going to be people who are “outsiders”, and always going to be others who label and exclude; it is to be expected, if not accepted.  And yet, within a short stroll from this building, where the numbers of men and women who congregate here, and neighboring businesses, are less dense than in the era of the cabinets filled with mementos – a very different group of men gathered and argued and debated and ultimately created a model for a society that could be more inclusive, and offer greater freedoms, in time.  It is far from a perfect union still, but it moves toward being more perfect – just as we do in our own growth. 

The August evening is settling in as we leave the Bike Shop, and return to our family’s home, soon to board a flight back to California.  The voices of the American Revolution, and the voices of the gay liberation front, and the voices of today, clamoring for change, inclusion, respect and justice, rise from the streets of Philadelphia, and our world.  I will remember the men in these photos, whose faces I never saw, but whose courage and resolve, and need, gave me a chance at a better life – and I realize I too have a responsibility to continue that pursuit of happiness for others. 

The National Aids Grove in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California

Although I had thought the prior paragraph was going to be the close for this post, about 4 months after my visit to Philadelphia, I find the forces of life and time that are impossible to predict remind me that December 1 was Worlds AIDS day 2021. Started in 1988, this annual commemoration of the ongoing efforts to prevent and treat AIDS, and to bring attention to the needs of those impacted by it in now 4 decades of international loss. It was the first world health day, and now, in a pandemic that again sweeps our globe, people are coming together against seemingly insurmountable hurdles, lifting one another up, just as the patrons of the Bike Stop, other bars in other cities, and an emerging community nationally and around the world built bridges. The National Aids Grove is a memorial, like so many others, to the losses and sacrifices and courage of uncounted thousands. Can we take inspiration from those who reached across their differences to offer hope? Can we set aside our expectations and our limits, our walls and our blinders – shedding the scales from our eyes – to offer love and encouragement even when we do not have answers or “fixes”? Perhaps the greater question should be – how can we not?

William Daniels – as John Adams – in 1776 – a dream for a better tomorrow – for all; we go on.

So, folks, we have reached the end of today’s journey … but more to come. See you around the corner – and remember ….

Hey, here’s a late Cyber Monday offer – heck, its good year round – if you want to stay apace with my wanderings. I love to hear from strangers who, for whatever reason, find their way here and find something that resonates. Hope you find joy today!

Today’s tales of two cities

“Sheltering in place” …. These words will forever be tied to this moment in time.  Just like “out of an abundance of caution”, and “follow the science” – gentle ways of framing circumstances we would rather avoid, and we wish, somehow, we could erase. Roughly a year after those pandemic clouds gathered fully over San Francisco, skies are beginning, at last, to brighten a little bit here in what poet George Sterling first named the “cool, grey city of love. During this year our lives have been restrained, by choice and by force, to varying degrees – so, when I saw that the good folks at City Guides San Francisco were resuming walking tours through neighborhoods and time, I signed up for a Sunday morning excursion – “The Russian Hill Steps”.  And, yes … there were a LOT of steps, as you will see!

Long before the Gold Rush that transformed our city, well before statehood, Russia was seriously moving to colonize western North America. Nearly 300 years ago Russian Emperor Peter the Great directed an effort to explore the area, rich in promise for the critical fur trade; it was Russian Orthodox missionaries who first worked to evangelize the Alaska Territory.  Russia established Fort Ross was established near Bodega Bay in 1812.   During those years, a cemetery for Russian Sailors was established in the area of this tour, hence the name Russian Hill. But the Spanish military presence in the Presidio and the related mission predated the Russian presence in what was then called Yerba Buena, and well outlasted it. Eventually giving in to political upheaval and other factors, Russia pulled back its hoped-for claims in Northern America; wouldn’t that have been an alternate reality!

My own history here is much shorter, of course – a relative newbie, I did not have the opportunity to visit San Francisco until well after my youth, even though I group up in Inland Southern California.  But …. I had seen the world-famous steep curves in another world landmark – the happiest place on Earth, Disneyland!   Back in the 50’s, and then updated as the years passed, Tomorrowland featured “America the Beautiful” in AMAZING “Circle vision” – I remember clearly standing in line for a VERY long time to be crowded into a “standing room only” viewing room with screens surrounding the viewers, shot by multiple cameras, including what was, for that time, a “virtual” drive through the streets of San Francisco, as you can see…..

This is I believe the “Original” version from the 50’s, but just the “main screen” view; the “San Francisco” footage begins at about 13:45.
This is the “In the theater” experience, as I remember it from the 60’s/70’s. Now this is how I first saw “Lombard street”, beginning at about 16:40.

But I would not actually “see” San Francisco until the 80’s, after my college years; my first trip to San Francisco as an adult was … well, truly adult.  And embarrassingly brief.  Yes, tender audience, I was a hick from the sticks in the big city – where “gay” was not an insult, but an invitation – as I drove through for just a few hours after completing college.  It was the early 80’s, before internet, so I only knew of the notorious offerings here through rumors, the “Advocate” at my college library, and a surreptitiously obtained mail-order visitor publication called the “Damron Guide. Suffice it to say that visit was memorable and involved another kind of theater.  But as I have shared previously, my journey to self-acceptance was much longer than a drive up north, I could never have foreseen what time has unfolded in my life.

A panorama shot of the city and bay from our first stop

So the City Guide walking tours are an excellent way to explore all the nooks and crannies of my new home. I bravely set out, masked, that Sunday (the BEST day for free parking in much of the city!) and joined a handful of others on the tour; some residents, some visitors.  In fact, even our tour guide was relatively new to City Guides – he himself had only taken the tour shortly before COVID hit. Nevertheless, he was well versed in the names and dates and stories of the houses we passed, and their residents – the architects, poets, bohemians, the wealthy and the (in their time, at least) scandalous.  They had no idea their personal lives would endure and be shared for years thereafter.  Normally, I would take notes on the buildings and the history – I chose to forego that to take in the sights I share with you today, but you can find all that elsewhere, friends – In fact, here is one example.

