Adolph Sutro’s Urban Forests: Influences and Lasting Benefits
by Jacqueline Proctor
Philanthropist, engineer, park commissioner, and former Mayor of San Francisco, Adolph Sutro (1830 -1898), was one of the greatest philanthropists in the United States. He built the saltwater Sutro Baths, the largest in the world, and was the owner of the first private library in the nation to be opened to the public. He transformed the Cliff House Restaurant overlooking the Pacific Ocean into a respectable business for families. His daughter, Emma, wrote about his purchase of a house overlooking the restaurant in 1879 at what is now called Sutro Heights: “Trees were planted, lath fences built, and seeds brought for the garden from all over the world. A conservatory was built, a nursery for young plants established …” i
With the money he made from selling his stake in the 20,000 foot-long tunnel he engineered to unlock the silver from Nevada’s Comstock Lode (see entrance to Sutro Tunnel and Victorian mansion Sutro built in Nevada below) , he bought 1200 more acres of “sand lots” on the western edge of San Francisco in 1880. He went on to build another and much larger nursery to provide the thousands of tree seedlings he would begin planting over a twenty-year period on 1000 of those acres.ii
Sutro’s motivations and ultimate plan for the huge forest he created were not formally documented and have, therefore, been subject to much speculation. What we do know is that he bequeathed his Sutro Heights estate garden to the City of San Francisco.iii He welcomed visitors to stroll in his estate and in the forest he planted on Mt. Sutro, as if they were public parks, “… transformed into a forest of a million trees or more, eucalyptus, ash, pine, maple, cypress, acacia, … laid out rustic walks and bridges winding down ravines and over hills unfolding unsurpassing beauties at every turn, made Sutro Forest the popular ramble for the Sunday hiker … and gave a scenic background to San Francisco …”.iv He restricted the sale of his land in his will until the death of the last heir, with the proceeds to be put into a charitable trust. There is also evidence of his civic, environmental, horticultural, aesthetic, and moral motivations for tree planting from his own words and other historic sources, including his personal papers donated to the Sutro Library by the Sutro family.
The Four Virtues
When Adolph Sutro arrived in San Francisco, no American city had a public park. The need for public green space in cities was initially met by privately-owned cemeteries which encouraged public recreation as part of their marketing plan. The impetus to create parks built by and for the people came from concerns of needing to create a better American society. Park promoters in Adolph Sutro’s time believed that parks fostered four important virtues for a harmonious and good society: public health, prosperity, democratic equality, and social coherence.”v
A contemporary of Adolph Sutro and fellow self-made man, Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903, pictured above), was a pioneer in creating the discipline of landscape architecture with his design of America’s first public park in New York City. Biographer Witold Rybczynski notes, “Modern environmentalists often perceive a conflict between the preservation of wilderness and the demands of recreation. Olmsted’s paramount motive [in the romantic and surrogate Adirondack landscape he created for Central Park] was recreation – or rather, re-creation. He believed that the contemplation of nature, fresh air, and the change of everyday habits improved people’s health and intellectual vigor. ‘The enjoyment of scenery employs the mind without fatigue and yet exercises it, tranquilizes it and yet enlivens it; and thus, through the influence of the mind over the body, gives the effect of refreshing rest and reinvigoration of the whole system …’ [His work to protect Yosemite as a public park] opened his eyes to an exciting new possibility: the experience of scenery, whether man-made or natural, could be a powerful civilizing force … he realized he could combine his interests in social reform and landscaping.”vi
Sutro may have met Olmsted during his many trips to San Francisco or read his horticulture articles and books. In any case, Sutro writes in his personal papers of his sharing this belief in the connection of nature and personal improvement from tree-filled landscapes:
These western shores should become the lands of the culture groves and artistic gardens … to reach this happy consummation, a taste for the beautiful in nature must be engendered among the masses … In my boyhood days, while still a dreamer on the banks of the beloved Rhine (pictured below) … a tranquil-eyed tutor taught me the wisdom of the philosophy and this is what he said, “My son, live ever near to Nature’s heart, for to depart from nature is a departure from happiness. Choose thy companions among such cherished trees and flowers and little children. The man who loves these can never commit a crime.” This is the philosophy that I wish to transmit to those who would survive me. vii
Andrew Jackson Downing, the first writer on American landscape gardening and Olmsted’s mentor, was inspired by the public parks he had seen in Adolph Sutro’s native country, Germany, as well as in France and England. It was Downing who taught Olmstead the difference between a garden and a park. The former could be decorative and artificial, but the latter had to be the antithesis of the city, a natural appearing landscape.viii The parks that Olmsted subsequently created, which became the basis for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, consiste of “naturalistic” landscapes of pastoral and picturesque scenery designed to foster prosperity, public health, democratic equality, and social coherence. Sutro’s creation of his naturalistic landscape of a thick forest with rustic walks and bridges winding down ravines for the Sunday hiker was consistent with these goals.
When Sutro started his tree planting in San Francisco, the City’s first park was just getting started. Golden Gate Park opened in 1875 but did not get completed until many years later. Prior to its creation, city residents were drawn to private gardens created as amusement parks such as The Willows and Woodward Gardens.ix Sutro would create his own version with his Bathhouse at Land’s End, the City’s first swimming pool open to the public.
