Golden Gate Park: The New Deal- Part 1

by Katie Cook

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1932, the Great Depression was in full effect and 13 million Americans were without jobs. Roosevelt instituted several new reforms meant to get America back on track by providing relief, reform, and recovery. One of FDR’s programs to get Americans back to work was the Works Progress Administration (also known as the Works Projects Administration). The WPA was meant to revitalize Americans and America’s landscape. When Roosevelt introduced his New Deal programs he said, “We are definitely in an era of building, the best kind of building- the building of great public projects for the benefit of the public and with the definite objective of building human happiness.”

San Francisco benefited from several WPA projects. In October 1935, San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi announced the first WPA projects, a road at Lake Merced and a road through McLaren Park. These two projects created job opportunities for 1,000 people. Other notable WPA projects include the murals at Coit Tower and Rincon Center on Mission Street. Golden Gate park also benefitted from several WPA projects. This self-guided walking tour is the first part of a two-series walk focused on WPA art and buildings. The walk explores points of interest in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park between Stanyan and 9th Avenue.

Our walk begins at the Haight and Stanyan entrance to Golden Gate Park, click here for a map of Golden Gate Park. Take the park entrance on the South side of Haight Street and pass the pond and walk through the stalactite tunnel. Continue to follow the path as it curves to the right and passes the children’s playground and then Sharon Arts Studio. Just after the bathrooms near Sharon Arts Studio you’ll see four benches arranged in a semi-circle. Behind the benches is our first piece of New Deal art.

“Young Girl” statue by Jack Moxom.

The Young Girl sculpture was made in 1939 by Jack Moxom as part of the Sara S. Cooper Memorial. Moxom, an artist with a background in painting and drawing, was hired to create a sculpture to replace an existing sculpture by San Francisco artist Enid Foster. Moxom’s life-size sculpture of a naked girl with a cat and a squirrel at her ankles was modeled after Moxom’s younger sister. Moxom had no sculpting experience and in an interview for the Archives of American Art New Deal and the Arts project Moxom recalls the challenge of creating his first sculpture. “But one of the errors, beside the kindness of hiring me, was that I bought a type of sandstone that darkened to a bloody red when the water hit it and while it was beautifully flesh colored in the studio or in the shed, it wasn’t the moment the water hit it. I kind of pretend it wasn’t that bad, you know, but this little girl of six looked kind of pregnant too. And it had the typical square noses, remember in those days every nose was square. I thought there was a law about noses. Noses just came down with a good flat bridge on them. Now who did we get that from or was it my own … ?” Moxom went on to create several more WPA art projects including murals at San Francisco State. While the Young Girl statue still stands, it is in disrepair, and the small pool at the girl’s feet has been filled in with dirt.

Head back down the path towards the Sharon Arts Studio. Just before you reach the Sharon building, take the path on the left and follow it towards the tennis courts. Continue on the path and walk to the right of the tennis courts. When the path forks, take the left fork, this will lead you to the corner of JFK Drive and Middle Drive East.

This undated image shows an early tennis game in Golden Gate Park prior to the tennis courts constructed as part of the Works Progress Administration.

The tennis courts were constructed in 1938 as a WPA project.  Before the current tennis courts were constructed, the tennis courts in Golden Gate Park were smaller courts on a dirt or grass field.

Cross JKF Drive and walk along the path that leads to the parking area at the Conservatory of Flowers. Pass the Dahlia garden and take the stairs up to the succulents area. Follow the upper path until you reach Conservatory Drive East/San Francisco Bicycle Route 65. Make a right and walk along the road for less than a quarter-mile until you see the Horseshoe Courts on your left.

WPA workers constructed the regulation-sized horseshoe courts. They excavated the area, built walls, dug sewer lines, and constructed a bathroom. In 1937 artist Jesse “Vet” Anderson created two sculptures at the courts. Anderson was a veteran of the Spanish-American war, a political cartoonist for the Detroit Free Press and the New York Herald Tribune, a sculptor, and a member of the Horseshoe Club. In 1937 Anderson created two sculptures for the new horseshoe courts. The Pitcher sits on the sidewall of the courts, and unfortunately all that is left of The Horse is part of a leg on an eroding dirt wall. These two pieces were the only art that Anderson created under the WPA.

Anderson’s “Horse” sculpture in 1959, and what is left of it in 2012.

Exit the horseshoe courts and make a left on the road. Walk along the road until you see the sign for the Rhonderum Dell. Make a right into the Dell and follow the path as it leads through the gardens and back to the Conservatory of Flowers. Continue on the path and walk by the front of the Conservatory of Flowers. When you get to the bathrooms take the path on the left. At the end of the path, make a right onto JFK Drive and cross Conservatory Drive so that you can cross JFK Drive using the crosswalk. Walk through the Palm Grove following the sign to Middle Drive East and AIDS Memorial Grove (INSERT PHOTO). Take the flat path to your left as it winds around a pond and ends at Nancy Pelosi Drive. Cross the street and make a right, walk past the AIDS Memorial Grive and continue on the sidewalk until you reach MLK Drive. Cross MLK Drive and make a right. About a quarter-mile down MLK Drive you’ll come to Strybing Arboretum.

Strybing Arboretum (now called the San Francisco Botanical Garden) is free for San Francisco residents with proof of residency (a driver’s license or a utility bill).  When designing Golden Gate Park, Park Supervisor John McLaren set aside 55-acres for a botanical garden. In 1927 Helene Strybing gifted the funds for the creation of the gardens and made McLaren’s vision a reality. WPA workers in 1937 began removing trees and completed all of the initial landscaping for the gardens.

There are many blooms to admire at the San Francisco Botanical Garden.

Enjoy a stroll through the gardens, picnic by the pond, or enjoy some peace and quiet on a hidden bench before continuing with part two of the walk.



Oral history interview with Hebe Daum Stackpole and Jack Moxom, 1965 Jan. 9, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 

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