In addition to the homes, vistas, and stories, there was one segment of the walk that I was eager to experience. Even though I was not an avid reader, I was well aware of a somewhat controversial in its time PBS program based on a series of books which started as a local newspaper column and become a world phenomenon – “Tales of the City”, by Armistead Maupin.  I actually never watched the program when it aired, but today’s walking tour included a stroll along this neighborhood’s Macondray Lane, which he designated as Barbary Lane in his semi fictional narratives.  Interestingly, several people on the tour had never heard of him, or the show – another piece of evidence that what is at one-point revolutionary in time becomes perhaps if not forgotten, less present in our culture.  

This stroll through Macondray Lane is the “reverse” direction of the one I enjoyed.

If we think of our lives as a stroll through time, there are moments when paths cross that would never be able to guess, or plan – just, enjoy. One Saturday, about a month after our wedding, my new husband and I were planning to drive up north to a special book signing.  That morning, as I left the famous “Daddy’s Barbershop” in the Castro, I spotted a couple walking a dog near my parked car, and I tentatively approached.  The older gentleman smiled as I sheepishly inquired – “By chance, are you the author whose signing I will be driving to this evening?”  And, it was – Mr. Armistead Maupin and his husband Christopher Turner, who lived nearby, and who graciously took this picture with me.  That evening, after a long drive out of town for a signing of his autobiography “Logical Family”,  Bob and I got to take another photo with him; not long after, like others, they moved from San Francisco, this “cool grey city of love”.  But I am reminded of his words –

“The worst of times in San Francisco was still better than the best of times anywhere else”.

Armistead Maupin

I cannot say how many hundred of stairs I walked on this tour; looking at the pictures of my stroll through these winding passages and eras, I began to consider – what do we remember of history? What do we preserve?  Who judges what is worth commemorating – or no longer deserving of respect?  This is in the news nearly every day now – whether it is about adding and removing memorials (by consensus, edict or force), eliminating publications, erasing music from performance – or lifting up heroes that, at one time, were considered far less worthy of recognition in their day.  As they say, history belongs to those who write it.  For me, the letters and diaries of my grandparents, parents and others are the only record that exists of their lives, and I feel a kind of burden to somehow carry their lives on rather than let them fade.  For many of us, photo albums in print form are a thing of the past – and when we are gone, most of our digital images will not be preserved, recognized, or remembered.   

But our history today, however personal, and the lives and history of our family and loved ones, is worth preserving, and sharing. Perhaps it might help to think of it as creating a walking tour through the neighborhood of our lives, reflecting on lessons learned that we can share, love we can treasure, and hope we can gift to others that await us around the next bend. Especially in this very passage of change, we are living our own, unique “tales of the city”.  Wherever your home finds you today, as with San Francisco, it will not be entirely the same after someone decides that the vaccine programs have succeeded, and someone else decides we know longer to hear daily reports on statistics.  There will be the city before – and the city after.  Two cities, in a way – connected forever by this passage we still travel through, hesitatingly, unsure at times which way to take.  Although Dickens was speaking literally in a different sense when he wrote “A Tale of Two Cities” in 1859, his words about that moment in time resonate for me now – 

As I write, after my husband, many family and some friends have received one or two shots of the COVID vaccine, mine lies ahead, time to be determined.  We are all in this moment awaiting, with somewhat held breath, for doors to open, friends to embrace, moments to be together after long parting.  Walking through Russian hill, once a cemetery for forgotten names, now steeped in history with more being created, and my own little memories – how remarkable it is to consider the winding road that brought me here, and lies ahead.  The phrases which I used to open this blog will someday be only in history books, but others will take their place; new challenges, new discoveries, new life.  Wherever your path leads you next, carry your dreams with you today, friends, and make the memories, and save them – every day, every moment, counts. I will hopefully see you around the next corner.

“It is times like these when we face such as enemy as AIDS, we need to draw on some of our past positive philosophies, like it is always darkest before the dawn.  In getting our courage together, we might feel a need to go back, and think of possibly better times.  And sometimes, it makes us wonder ….”  

The Castro in the shadows

Hello, readers – especially to you followers I do not know, who have somehow found my little corner and signed up to tag along.  This post is just for you! Well, everyone else too – but, I want to play tour guide this week. I have no idea where you live – perhaps you know San Francisco, perhaps not – but this week’s exploration is a chance for you to visit a corner of my world.  Come stroll with me through a neighborhood like perhaps your own, and yet, unlike any other – world changing, in a way, at least at one time – and still revered and treasured, though at the moment a little tattered and bruised.  And still shining through that shadow of COVID.

The Castro has a long history of being home to various ethnic and cultural groups – at one point, it was known as “Little Scandanavia”, and was not the original core area for San Francisco’s emerging gay/lesbian population.  But, in the 70’s, with a variety of factors contributing,  bars and their patrons began moving from the Polk Street area to the Castro, and it became known as the “gay capital” in many ways, particularly after Harvey Milk began his campaign for political office from his camera shop.  There are many wonderful documentaries and websites for you to learn about that heritage – it is somewhat less vibrant today, again for many reasons even before COVID.  But, my stroll this week to buy a birthday gift for family gave me a chance to see how this once, and still, magical few blocks is changing – like us all. 

Today the Castro is revered in the LGBTQ community world wide as an early refuge, a symbol of freedom and standing for rights long denied.  Now, Harvey’s old camera shop is a retail and community center for the Human Rights campaign (although some were aghast at that idea, it has proven to be a reminder of his presence); it would be rare to see anything other than a Democratic campaign event here or anywhere in SF.  Harvey’s restaurant, formerly the “Elephant Bar”, displays posters for the upcoming presidential election; victory parties are already planned ….

Like all of San Francisco, politics are fervently expressed in the Castro everyday.

Nightlife and retail are the lifeblood of many urban communities, even more so here.  The bars are limited to serving alcohol outdoors, with food – so the restaurants, with a slightly increased capacity now that SF has moved into the “least restrictive” color coded compliance zone, partner with bars as well as serving their own customers.  By building “parklets” in the streets – some more extravagant than others – in theory, visitors can comply with mask and distancing rules.  We do not attend these locations – to us, it is not important – but they are well populated, and probably going to be around for quite a while – their version of the new normal.  But the shops still carry unique products that even reflect the current COVID focus that casts its long shadow over all. The heads in one window display made in SF pride masks.