Terence Young, in his book Building San Francisco’s Parks, writes how San Francisco in Sutro’s time was considered a stark environment. While not as densely populated as New York City, the area was virtually treeless. Coastal scrub and grasses were the predominate vegetation. Woodlands were very limited to damper lowlands where streams flowed into the bay. Scrubby live oak on the hills and ridges of the eastern 270 acres of what would become Golden Gate Park “seldom attained a height of more than 10 feet … Olmsted described San Francisco as ‘perfectly bare of trees or shrubs – and almost awfully bleak.’…
Park advocates sought relief from an environment (pictured above) that struck them as profoundly alien and unwelcoming.”x Olmsted’s plan for the City’s first park aligned with what Sutro sought to provide for the public on his own land: “A thick plantation of trees and shrubs created the desired visual barrier between the refreshing, verdant interior and the exhausting urban environment so that San Franciscans, like New Yorkers, could escape from city into rural life … Also in San Francisco’s unique physical site, the boundary of greenery served as a windbreak … buffeted by bitter, often driving northwesterly winds … the leafy margin acted as a buffer between the prevailing bluster and the interior plants and visitors.”xi
The virtuous goals for these naturalistic and romantic landscapes have now been scientifically proven. Studies by the USDA have found that urban trees significantly reduce the noise of a city. Tall trees with dense crowns and a soft ground surface can cut noise by 50 percent or more. If kept healthy and cared for properly, urban trees can also provide bird and wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities, improve soil quality, reduce erosion, and add to property value. USDA studies also suggest that urban trees ( as pictured below on Mt. Davidson) help to provide a feeling of community well-being. Several have proven that trees contribute to fewer property crimes and a better economy. Their research also has also found that real estate in wooded areas is bought and rented more quickly. xii
A 2010 New York Times article reported:
In a series of studies, scientists found that when people swap their concrete confines for a few hours in more natural surroundings — forests, parks and other places with plenty of trees — they experience increased immune function. Stress reduction is one factor. But scientists also chalk it up to phytoncides, the airborne chemicals that plants emit to protect them from rotting and insects and which also seem to benefit humans.
A study published in January included data on 280 healthy people in Japan, where visiting nature parks for therapeutic effect has become a popular practice called ‘Shinrin-yoku,’ or ‘forest bathing.’ On one day, some people were instructed to walk through a forest or wooded area for a few hours, while others walked through a city area. On the second day, they traded places. The scientists found that being among plants produced ‘lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, and lower blood pressure,’ among other things.
A number of other studies have shown that visiting parks and forests seems to raise levels of white blood cells, including one in 2007 in which men who took two-hour walks in a forest over two days had a 50-percent spike in levels of natural killer cells. And another found an increase in white blood cells that lasted a week in women exposed to phytoncides in forest air.xiii
Joaquin Miller and California’s First Arbor Day in 1886
Arbor Day was created by nature lover and Nebraska newspaper editor, J. Sterling Morton in 1872 as a tree-planting holiday. During the 1870s, other states passed legislation to observe Arbor Day, and the tradition began in schools in 1882. xiv This coincided with, or perhaps helped stimulate, the great eucalyptus boom in California in the 1870s, led by Ellwood Cooper and Abbot Kinney, who “believed that one’s horticultural environment could provide moral and aesthetic uplift.”xv “Australian trees made the land more complete, more beautiful, more useful and more healthful … Afforestation did not require commercial justification.” xvi
The poet Joaquin Miller (pictured above) urged the establishment of an Arbor Day celebration in California in 1886 which involved Adolph Sutro and the San Francisco Presidio in “a vigorous campaign to arouse interest in planting trees on the barren hills surrounding San Francisco Bay.”xvii Adolph Sutro’s personal papers include this description of how Joaquin Miller, and two other poets, Jone Vance Cheney and Ina D. Coolbrith:
who loved trees and had been active in planting them … proposed .. to the Board of Forestry and such men as Adolph Sutro, General Howard, and General Vallejo, that we should found an Arbor Day, and celebrate the event by planting an Arbor Day cross on some conspicuous spot, where it would be always seen, and perpetually plead the sanctity of the tree and the cause of our common Mother. The government gave Yerba Buena Island for the purpose … General Howard sent soldiers to prepare the ground … Just below the summit of the Island, upon its southern slope, at a point opposite the Graveyard, a large section of land in the shape of a cross had been cleared of sod and bushes.(Treeless view of Yerba Buena before Arbor Day and building of the bridge across it between Oakland and San Francisco, below right).xviii
Growing up in Oregon, Miller’s sympathy with the plight of the Modocs in California reflected in his autobiographical novel, “Life Among the Modocs,” is credited with inspiring his early environmental advocacy, railing against desecration of streams through gold mining, the wholesale removal of forests, and resulting loss of salmon and other wildlife that were the tribes sustenance.xix Joaquin Miller’s poem, “written for the occasion which he read with much feeling and earnest emphasis” on Nov. 27, 1886, reflects this advocacy:
Against our golden orient lawns
We lift a living light today
That shall outshine the splendid bronze
That lords and lights that lesser bay.
