This Free Exhibition Displays Fascinating Photographs of 19th-Century Golden Gate Park

Jamie Ferrell Jamie Ferrell

This Free Exhibition Displays Fascinating Photographs of 19th-Century Golden Gate Park

Golden Gate Park in the Gilded Age is on display now at the Presidio.

What was Golden Gate Park like back in the late 19th century? Take a trip back in time with this new, free exhibition, which boasts sixty previously-unpublished photographs of Golden Gate Park from the Gilded Age. The Society of California Pioneers Museum, located at the Presido’s Main Post, is displaying the collection in celebration of the park’s recent sesquicentennial. Many of the photographs come from private family albums and ancient studio catalogues.

At 1,017 acres, Golden Gate Park is one of the largest public parks in the world. It all began in 1867, when the SF Board of Supervisors initiated plans to create an enormous public park inspired by those in New York, Paris, and London. This collection of photographs comes from the Gilded Age during the last 3 decades of the century, showcasing fascinating milestones in the land’s development.

During the first 20 years, landscape architect and engineer William Hammond Hall established many of the park’s gardens, lakes, athletic fields, monuments, music venues, paths, and roads. Accliamed horticulturist John McLaren then served as park superintendent for 56 years starting in 1887. He’s the one who elevated the park’s design and operation as a beautiful space to improve San Franciscans’ quality of life. McLaren is famous for asserting, “There will be no ‘keep off the grass’ signs,” and prioritized a natural look for the land.

During the Gilded Age of San Francisco, both Golden Gate Park and Ocean Beach were essential meeting places for SF socialites and working-class immigrants alike. Every time a new attraction or monument was dedicated, the city turned out in droves to celebrate. Early automobiles and horse-drawn carriages cruised down the streets, and Victorians dressed to the nines for beautiful park photographs. The collection of snapshots from this era encapsulates a bygone time of change, development, and celebration of this new community space.


The Society of California Pioneers was established back in 1850, when California was recognized as the 31st state. Since then, the society has worked to collect and preserve the memory of California history. Today, the society continues to be under the leadership of descendants of those early pioneers. They display rotating exhibits at the Pioneer Hall museum, and maintain the Alice Phelan Sullivan Library, both of which are open and free to the public.

You can find the Society of California Pioneers’ latest exhibition, Golden Gate Park in the Gilded Age, at 101 Montgomery St #150 in the Presidio. The free museum is open from 10am to 2pm, Wednesday through Friday.


Featured image: Society of California Pioneers. Photo via @sfrecpark on Instagram

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