There are businesses that are closed forever – one long time, ahem, adult shop among others; but new businesses waiting to open, oddly enough a second ice cream shop, near the famed “Hot Cookie” bakery, where a wall of photos of customers wearing the namesake briefs welcomes visitors to buy a “butch bar” or a more than suggestively shaped cookie to enjoy. 

Cliff’s variety store is exactly that – a little bit of everything, plus some you never knew about! It’s a mainstay of the neighborhood, with a long history of its own – customers line up to enter now, but on this early morning access was easy.  I kept my visit to enjoying the Halloween display, featuring some very creative garden gnomes. 

Speaking of creative, this local small independent gym was one who adopted the “outdoor training” approach when all else was still verboten – I was impressed with their logistics to providing a complete workout experience.  We used to go to the chain gym down the street, which is now reopened indoors – but, we have modified our attendance to another, non-Castro location which the chain opened, featuring an outdoor tent filled with equipment.  Business owners are struggling to stay open, daily, weekly – following restrictions, hoping customers will be faithful, and adapting – while they can.  

The term currently in use may be different – I think recently it was “un housed” – or something similar.  Perhaps there is another term this couple might use for their classification, but, for the moment, on this weekday morning, they find shelter in a nook of the entry to the GLBT Historical society museum, up the street between “Harvey’s” restaurant and two of the remaining gay bars.  This museum, small but well curated, would normally be a spot I would recommend visiting – but for us, for now, we are content with our virtual visits, and supporting the society and other causes financially until, one day, we feel the reward of a visit outweighs the risks. 

Our “gayborhood” represents more than business – in some ways, it is a Mecca. I recall my first visit as an out gay man in 2012 – I rode my Indian motorcycle up specifically to be in the Castro. Among the traditions – the memorial to lost loved ones, which began during the AIDS crisis early years by posting pictures and other tributes on the walls of the Hibernia Bank (long gone, but this corner still referred to as “Hibernia Beach”). And, not far away, the community “bulletin board” – empty, but formerly filled with event flyers and posters for all kinds of things that you don’t find in Kansas city. The “angels” above still circle, waiting for those days to return.

A couple of blocks up Market – perhaps not the traditional “Castro” but one of my favorite little spots, Giddy’s candy store has a few Halloween treats available.

Yummy treats at Giddy Candy – imports from around the world, always fun!

Once upon a time, Halloween in the Castro was a major street party, but that ended before my arrival and long before COVID, due to public safety concerns – the costumes were, of course, fabulous in their day. Some may appear this week ….

From years past – Halloween in the Castro – no social distancing back then!

Our last stop, for now. The famed Castro Theater, which I referenced in my column last week about the slow return of films to our cultural menu, is completely walled off – the organ, presumably heard occasionally but only by a few, was in the process of being replaced by a new, sophisticated model.  It almost doesn’t matter what the first movie to be shown when those doors open is – it will be crowded, and those in attendance will gladly sing along with the traditional “San Francisco, Open your golden gates” introduced by Jeannette MacDonald in that MGM epic of 1936.  Of course, that depicted a city torn by earthquakes and fire – and then, rebuilt. Ours is facing a different onslaught – but renewal can come, as it did more than a century ago. What will that look like – and who will take up the challenge?

Take a peek at what Castro theater lovers treasure!

Our world will look different a year from now. The future is something we can create – you, me, all of us – can build it. Your neighborhood may have seen changes already, as well. The Castro may look very different in a decade; this is just a moment in a stream of constant energy and life. For many of us, our local places, whether routine or world famous, are still – sacred, in a way. A part of our hearts lives there, even after we move on. But what gives our communities life is the spirit of those who are there today (and tomorrow), building, creating, celebrating, sharing, loving – giving. You may not have a drag queen on your main street USA, but that doesn’t mean you can’t shine. Let our hope shine. The shadows will pass, others will come – we must hold on, to one another, and build, today. And we will.

An unexpected eclipse, a missing Key, and the fragility of heritage

Last week I shared about my solo sojourn through the heritage of “Cow Hollow” on what became a record-breaking hot summer Sunday.  In my continued resolve to both explore San Francisco’s less familiar corners and to get out into our gradually opening city again, I looked into the recently resumed walking tours offered again by SF city guides.  This wonderful program is slowly adding its newly revised offerings – outside only, 8 or less participants, masks and distancing – and I chose to begin with a tour of one of San Francisco’s Crown Jewels as it celebrates 150 years – quite unexpectedly on a day unlike any other within memory. 

An early map of Golden Gate Park, not so different from today’s tour

The “Mid Park Ramble” tour promised a look at hidden gems of Golden Gate park.  I had spent many hours and miles running – well, jogging – through the park in early 2018 after my move here, preparing for my first “half marathon” in several years to celebrate my own 60th birthday that spring.  But there were points on this tour I had not seen, and so I bought my advance ticket online and looked forward to sharing new vistas with you here.  The plans for the sesquicentennial had been announced months before, and like every other expectation for this year, were derailed by the COVID restrictions; portion of the park streets were closed to traffic, but this journey outside scheduled for 10 am began not with the warm sunshine of just a few days prior – but near darkness – almost like a day long eclipse. The cause was a combination of smoke, weather conditions and fog, combining to create a deep orange haze that extended throughout the day.   Oddly, the smell of smoke was not as noticeable as it had been a few days prior, with greater heat. 

Before I begin reporting about the outing itself, I would like to share with you from a recent guidebook purchase – although it was the purchase that was recent, not the book itself.  After all the insights I had gleaned in my prior excursion from the historic hikes book I shared from last week, I was inspired to look for older books that could give me an idea of the San Francisco that once was but is now, if still present, obscured.  One of the first to arrive from my online shopping spree was the 1914 “Chamber of Commerce Handbook for San Francisco” shown here – featuring a photo of the statue of Junipero Serra that until recently stood in the Park itself.  Let me share what this wonderful little book had to say about our exploration location more than 100 years ago – 

What a wonderful time capsule – I will be sharing more in times to come!