Sweet paradise was sown with trees
Thy very name, lorn Nazareth,
Means woods, means sense of birds and bees,
And song of leaves, with leaping breath.
God gave us mother-earth, full blest,
With robes of green in healthful fold
We tore the green robs from her breast
We sold our mother’s robes for gold.
We sold her garments fair, and she
Lies shamed and naked at our feet
In penitence we plant a tree
We plant the cross and count it meet.
For here, where Balboa’s waters toss,
Here in this glorious Spanish Bay
We plant, the cross, the Christian cross
The Crusade cross of Arbor Day.xx
The Oakland Tribune reported on the speech of General O.O. Howard, Civil War veteran, commander of the Pacific, at the first California Arbor Day event which summarized the altruistic goals of the endeavor:
The war was over, and they had gathered there, maid and matron, youth and age, full of enthusiasm for a noble purpose – to plant the cross. It was a glad occasion in which all could unite without regard to race, religion, or sectional prejudice … The planting of the cross was emblematic of good will to all men, and the inauguration of Arbor Day in this state should serve as an example for others – it was an occasion symbolic of love for the Lord our God, and love of our neighbors as ourselves.xxi
Notes on the first Arbor Day from Sutro’s personal papers:
The first tree was planted by Sutro, introduced as the man who had done more than any other man in California to advance tree planting, having personally set out half a million trees annually for two or three years … A cedar was planted by president Abbot Kinney, Chairman of the State Board of Forestry. While the band played ‘America’, a vast number of visitors, under the direction of the managers of the occasion, fell to work delving the soil with garden trowels and other implements, and the outlines of the cross were soon plainly defined by numberless little sprays of green.
All the day before the teams were hauling 45,000 seedling pine, donated by the Adolph Sutro nursery to the public school children, from Sutro Heights to the storerooms of the school department, corner of Larkin and Pine Sts. At nine o’clock the janitors received the trees and conveyed them to the different schools, where they would be distributed among the pupils in the afternoon. As they trundled to school this morning nearly every one of the pupils carried a flower pot or tin of some kind, and by this afternoon the little trees will be distributed to thousands of homes … And while the children planted their saplings on the hillside of Yerba Buena, the other children, boys and girls of the grammar school and high school planted the hills of Fort Mason and the Presidio. And from that day Sutro was called the “father of tree planting” in California.xxii
The same file documents Sutro’s speech at this ceremony (12 years before his death), which reflects the virtues he hoped to stem from his landscaping efforts:
It is my pleasure to plant trees and watch their progress. They are the children of my old age, that will live long after I am laid to rest. Whoever places a seed in the earth is king over unreckoned forces. In my visionary moments I can see spreading branches and hear the rustling of leaves around which future generations will live, and strive, and achieve their successes; for this is, indeed, a country of glorious possibilities. If only we do our part, these rivers and lakes, the beautiful bay of San Francisco, the solitary cliffs, and the pallid snow peaks, shall one and all become classic ground. It is man’s labor, and the heroic deeds of men, which put new and more divine seal to nature’s fairest scenes. I have crossed the Atlantic twenty times, and lived in every European capital. I have traveled in every country endeared to worshippers of art, literature, science and religion … and yet I return to Sutro Heights satisfied to live out my allotted time, here beneath these matchless skies, and repose, at last on the sands that have favored my efforts at fertilization. These green-robed hills and beds of blooming flowers you see, were not so many years ago, quite bare and barren of vegetation … There are thousands of acres yet to be cultivated. … I would encourage both by precept and example, a taste for horticultural pursuits, as may be inferred by the gift of trees to school children, to be planted by them upon approaching Arbor Day… It is the refinement which comes from a love of nature, the simplicity fostered in rural homes, that restless Americans need. Tired people will, I trust, learn to ramble every year in ravine and forest, and find renewed health in the presence of the wonderful mountains …
Among the millions of trees already planted, 400,000 of which have been placed south of Golden Gate Park, those that grew most prolifically in sandy soil were chosen from the cypress, the eucalyptus, and Mariana, a species of the pine originally found near the Black Sea. The special virtue of the eucalyptus consists in its rapid growth and its shelter to the trees which surround it. Betwixt the ocean and the Industrial School, occupying a space of a mile and half each side of the road, the same species can be selected …
In this work of planting trees, which extends from an altitude of 920 feet … I have naught else but the interest of humanity at heart … when an unemployed situation arose in the city, I employed a gang of men out of work to dig holes, to plant, and to water the trees … The work of setting out the young trees … gave employment to from forty to sixty men.xxiii
Adolph Sutro’s planting of trees being encouraged by Joaquin Miller and Arbor Day is further supported in notes by his daughter, Emma Sutro Merritt:
In reference to tree planting, there is an account in Joaquin Miller’s Poetical Works of the first Arbor Day in San Francisco on November 27, 1886. The celebration was promoted by Joaquin Miller, Adolph Sutro, General Vallejo and General O.O. Howard among others from San Francisco and Oakland. … Adolph Sutro, as his contribution to the first Arbor Day, gave trees to be planted by the school children of Oakland and San Francisco. Climate has been modified and many a sandy bare monotone in San Francisco has been beautified by the massed dark accent of Mr. Sutro’s trees.xxiv
Richard Walker, in his book, Country in the City, honors Joaquin Miller as one of the first of California’s environmentalists:
John Muir and the Sierra Club were hardly a voice in the wilderness for the Sierra Nevada. Fulsome paeans to Yosemite, the Big Trees, and the High Sierra had been coming out of San Francisco since before the Civil War. These were voiced by a generation of ecstatic Californians such as James Mason Hutchings (editor of California), Thomas Starr King (San Francisco’s leading minister), Joaquin Miller (the state’s poet laureate), and Clarence King (author of Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada).xxv
Joaquin Miller planted eucalyptus and other tree species on his 425-acre property in Oakland which was given to the City as a gift by the poet’s widow in 1913. Walker credits this park as inspiring Bay Area open space and recreational advocacy over the years. “It was a barren hillside, the original redwood forest having been logged off … the first thing Miller did was to plant pine and fir in the form of an immense cross, so that it would be visible many miles away.”xxvi
Additional documentation of Joaquin Miller motivating Adolph Sutro to plant trees, is recorded in a section of a December 1929 article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the dedication of a park atop Mt. Davidson, entitled “Once Barren Hill”:
Research by Mrs. Edmund [Madie] Brown, a prime mover for the mountain’s preservation as a City beauty spot, has brought to light the fact that the mountain was not always covered with stately trees. In the days when Don Jose de Jesus Noe owned it as part of his San Miguel Rancho, it was but a barren, rocky hill (pictured below) sheltering the quiet valley of the Mission from the cold winds of the Pacific … When the mountain was part of the property owned by Adolph Sutro, Joaquin Miller, the poet, who was enthusiastically planting trees on the “The Heights” in the east bay envisioned the beauty that might be created by trees on Blue Mountain and suggested the plan to Sutro.xxvii
Civic Responsibility and Philanthropy
Sutro’s personal papers also describe the many requests he received from individuals and organizations for financial help. “He felt a great wrong was committed against a man from whom employment was withheld. He supplied hundreds of men and women with tickets and food for lodging at the Salvation Army … Mayor Sutro the great good friend of the poor.”xxviii
Like Joaquin Miller, Sutro was also a pioneer environmentalist. He protected the seals off nearby Point Lobos (Seal Rocks pictured below) by successfully lobbying Congress to pass a law putting the area in trust for the American people.xxix
Notes in his papers include his promotion of the establishment of:
branch libraries in the outlying districts … provision should be made by the state, county, and the city, to set aside funds annually, for the purpose of giving work to the worthy unemployed … In all his activities, he had this quality of universality, without which no work can endure, whether in the arts or city planning, of including the many with the few. He always beautified in the direction of his property, but never without including the masses. He was of the type of enlightened citizen who realizes self interest is best served by best serving the public.xxx
Sutro’s papers reveal a speech he wrote that advocated street tree planting – a beautification policy promoted to this day:
To beautify the city is the duty of every citizen owning property. Very little heretofore, has been done to that end. Tree planting in front of every lot in the residence parts, whether already built upon or not, should receive more attention. Dracenas, acacias, and cypress are fine ornamental trees … This subject should be taken hold of by the Improvement Clubs, which could bring property owners together to adopt a uniform system of tree planting. Gardens in front of dwelling houses beautify the city, and the cultivation of flowers elevates the tastes of our inhabitants.xxxi
Also from his papers, a section titled “Chronicle July 27, 1895,” describes his 26-acre gift of the UCSF campus:
Offered the affiliated colleges a site for new buildings (see below) which is estimated by selling price of lots in the neighborhood to be worth $250,000 … will reserve enough room for the Sutro Library building but am willing to deed the remainder free of cost to the U.C. You probably know that some years ago I reserved a magnificent site … which was specifically selected for its admirable protection against a general conflagration, no matter how much the city may extend … the project on either side. This site … is well sheltered from the Westerly winds, has been planted with trees that form a beautiful grove, and commands a superb view of the [Golden Gate] Park, the ocean, the Golden Gate, Marin County, and a portion of Contra Costa …xxxii
Residence Parks Inspired by the City Beautiful Movement
By the time of Sutro’s death in 1898, his forest on the western side of San Francisco extended for miles, from Mt. Sutro south to Ocean Avenue (Sutro Forest in 1910 below). His will stipulated that “Rancho San Miguel could not be sold until ten years after the death of his last heir, at which point the proceeds could be used to fund a trust for charitable purposes.”xxxiii Is this because Sutro intended that the forest landscape he created remain available for public recreation after his death? His heirs battled over the will, and those who wanted to sell his property for home development succeeded in getting it overturned by the CA Supreme Court. Prominent developer A.S. Baldwin had surveyed the property for that potential, and according to the San Francisco Call in 1911, purchased 724 acres for $1.4M. Sutro’s forest became the theme for the new residence parks Baldwin created there: St. Francis Woods, Forest Hill, Westwood Park and Highlands, and Sherwood Forest. Sutro’s trees were incorporated into the new neighborhood landscape designs, along with curvilinear streets and decorative fountains, as recommended by the City Beautiful Movement plan for San Francisco created by famed architect Daniel Burnham in 1905.xxxiv
A 1923 article in Home Designer magazine promoted Sutro’s trees in the Balboa Terrace and Forest Hill subdivisions as defining their quality of life and attaining the virtues desired in the public park movement:
A vast expanse of wooded land – trees swayed by the soft, fragrant breeze from the broad Pacific rolling at its feet … Surroundings such as these enhance the beauty of every type of architecture. The English cottage – how truly charming it looks among the trees … Environment – how wonderful or how insidious it can be. Beautiful surroundings result in elevated thoughts and better thinking and living.xxxv
Sutro’s forest, shown below in 1915 advertisement for Ingleside Terraces, would become the landscape for new residence parks.