“Here one sees the healthy life and leisure of the community.  San Franciscans use their park.  The drives swarm with fine equipages, fast motors, and ruddy-face lovers of good horse-flesh bound for the speedway in wire-wheeled sulkies. Youth rides the bridle paths.  Groups of children are rolling and tumbling about the lawns, for there is not a “Keep -off-the Grass” sign in the whole thousand acres”. 

The streets we traverse today bear names not known then – John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Nancy Pelosi.  And some of the history and culture then celebrated and welcomed is no longer visible – the Park had been in the news prominently nationally just a few months prior, when a group of people took action to pull down statues and memorials that they found unacceptable based on their own values and similar actions happening around the country.  I had watched the video on the news like many of you, seeing sculptures of various historical figures torn down and destroyed, but I admit – I had not paid them much attention on prior visits.  

The effect of the smoke and still air, combined with the greenery of the Park, left the skies darker than twilight the evening before.  Having arrived early, I took some photos in the open area between the DeYoung Museum and the previously added “Observation wheel” that was to be a hallmark of the year long festivities.   A note on my photos, taken with my iPhone – many that were published online which you may have seen did not capture fully the eerie shades in the sky, due to the “auto correct” programming of most devices;  those of mine that are “darker” were taken in panoramic mode, which I believe captured the color more fully.  In that sense, I guess I got lucky! 

From left – observation wheel, Academy of Sciences, Music concourse

No matter where you stand in the Park, there are echoes of history surrounding you. This panoramic shot of the central park area stretches from the observation wheel past the illuminated California Academy of Sciences erected in 2008 to the Music concourse which was added in 1889.  As I looked towards the soon to reopen DeYoung Museum facing this area, I saw another statue that had previously escaped my notice – and I promise you, I didn’t even realize it was naked until I saw my photos at home, it was that dark!  But I wondered about its origin, seemingly out of place near the modern museum – learning later that it was an 1881 bronze of a roman centurion commemorating the “first shovelful of earth” turned in preparing for the California Midwinter International Exposition here in 1893.   The DeYoung itself celebrates 125 years in 2020 – having been established originally from the structure known as the “Memorial Museum” and greatly expanded in the years since. 

As noted, some of that history is now absent, possibly forever. The destruction of the statues of Francis Scott Key, whose lyrics form our national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner”, was perhaps more noticeable since his monument still stands, but his figure is gone from its perch across from the DeYoung.  Through that now empty space the observation wheel sits motionless, awaiting the “go ahead” like so many other features of our city and nations, and the grounds seemed certainly more silent and deserted as well as more dim than usual during my pre tour stroll.  

When our group gathered outside the Japanese Tea Garden, we began our guided exploration, beginning with a walk along Stow Lake on our way to Strawberry Hill, which like most of the park had been created from the mostly barren sand dunes into lushly forested corners of nature.  We learned that the artificially created “Huntington Falls” were funded by a donation from Henry Huntington, the “Big Four” railroad czar whose home and library down in San Marino which I have loved visiting many times.  Note, all the “normal lighting” pictures here, gathered from the internet, are intended to give you a view that my own exploration failed to provide. 

At the top, the early visitors to the Park could take the carriage route, or the walking path, to what was called the “Observatory” – not in the sense we think today, but just a flat, open space where on a clear night they could view the stars.  I found this old postcard illustrating what you might have seen if you made the climb 120 years ago, before that 1906 earthquake destroyed the structure, never rebuilt, with little remaining.  Of course, even though it was dark at 1030 am, the smoke prevented any enjoyment of the stars themselves – but the owls hooting at us along the way might well have been confused as to why their normal cycle had been so rudely interrupted.  Thankfully, they did not attack in vengeance. But they might have been thinking about it ….. 

We continued past other notable features of the area, with groups of other hikers and children gradually appearing, but still in near dark skies – eventually arriving at a spot that even my husband who has lived in SF more than 40 years had not known of.  Referred to now as the “Prayerbook Cross”, it is nearly 60 feet tall and barely visible until you nearly reach the top of the trail where it stands on one of the highest points in the park itself.   A gift from the Church of England in 1894, resembling a traditional Celtic cross, it commemorates the first prayer service in 1579 following the arrival by Sir Francis Drake using the “Book of Common Prayer”.  Unlike the damaged or destroyed memorials below in the more well-travelled areas, I observed only a few curse words sprayed on rocks nearby this silent sentinel that looks over our changing city still. 

The moments and individuals commemorated in this city oasis cover a centuries long and world wide heritage. Today, our country faces divisions seemingly more deep and broad than those of any known in our lifetimes. They will not be resolved easily or quickly. I do not have the answers or solutions to offer, and I honestly question those who insist that their perspective is the only one worth considering, whatever position they take. I like to think we can build bridges between islands, but the daily turmoil erupting before us everywhere seems unending. I can only say that history has meaning – what meaning perhaps will always vary by the heritage of perspective of those sharing it or hearing it. It is up to us, individually, to work to preserve what we treasure, support the future we want to build for our children, and create traditions that they will cherish and which will give them strength and hope.

This stunning 1892 bird’s eye view of Golden Gate Park can be yours …

In a way I was glad I could experience the unique beauty of this amazing Park on such an unusual day – not to be repeated, hopefully, in our lifetimes.  Soon, a limited number of visitors will, bearing masks, move through the galleries of these museums, as more will picnic on the grounds, and hear music in the air – some of the guardians who stood over them are gone, but the life of the Park itself cannot be contained, only evolve.  Hopefully we shall, as well – and preserve all that which future generations shall remember, and perhaps treasure if not celebrate, under sunny, smoke free skies, again.  

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Dirty clothes, Dairies and Howl – oh my

My Cow Hollow Covid stroll through history

This past week brought my first opportunity in several months to discover new views of my recently adopted home town. The last six months have been crushing everyone in more ways than I can imagine – I am grateful to be with my husband, retired, and healthy. Nevertheless, the confinement has weighed on me, and I am sure on all you who read this, in different ways.  In an effort to direct some of my newly limited energy towards a constructive end, and other projects completed, I had recently committed to increasing my cardio activity, for both mental and physical health, by exploring the city. But where to begin? When I awoke in the wee hours last Saturday night, I recalled buying a book on Amazon prior to my move here in 2017, and I dug it out this past Sunday morning. 

The book was “Historic Walks in San Francisco – 18 trails through the City’s past” by Rand Richards. Perhaps you have avoided this bad habit, but I have many wonderful books that remain unread for years, and this is one.  It inspired me, and I set out to explore an area I was completely whose background was little known to me – the oddly named Cow Hollow.  Most of the historic background here, and all but a handful of the destinations, I credit fully to Mr. Richards whose book is unfortunately out of print. However, although his guide is based on geography, I want to share my stroll based on timeline – beginning with the earliest spot on my walk. Come along (masked, please) as we stroll through a kaleidoscope of history and humanity.  (As it turned out, our stroll occurs on a day of record breaking heat!)

Once, this was the center of an “essential service”!

The Spanish expedition led by Juan Bautista de Anza from Tubac (then Mexico, now Arizona) to the San Francisco Bay of Alta California arrived at the site of the Presidio in June 1776. You can read more about their journey in this excellent website. Soon, they found a water source which fed into the bay, and it became their spot for washing – known in time as “Washerwoman’s lagoon”.  By 100 years or so later, it was filled in, and disappeared – now, the intersection of Grenwich and Gough represents what would have been its center.  The shoppers and residents here for the most part may not realize their homes were once in the middle of water! 

Washerwoman’s Lagoon 1888 from the SF Library photo collection

It was not until 1847 that the first home was built in the area; long gone, it was built by Elijah Ward Pell, a member of a Mormon contingent who, according to the guidebook, was excommunicated for “licentious behavior” – shocking!  He chose to settle here, far from his former brethren who gravitated towards what was then called Yerba Buena. Today, the intersection of Green and Laguna bears no apparent marker of this first location of residence, but I am guessing he would have appreciated the liquor store’s presence in his time. 

The first home in the new neighborhood was in this intersection – long gone

The little community grew to support the growing broader population. What we now call Cow Hollow originally took its name from dairies which began in the area in 1853, growing to about 3 dozen of varying sizes until roughly 50 years later when the last closed.  This lovely little home on Octavia is regarded as the last remaining “dairy home” in the area – the name remains, but thankfully, not the aroma. 

The only remaining original “dairy home” in Cow Hollow

From 1861, the Octagon house at the corner of Gough and Union is one of two remaining in SF, but in its era nearly 700 were built around the country – promoted as energy efficient and healthy due to greater light exposure.  But originally, it was on the opposite corner – nearly a century after it was built, PG&E acquired the property and offered it for a mere dollar to whomever would move it. In the 1950’s the National Society of Colonial Dames purchased it and moved it to the current site, where it houses their display of period historical mementos, with a lovely park next door.  On the day of my stroll, the park welcomed dog walkers, readers, and other socially distant friends to it’s sanctuary.

When Henry Casebolt built his stately home on Pierce in 1866, a mere 15 years had passed after moving to the city from Virginia with his wife and 11 children!! He was a blacksmith who had started his own carriage making company and developed several mechanical innovations for horse drawn transportation and, in time, cable cars. Imagine how lonely this majestic home looked 150 years ago, before it was surrounded by the residences of today.  The guidebook says that 20 years after it was built, Chinese laborers could be seen across the street in their vegetable garden on the still empty street.  Now, a posting on the fence describes a public hearing (virtual, of course) to be held regarding the homeowner’s wish to remove the palm trees, and the neighbors desire to retain them – they are incongruous, but San Francisco is not known for moving quickly on homeowners’ wishes for change. 

This little alley, hidden behind a shall we say “budget motel” on Lombard, is Blackstone court – gated with a few homes which, like many, were moved here or repositioned over the years, but still date back over a century ago.  The gate bears a marker noting its significance going back two centuries along a trail past the lagoon to the military encampment at the Presidio – and, in time, the home of nurseryman Charles Abraham, who reportedly imported the first bougainvillea (native to South America) to California! Everyone loves bougainvillea! Imagine nearly the entire block surrounding this home with greenhouses, a windmill for power, and his own water tower – now, all gone and built over, save his original 1885 home. 

Unfortunately, this is the best look you can get of Blackstone Court from a motel carport.

There are endless stories of the 1906 earthquake and associated fires to the city as a whole.  I do not know if Cow Hollow was one of the most affected areas – but I found this wonderful account of a resident of the area, an “eyewitness to history”. 

San Francisco has been a haven and perhaps a magnet welcoming many, shall we say, less mainstream faiths and beliefs, at least in traditional western society of that era.  Can you imagine being a Hindu in 1905, and the excitement you would have at the first temple in the Western US, perhaps all the US, opening – a place for you, your family, your friends to gather safely and look for hope and encouragement in a rapidly changing world.  Although the district is home to other beautiful churches and houses of faith, the architecture of this residence on Webster and Fillmore remains as both housing and a meeting place for its members. Like many buildings along the walk, it bears signs noting that classes and gatherings have been suspended due to Covid – but the windows above are open, and one day the doors will be as well. 

SF is known worldwide for its role in the emergence of the “counterculture” – one might never guess that this little dining spot, for lobster rolls and burritos, once housed  “The Six Gallery”, and it was here in 1995 that the “beat movement” was birthed at a public reading of works, including Allen Ginsberg and his draft of “HOWL”.  The ideas, the passions and the energy that those minds and hearts generated reached across our continent in time – and the world.   Our city still gives haven to thinkers, creators and those whose lives challenge our ideas of traditional.  