Developer A.S. Baldwin built a trail through Sutro’s forest to the top of the highest hill in San Francisco when he acquired the property (see trail on map below). Previously referred to as part of the San Miguel Hills, the hill had just recently been officially named:
On Feb. 23, 1910 members of the Sierra Club hiked into what was called ‘the little wildernesses of the Sutro Forest,’ and held a ceremony renaming the peak in honor of George P. Davidson who had been greatly respected for this incorruptibility as a surveyor and for his many contributions as a geologist, noted surveyor and naturalist, at the request of the Sierra Club.xxxvi
One of those to take the hike up Mt. Davidson a decade later was Western Union employee and San Francisco resident, James Decatur. He was so inspired by what he experienced, that he wrote and published an essay about it in 1923:
As the group found themselves deeper in the wood … peace and quiet were so profound that it seemed almost unbelievable that the noise and roar of a great city was only a few minutes behind them … the solitude of the forest … conveyed a sense of vastness quite as real as one would experience among the age old monarchs of the high sierras.xxxvii
Adolph Sutro, who was of Jewish heritage, did not plant his trees on Mt. Davidson in the shape of a cross like Joaquin Miller did, but Decatur’s hike through Sutro’s forest inspired him to organize an Easter sunrise event at the top in 1923 around a temporary 40-foot high wooden cross. With over 5000 hiking before dawn to welcome the sunrise, Decatur urged his fellow organizers to make it an annual event (that continues to this day).xxxviii
According to the April 1928 issue of The Municipal Employee, a week after the Easter sunrise event in 1926: …
when the subdividers’ axe and steam shovel were heard on Mt. Davidson’s lower slopes (picture of forest being cut down for housing seen below), destroying in ruthless fashion the beauties of nature, an ardent nature lover, Mrs. Edmund N. Brown, was aroused over the destruction, and made a plea at the Commodore Sloat Parent-Teachers’ Association on April 12, 1926 for the preservation of Mt. Davidson … Mrs. Brown interested Mrs. A.W. Stokes, at the time president of the City and County Federation of Women’s Clubs … and in so doing placed the strength of the Federation’s membership of 15,000 women behind the movement.xxxix
Richard Walker highlights the role of women in preserving Bay Area open space: “The San Francisco Bay Area harbors the greatest urban greenbelt in the U.S. Out of 4.5M acres in the 9-county region, more than 3.5M are open space … thanks to a century-old environmental movement … primarily led by women … Every acre of land and water has been fought for, often in campaigns lasting years.”xl
It took three years for the City to yield to the political activism led by Mrs. Brown. Preservation of Sutro’s trees was clearly their motivation for asking the City to buy the property for a city park (the eastern treeless part formerly owned by Leland Stanford of present day Mt. Davidson Park was added to it in 1941), as noted in an editorial in the San Francisco Examiner supporting City purchase of the land: “As the residential area advances, the forest goes down before the axe. In another year, it will be too late for the beauty of the summit to be preserved …”xli Three days later, a report to the Finance Committee of the Board of Supervisors recommended purchase of the summit of Mount Davidson:
For a public park serving (aerial view below) the needs of the West of Twin Peaks District and also serving as a recreation center and forest playground for the whole city. The acquisition will also preserve for all time the beautiful tree covered slopes of the mountain as an attractive scenic land mark in the city …xlii
Sutro’s thick forest on Mt. Davidson uniquely met the criteria of pioneer urban park advocates like Frederick Olmsted: “the green space had to be sufficiently expansive and vertical to block out a visitor’s view of the city, because a park’s reforming capability came from its natural scenery.”xliii San Francisco had considered Golden Gate Park sufficient for the whole city until 1900. After a reform effort led to a new City charter in 1900, property started to be purchased in other areas for park purposes, but they were for rationalistic rather than romantic purposes: playgrounds and play fields rather than immersion in nature.xliv The sum of $15,000 was appropriated by the city to purchase the first 20 acres on Mt. Davidson in 1927 with the support of Mayor Rolph. Implementation of the purchase from developer August Lang lingered for two more years as his original proposal was to sell the City 78 acres at $4000 an acre. He also wanted the City to build a reservoir to serve the homes he was building on the slopes of Mt. Davidson. He proposed donating a 6-acre piece for the construction of an ornamental concrete reservoir 50 feet in diameter, so constructed that it could be used as a platform for Easter memorial services and a right of way for concealed pipe lines to and from the said reservoir. The City’s right-of-way agent comments in his July 1927 memo to the Board of Supervisors that Lang’s offer was higher than comparable purchases in the area, but “on account of the wooded condition of this land it is probably worth more …”xlv