The six plus decades since the Beat Generation, the 60’s “Summer of love” and events within our own memory brought more changes. Many of those impacted my life directly and continue to change lives worldwide. I walked about 4 miles last weekend on my little time travel; I saw families, couples, a few dogs, some skaters – new life continuing in this memorial to our shared heritage. There are many more beautiful homes along the way, not all necessarily historic or architecturally remarkable, but perfect examples of the varied eras that have come and gone through the nearly 250 years since DeAnza brought the Spanish expedition north to this then very different land. Here I passed a steep street with the carefully maintained homes standing like sentries in time, watching over the lives, the people, the vehicles that change decade by decade, remaining vigilant yet.

As I strolled along Broadway towards Franklin, the view down one of the famous steep avenues of the city towards the bay brings “Dirty Harry” to mind, and so many other films created here over the decades.  

Until a few years ago, I knew SF only from movies, and stories, and rare brief visits.  As I approach my car, I pass one of those sites that appear in tourist books, knowing that most of the stories I share with you today are less likely to be as well remembered as the fictional works of the silver screen. 

Yes, that’s Sally Field’s home in “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993) . I imagine they’re used to the gawkers!


As we reflect on our stroll, and I return to shelter in place once more, may I suggest this is not a time for wondering what we can regain from the recent past we have been denied for a brief moment, but rather what kind of future can we envision and work towards together.  Today, I gained new appreciation for the ongoing power of this city, and its peoples, to attract an unending variety of dreamers and schemers, hopes and visions, sharing our epiphanies and dejections.  That power exists everywhere, waiting to be embraced. Wherever you live, the history of your lives, and those who came before, can open hearts and minds to possibilities – we need them even more today.   

Just think about the amazing variety of lives, dreams and cultures who lived within these few blocks over nearly 250 years. Catholics, Latter day Saints, Hindu faiths; radicals, entrepreneurs, immigrants; scoundrels, visionaries and like most of us, people just trying to get through it most days. From the few hundred who came from Mexico, to those who travelled by ship and wagon across oceans and continents for a chance for a better life, the “outsiders” who were viewed with suspicion by the more established cultures, and the emerging visionaries crying for change and meaning – this city, and our country, gave them – and gives us – a chance to grasp our dreams.  

Although out of print, you find this used, and his other books, online!

So thank you, Mr. Richards, for enlightening me on this delightful stroll – here is a link to a summary of his many books. I hope you will consider further explorations of your own, even if only remotely, through his work.  I don’t know when my next “real life” excursion may occur (hopefully soon) – but here is a preview of one that I took just a few days later, by chance on a day unlike any other in recent memory, which will be in my next post.   Stay safe, y’all, and keep on dreaming!

Where in the world is the New NormL? Tune in next time to find out …

A Nut Tree grew in CowTown

Nostalgia, places remembered, and balancing the past, present and future.

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were”

Marcel Proust

I admit, with “Shelter in Place” extending now into its 6th month, it’s easy to get lost in reflection.  I am a firm believer that learning and preserving our history, examining it, is invaluable to growth – but it must be balanced with making the most of “Now”, and anticipating a hopeful tomorrow. Because one of my home projects is family history, I continue to scan old photos, open old books, and the echoes of days semi forgotten still sounds – some, more clearly than others. 

The word “Nostalgia” is credited to the 18th century Swiss physician Johannes Hofer, who used it to describe an ailment he observed in Swiss soldiers longing for home.  It is a combination of the suffix “algia”, a medical condition involving pain, and “nost”, generally referring to returning to home.   But nostalgia is rarely a completed whole. People don’t usually keep pictures of sad events – most are posed, smiling, happy gatherings – not the fullness of daily life. So there is a risk that looking back becomes a hypnotic way to escape the present – hence, the longing that we often hear referred to in the news to a return to “normalcy”. 

But wishing for a return to life as it “was” cannot be the path ahead. 

Seeking to escape would be missing the opportunity to build life anew. I suggest we do not need to go back, but neither do we need to destroy or disrespect the past – we cannot fully know it now, we didn’t understand it then, but our feelings remain.  We must find what matters in our sense of loss yet seek to move towards a different path of fulfillment as we move forward.  The example that I want to share today, a visit along my own memory map, is one that perhaps many of a certain age in Northern California can relate to – but if not, there is a place in your past, almost certainly, that corresponds. Perhaps my look back will bring yours to memory as well. 

Vacaville, illustrations of early groves and homes

I have mentioned before that I was born and lived the first few years of my life in Vacaville, west of Sacramento – because my father worked at the nearby Fairfield state prison.  Did you know Vacaville literally means Cow Town?  But, it is in fact named Vacaville because the land was part of a large parcel purchased from a Manuel Vaca.  In fact, it is quite likely that when my great great grandfather, Robert Titus Pence, captained a wagon train to Hangtown – now Placerville – in the Gold Rush, he came along the very trail that led through the small community – established as a township in 1851, and a city in 1892.  I doubt my mother knew 60 years ago that her ancestor came to California through that then still little town a century earlier! 

In 1855, another pioneer family settled in the community of Vacaville, and a few years later a 12-year-old niece was travelling to join them from Iowa, when she picked up some walnuts in Arizona, planting them in her new home.  The tree that grew there became a source of new life in the valley, and shade for travelers heading further west on the trail.  The family fruit ranch prospered and on Independence Day weekend 1921, they began a small fruit stand that in 1921 led to a restaurant, and the “Nut Tree” became a stop along the Highway 40, and then Interstate 80. 

By the time my family moved in the mid 50’s, there was a toy shop, a railroad, and a small airport for fly in visitors. I have a few childhood photos, but no real memories – we moved before my 4th birthday back to southern California. Yet, my Mom always talked about the Nut Tree, and among her effects I found one of those 60’s embossed Nut Tree credit cards with raised numbers, long before magnetic strips, as well as a “Nut Tree Railroad” spike, attached to a card, as a souvenir – as well as these two postcards from the 60’s. 

The Nut Tree Restaurant – Yes, that’s how people dressed to eat out!

The cookie counter always featured amazing shapes and colors.

When my career began in the 80’s to take me north on assignments, I visited – and shopped. The restaurant was well known for “California Cuisine”; the toy store was filled with incredible delights, and the little train stopped right outside the door.  Over the years, that train carried famous folk like Richard Nixon and Bozo the Clown (presumably, on separate trip)! I took these photos probably in 1982 or so, of the interior area – they still had the wonderful cookies that could be personalized for,a special treat.  In the 70’s they had opened a San Francisco location at 655 Beach Street, which I also visited.  I think I might still have some cookie cutters from that trip!  I also purchased this 1976 set of recipe cards, and many times have served their “Chess Pie” at gatherings (it was easy to make!) 

This was a collection of various recipes sold as a packet in the 70’s.

But after several generations of family ownership, thousands of visitors, meals, cookies, train rides and more … business dwindled, and financial issues and other factors led to the closure of the Nut Tree complex in 1996.    In 1997 the Vacaville Museum – not far from my childhood home, on Camellia Way – had a special exhibit on the Nut Tree, including this commemorative recipe book filled with photos and memories. (The cookbook, shown below, is still available for purchase at http://www.vacavillemuseum.org). 

Really a wonderful book, delicious recipes and a loving collection of memories.

The museum also had a tribute exhibition to the art of Don Birell, who had been the “design director” for the Nut tree for nearly 40 years, beginning in 1953.   He was born in 1922 (a year after the Vacaville fruit stand was opened) in Corona, California (where my family moved after leaving Vacaville!) He studied at the prestigious Chouinard Institute – later becoming part of Cal Arts – before becoming director of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento (WELL worth a visit, friend!) His style can be seen everywhere in Vacaville, to this day.  I bought this print of his “Flower Arabesque” and it remains at my desk, the vibrant colors and intricate creatures reminding me that life goes on, and beauty continues – even more than Solomon in all his glory.  

My little print of “Flower Arabesque” by Don Birell

The late artist, Don Birell, Art Director for Nut Tree, with a painting of Vacaville

I remember coming through Vacaville for work after college, only to find the fenced off, dilapidated buildings and deserted parking lot. The buildings were demolished in 2003, and two years later, the Coffee Tree, a related restaurant, was torn down as well.  But Vacaville grew – from about 3000 in 1950, to 11,000 in 1960, and today – more than 100,000.  On the other side of I-80, the outlet center draws visitors – but in 2006, through the magic of redevelopment, Nut Tree Plaza opened and remains today.  Last year, for my birthday, we visited Vacaville; the playground area is full of reminders of original atmosphere, including the train with the little whistle which literally brought back memories, and a new “vintage” carousel.  The Jelly Belly outlet is nearby – based in Fairfield, where I was born – and a Fenton’s creamery filled with families and overpriced sundaes for all.  

But it isn’t the Nut Tree of my memory – and that’s actually a good thing.  Next year, 2021, would be the 100th anniversary of the little roadside fruit stand; that first walnut tree, planted in 1860, was removed in 1952, before my family arrived.  The business itself lasted less years than the tree it was named for! Because – well, probably many factors, but because people ultimately weren’t looking for what the Nut Tree represented anymore.  It was a thing of the past, before it itself passed.  

To everything, there is a season.  With conflicting calls for some things of history to go, and some to remain – the reality is, everything in time – disappears.  I am not an advocate for forced destruction of something that someone finds offensive – but I understand, to some degree hopefully if remotely, the passion that exists on both sides of these reminders of the past.  But in reality, at some point – things no longer serve the purpose for which they were created.  Do we pine for them to come back, in some kind of fantasy?  Is the “new” Nut Tree better than the original, or is it even going to survive all this current uncertainty itself to it’s 15th year, compared to the 50 year plus run of the one of my childhood? 

Nostalgia can be a pleasant little vacation from the present, but we risk sinking in the quicksand of memory at the cost of embracing the power of now and the possibilities of tomorrow.Living I the past – only existing in the present – is the road to our own irrelevance in this living, breathing, chaotic reality whose uncertain path refutes all our assumptions about control, for the first time in many of our lives.  I am happy to revisit my Nut Tree memories, and Vacaville, but I do not mourn it – just as some day, others will remember Disneyland or the Louvre or cell phones, or the documents, images and histories that have always been our only reality. Given enough time – they too will fade, many forever. Your memories and mine, will be forgotten, if not by us – at some point, by those who remain.  Pieces may endure – the same pieces I dig through now, trying to preserve those stories and photos of my parents and ancestors for the next generation – if they will care. But this is not a cause for sadness.  

At my childhood home …. 61 years after my birth, in 2019.

We gain a kind of freedom, and perhaps peace as well, when we accept the transitory, impermanent nature of the issues and concerns that loom so large in our individual lives today – and when we realize our ability to impact larger forces is limited, but our power to love those who enter and exit our life is immeasurable.  In that knowledge, we can choose to take the actions that touch lives around us in ways that endure – that will never perhaps be photographed, written down or even remembered, yet like ripples from a pebble building into something larger, change our world. 

Thanks, friend – for joining my meandering journey down this little memory lane. I hope it brings to mind some of your own. And for both of us, I hope we can balance our cherished memories, and treasured values, with an eagerness and boldness to make more – not just for ourselves, but those in our hearts today, and yet to join us, on the journey ahead.

Are you going … to San Frantasia?

I invite you to be my guest on a trip to an enchanted place – where dreams and history, fantasy and hope combine into a land that never was,  and will never be – but whose promise still shines brightly today. 

Copyright Albert Tolf, San Francisco

“It is the bridge to enchantment – Sunshine, Sails, Surf, Birds, Kites & Joy.  Hillside Gardens forever in bloom.  Fishing wharfs, foghorns & Moviemakers.  Architectural Daring – high as the hills.  The taste of goodness & and touch of whimsy.  It’s the past, present and future, flower stands & the bell atop a cablecar.  

San Frantasia – Timeless wonderland of the West.”

Decades ago, these were the words at the bottom of the poster which I saw among the pieces of history at the Orange Empire Railway Museum in Perris, CA, buried in an old freightcar filled with lamps, timetables, and more.  The jumbled vision of old and new, whimsy and dreams, caught my eye – never imagining I would one day live here in the less colorful yet still vibrant real city by the bay.  Like many curiosities that attract my eye, it faded into my memory, stirred recently by discussion with a friend who asked me to find it online – along with new discoveries. I hope you will let me guide you along the path that helped me find it after all those years.      