The purchase was finally completed in 1929. Sutro’s wish that his land remain accessible to the public was granted 31 years after his death, when on December 20, 1929 the 20-acre remnant of his forest on San Francisco’s highest hill was designated for preservation as a public park to celebrate Park Superintendent John McLaren’s 84th birthday “as a fitting tribute to one who has done so much to create beauty in the city.”xlvi Original plans for Mt. Davidson Park called for a playground and playing field to be built and for grass to be planted on a portion of the hillside. At the dedication ceremony, the president of the Westwood Park Association pointed out that “the plan [at Mt. Davidson] is to preserve as many of the trees as possible. … In the minds of local residents, the ideal of the romantic contemplative park had won out over the rationalistic recreational one … due to the widespread acceptance of the ideal of park as wilderness [even if man-made].”xlvii Adolph Sutro’s belief in the virtuous value of the forest he created is reflected in the words of a plaque dedicated at the event (Madie Brown, on right, during plaque replacement in 1955):
Dedicated to Madie D. Brown, who found beauty in flower and tree on this lofty hill. Through her untiring pleas, these acres have been set aside as a city park that all may enjoy their beauty and find refreshment of the soul.xlviii
Sutro’s Forest: Historical Cultural Landscape or Invasive Non-Native Species?
In his 1886 Arbor Day speech, Adolph Sutro stated his hope to be remembered for the forests he created and that they would still be there a century later for the public to enjoy:
One hundred years from today, the people who inhabit this country will celebrate the centennial of this occasion … then the people of the Pacific Coast will number as many as now comprise the population of the United States, and they will wander through the majestic groves rising from the trees we are now planting, reverencing the memory of those whose foresight clothed the earth with emerald robes and made nature beautiful to look upon.xlix
More than a century after Sutro planted his forest to beautify and improve the lives of his fellow San Franciscans, the last surviving eucalyptus and Monterey Cypress trees in Sutro’s forest are being labeled as invasive by those who yearn for the days of what were once considered barren hills of sand, grass, and shrubs. This is despite the fact that Sutro’s trees in Mt. Davidson Park have yet to invade the treeless side once owned by Leland Stanford.(View of tree line in 1927 and in 2014 below). l
The Sierra Club “was supportive of the park [on Mt. Davidson] because it was concerned about development, which threatened to obliterate the trees planted by Adolph Sutro.”li The environmental advocacy organization that once valued Sutro’s forest in San Francisco is now a primary supporter of efforts to replace it with native shrubs and grass,lii even though their founder, John Muir, planted many non-native trees, including eucalyptus on his property in Martinez, California. (Muir Christmas Card below). Muir wrote:
The wrongs done to trees, wrongs of every sort, are done in the darkness of ignorance and unbelief, for when the light comes, the heart of the people is always right.
Fire hazard is put forth as another reason to clear the trees. In fact, this forest in San Francisco serves as a sponge for the persistent fog that blows over Mt. Davidson (summit obscured by fog during summer below with Laguna Honda Hosptial in the foreground) and Mt. Sutro during the warm and dryer months of the year. In the summer months, the dense tree canopy has been found to increase fog drip by 300 percent onto the trails which creates small streams along the roads from the summits, often making them muddier than in the winter.liii
Several of the earliest crosses built at the top of Mt. Davidson for the sunrise service were made of wood and set on fire by vandals. All three of the fires (1928, 1930, and 1931) were quickly contained and did not get out of control, despite the challenging access to the forested site at the time.liv The vegetation management plan for the historic forest in the San Francisco Presidio notes “because moisture from fog drip reduces the impact from summer drought, wildfire has had little effect on the structure or health of the forest.”lv
Another notion, that Adolph Sutro planted trees to reduce his property taxes, is often quoted by those who believe the forest is bad for the environment. This idea appears to be solely referenced in an interview by Jean Kortum of Harry Wollenberg in 1994 – nearly a century after Sutro’s death. Wollenberg’s father was Superintendent of nearby Laguna Honda Hospital from 1907-43.lvi Harry or his father, would not have had direct knowledge of Sutro’s tax bills or legislation regarding tax incentives. In fact, during the years Sutro was planting the trees, the City was cutting spending on landscaping efforts to the point that the Superintendent of Golden Gate Park referred to the period of 1876 to 1889 as the “The Dark Years.” With government interest in planting trees and other landscaping in San Francisco at an all time low, their offering of a property tax deduction for tree planting seems very unlikely. There also seemed to be more interest in raising taxes than lowering them as noted in one reason stated for building Golden Gate Park which was to raise property values and the resulting higher property taxes that could be used to fund the work.lvii Historian Rich Brandi also points out that “the costs of building a nursery, importing plants, and hiring dozens of caretakers would more than make up for a reduction of taxes. Sutro’s love of nature, his heartfelt philanthropy, and his sense of civic betterment also played a role.lviii Mae Silver, historian and author of Rancho San Miguel sums it well:
Adolph Sutro’s love of land is his legacy to San Francisco today … He planted trees. He developed a family resort. He created water recreation. He turned his home into a public park and built transportation to his recreational areas. He shaped beautiful places for the public to enjoy. Throughout his life, as in his youth, he unfailingly touched the working class with his generosity and his genius.lix