It turns out “San Frantasia” sprang from the vision and imagination of Albert Tolf, whose father Albert Tolf Sr. emigrated in 1900 from Sweden, settling eventually in Joliet, IL where Albert Jr. was born in 1916.  He had formal training at the Chicago Institute and for a while assisted on the now nearly forgotten “Gasoline Alley” newspaper comic. Following a vacation trip to San Francisco in the late 30’s, Albert fell in love with the city, moving here in 1948.   He worked on billboards and other commercial projects, including scenic painting for an amusement park under construction in Southern California – a risky venture by another visionary, Walt Disney’s Disneyland.  Soon, Albert gave up commercial art to build his own gallery featuring his oil paintings, at six SF locations over 20 years, including Post at Sutter near Union Square, the Transamerica tower, and a Holiday Inn lobby on Kearny.  One profile described him riding around his gallery on a custom unicycle! Albert married his wife Naomi in 1967, retiring to Santa Rosa where he passed in 1996. 

1974 profile of “Albert Tolf – Swedish American”

Another explorer provided an online window that opened my eyes to the broader world of Albert Tolf’s vision. In 2016, local resident and respected photographer Ron Henggeler was exploring a Berkeley bookstore, and found a worn volume published by Albert called “This was San Francisco”.  He too was charmed by the illustrations of local lore and events.  He scanned and cleaned all of the images, which you can find on his personal website, including thousands of wonderful historical and current images. I hope you will explore his amazing online gallery, but here is where you can see the entire book of Albert’s collection of local facts and curiosities – https://www.ronhenggeler.com/Newsletters/2016/5.18/Newsletter.html

The original images were published over several years in the 50’s, when Albert provided a weekly cartoon “In Old San Francisco”, illustrating local history and lore to the “San Francisco News”. This publication is long gone, like many, as after mergers it was eventually bought and shuttered by the San Francisco Examiner.  The website above has all of the illustrations, but here is just one example, of a name many of us know (and a treat many of us have enjoyed!) – Ghirardelli Chocolate.   

  GHIRARDELLI

From “In Old San Francisco”, First edition 1959, by Albert Tolf

After some more digging, I found that the volume Ron Henggeler had discovered was a revised reprint of the original edition, “In Old San Francisco”, published in soft cover in December 1959.  But I still didn’t know where “San Frantasia” came from?  As I learned in the few articles I was able to track down online, Albert created numerous images of his beloved city, as well as artwork of local landmarks in both present and past times, such as Union Square and the Embarcadero.  

“The San Francisco Waterfront in 1903” by Albert Tolf

Eventually I learned, to my surprise, the original poster which I had seen years before was initially available accompanying another smaller 1966 publication – “Al Tolf’s San Francisco .. Timeless Wonderland..” which he described as “a presentation of seven impressions and caricatures” with “one plate reproduced as a lithographic print”.  Tolf is quoted as saying “San Francisco is like one big Disneyland”, and it is clear his imagination was unfettered. Several of those images follow … because, as you see below, I engaged in retail therapy and tracked down – separately – both original books and the print for my own. It was apparently quite successful, with one article noting in time over 12,000 posters were sold.  A few even apparently remain on display in some locations scattered around our city, their origins mostly forgotten. 

When I look at this amazing “gee whiz” world that Tolf created in his poster, filled with cable cars on impossible heights, steam engines and horse drawn buggies alongside dirigibles, unending construction of skyscrapers near tiny houses, horses and convertibles – I am inspired.  This is a vision, yes, a dream – and I am struck by how that dream endures even over 50 years after he created it.  Today we are facing upheaval here and in our broader world, our village where creative and personal freedom, fringe culture and groundbreaking thinking have been birthed for over half a century since his publication.  Still, even now, in this time of uncertainty, sometimes bleak and seemingly impossible challenges – San Francisco remains and endures and becomes and evolves.  Just as, in a shorter time frame than this city, we all must, constantly, and at a seemingly increased pace.  Somehow, this vision I feel in Albert Tolf’s art gives me – hope. 

But the most intriguing article I found was from the San Francisco Rotary in 1967 – the second oldest chapter in the world! They were very kind to share with me that Albert, a devoted member, even designed their “Grindings” newsletter masthead, still in use today – shown here with their permission (thank you!).  It captures in just a few detailed lines much of our iconic city.   

Image courtesy of the Rotary Club of San Francisco, by Albert Tolf

The article showed a “work in progress” which hopefully still exists today, for the upcoming anniversary of the Golden Gate bridge.  Like his talent, it was large – as was his love for his city – and was created for display in the Rotary offices. But, as change comes to all things, Rotary closed their office in time, and passed it on to another non-profit agency with a long heritage – I hope to discover they still have it on display, and that I can share this history of their treasure for future preservation. 

Albert Tolf, 1967, “Golden Gate Bridge” work in progress for SF Rotary Club

As much as I would love to have one of his amazing originals of this “Timeless wonderland” that has become my home, I am happy to have brought “San Frantasia” and his books into my life. For those who are fortunate to have one of his many whimsical sketches, or full on oil paintings of his beloved city, or railroads, and other places he loved – perhaps our trip through time will help them learn of Albert’s amazing life – and to realize they have a small treasure.

It’s hard to say just why thinking of San Frantasia gives my heart a lift, but it does.  Although it’s impossible for me to pick out one “favorite” segment of his detailed vision, this tiny image from the lower right side is perhaps the perfect way to thank Albert, and all the dreamers and characters, visionaries, adventurers, scoundrels and outliers that brought us the city we love today.  May it endure, and continue to be a shining star for future generations.  “The best is yet to come” – it is now in our hands to bring that dream just a little closer to reality.  Shall we? 

Detail from “San Frantasia” by Albert Tolf, 1966

Resources –

https://www.lambiek.net/artists/t/tolf_albert.htm