It is hard to imagine that the “Poet of the Sierras,” Joaquin Miller envisioned to Adolph Sutro the tax savings that could be created by planting trees on the San Miguel hills – or on his own property in Oakland. Others currently critical of the forest infer that Adolph Sutro planted eucalyptus as part of a short-lived belief that eucalyptus would become a cash crop. This craze started about 1904, six years after Sutro’s death, and flopped by 1912. References to him as a lumber baron are also incorrect. Sutro did not achieve significant wealth from his tree planting. The lumber mill on his property was constructed by his heirs after his death.lx
Another persistent, but non-scientifically, supported reason used for clearing a large number of the trees is that they are at the end of their lifespan and have grown too thick to allow new growth. UC Berkeley forestry professor, Joe McBride, PhD., surveyed the forest on Mt. Davidson in 2013 and concluded that the forest and its very bio-diverse understory are thriving and will thrive for at least another century. His studies have also found higher diversity and more native species in the understory of eucalyptus forests than in native oak woodlands.lxi Many of the few trees that have died in Mt. Davidson Park were purposely killed by girdling (cutting a ring through the bark of a tree’s trunk). The Sacramento Bee reported in 1994 of local resident Greg Gaar getting in trouble with the law for girdling 30 trees in a City park. The article goes on to report that the “city is now duplicating in a modest fashion Gaar’s deadly deeds … on Mount Davidson, the city’s tallest peak, there are plans to chop down 34 (more) eucalyptuses.”lxii
A year later, the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department began developing a Significant Natural Resources Areas Management Plan for conversion of 1/3 of the City’s parks (home to half of the 131,000 trees in San Francisco parks) into botanical restoration sites. The controversial plan includes concentrated removal of up to 82 percent of the trees within a 10-acre section of the last significant stand of Sutro’s forest on City property in Mt. Davidson Park to eliminate any shade on native shrubs. The Plan states that the trees are unnatural because they are not native to San Francisco and seeks to remove them to encourage the growth of native shrubs and grasses that need full sunlight.lxiii
Despite its potential human and environmental hazard, continual heavy use of very toxic chemicals is also planned to keep the trees from growing back.lxiv While certain native shrub and grass species are deemed of higher value by some, the vast majority are not endangered or even rare in the Bay Area. Trees, though, are very rare in San Francisco, with much a smaller percentage of its land area covered, than Los Angeles or New York. The city’s canopy of 700,000 trees covers just 13 percent of its land area (as seen below) and consists almost entirely of non-native trees, with eucalyptus being the most predominant.lxv
Also in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, the comparable eucalyptus and Monterey Cypress forest inspired by the first Arbor Day celebration in 1886 to be planted on “the bare hills of the Presidio” U.S. Army Base (with tree slips that Adolph Sutro had donatedlxvi) was in the process of being landmarked for preservation because it was considered a significant element of the Presidio’s infrastructure, writes Peter Ehrlich, head forester for the Presidio Trust:
It [the forest] ameliorates the climate by reducing wind speeds which continually impact trails, roads and residences within the Presidio … these stands provide great amenity value, enhancing user experience in the Park. Finally, and most importantly the Historic Forest (current and historic view below) is considered a contributing factor in the Presidio’s Historic Landmark Status.”lxvii
The creators of Golden Gate Park, the Army at the Presidio, and Adolph Sutro all experimented with planting a variety of native and non-native trees in the sand dunes of San Francisco. The first trees planted in the park were Norway maple, sycamore, Austrian pine, elder, English yew, maritime pine, alder, cottonwood, acacia, blue gum eucalyptus, and several varieties of oak. When most deteriorated in the exposed and sandy conditions, they replanted with alder, elder, Monterey Cypress and several varieties of the eucalyptus. Of these, the eucalyptus were the most successful in quickly establishing the vertical green wall that could block both the wind and city view, growing 18-feet high in just two years.lxviii
With global warming, tall mature trees (whether native species or not) today are an indispensable factor in our environment—especially in an urban setting. According to the USDA Urban Forest Report for San Francisco:
Urban Forests help to stave off climate change in two ways: through the absorption and sequestration of carbons, and by reducing the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted. Trees can store carbon in their heartwood, roots and leaves for decades — even centuries — removing carbon dioxide from our atmosphere and slowing the rate of climate change. Urban trees in the San Francisco are estimated to store 196,000 tons of carbon. These trees also remove an estimated 200 tons of air pollution from the City’s atmosphere every year. With all the buildings and vehicles pumping out harmful greenhouse gases, the trees’ ability to purify the air has become more necessary than ever. In San Francisco, the blue gum eucalyptus stores and sequesters the most carbon (approximately 24.4 percent of the total accumulated carbon stored and 26.4 percent of annual rate of carbon sequestered).
A tree’s “net annual oxygen production” varies by the species, size, health and location of the tree. For example, a healthy 32-foot-tree will produce about 260 pounds of oxygen annually. Given that a typical human being will consume 386 pounds of oxygen each year, it would take two medium-sized, healthy trees to supply the amount oxygen needed for one person over that amount of time. And, according to the USDA Forest Service, the 700,000 trees in San Francisco would need to more than double to provide the oxygen needs of its population of about 826,000.lxix
If Sutro had not planted his forest on San Francisco’s highest hill, would the Sierra Club have sought to name it for one of its founders? Would the developer A. S. Baldwin have built a trail through the forest Sutro planted on Mt. Davidson as an attraction for the public to help promote the housing he was building on its slopes? Would James Decatur been inspired to hike through the forest on Baldwin’s trail and organize an annual civic event at the summit that would draw as many as 50,000 and continues to this day? Was it that event in 1926 that drew Madie Brown’s attention to Mt. Davidson and caused her to seek preservation of the forested hill as a public park? Would the highest hill in one of the densest cities in the United States be covered with houses now instead?
Sutro’s motivations and plans for the unique forest he created in San Francisco – based on his own words and historical documents of the times — demonstrate philanthropic rather than financial motivations. Jared Farmer affirms this in his recent analysis of how these century old forests have become part of the cultural landscape in California: “Gum trees connect us to a lost era when forward-thinking horticulturists and progressive city planners, for all their faults and excesses, thought holistically about people and nature and labored to make the environment healthier and lovelier. The Golden State would be grayer without its blue-green trees.”lxx
Adolph Sutro was a man with a big heart and he followed it. Sutro Baths Historian John Martini confirms this, “He was a millionaire populist. … He had a sense of noblesse oblige. He felt it was the duty of the rich to do something for the working-class.”lxxi A century after his death, much of what he created is gone. But in a city of many hills, the remnants of the forest he created remain as the unique and defining characteristic of just two of them: Mt. Davidson and Mt. Sutro. This unique amenity described in the 1923 San Francisco Chronicle article about a walk through the forest in Mt. Davidson Park, holds even truer today in the second densest city in the U.S.:
Once on the way you might imagine yourself in the wildest part of California. The woods appear vast and silent. There is no sign of life along the way. And yet you are still in a city of over 600,000 inhabitants and on every side below you are thousands of closely built homes. No other city in the world offers such a contrast.lxxii
Historian Marie Bolton noted the influence of Olmsted in her 1991 historical survey of Sutro’s historic forest in Mt. Davidson Park: …
preserved in a state of wilderness (even if not a natural one), it was [and is] a place in which the city dweller could commune with nature, thereby regaining a sense of internal peace, and more importantly for reformers, helping to maintain the social peace. Mt. Davidson inherited a blend of the preservationist and Olmstedian traditions. It reflects Olmsted’s ideal of a park as a place apart from the urban environment, yet instead of a carefully groomed landscape, it presents a wilder view of nature. In the 1920s and 1930s [and today] the cross mounted on Mt. Davidson’s summit fits in well as part of the contemplative and spiritual peace visitors were expected to experience there.lxxiii
Witold Rybczynski describes a walk through what he considers to be the most significant man-made object in Montreal, a wilderness-like forest created by Olmsted on a hill. He asserts that it is the city’s most important cultural artifact: “they are rooted in a particular time and place, in the mind of particular men. What ambition, what effort, what devotion. See! Our fathers did this for us.”lxxiv
I am grateful to Adolph Sutro “the father of tree planting in California,” for his gift and to those who sought to preserve his legacy for the public to enjoy and benefit from a century after he was gone. His forest on Mt. Davidson and Mt. Sutro are precious historic places, as precious as the historic buildings acknowledged as official San Francisco landmarks, and warrant comparable historical landmark status and protection.
i. From the notes of Emma Sutro, Vignettes of Early San Francisco Homes and Gardens, The San Francisco
Garden Club, Dec.1935.
ii. Richard Brandi, “Farms, Fire, and Forest” Journal of the S. F Museum & Historical Society, Summer 2003, p.39.
iii. Terence Young, Building San Francisco’s Parks 1850-1930 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ. Pres, 2008),
iv. Sutro Library Ephemera, Collection donated by the Sutro family after death of Dr. Emma Merritt, Box 23.
v. Young, ibid, p. xi, 3.
vi. Witold Rybczynski, Frederick Law Olmstead – A Clearing in the Distance (New York, Scribner, 2000), p.258.
vii. Sutro Library, ibid.
viii. Young, ibid, pp. 18-19.
ix. Young, ibid. p. 37.
x. Young, ibid, p. 31.
xi. Young, ibid, p. 53.
xii. USDA Forest Service Pamphlet #FS-363.
xiii. “The Claim – Exposure to Plants and Parks Can Boost Immunity,” New York Times, July 10, 2010.
xv. Erika Esau, Images of the Pacific Rim, (Sydney, Australia: Power Publications, 2010), p.254.
xvi. Jared Farmer, Trees in Paradise (New York, NY, W.W. Norton & Co., 2013), p. 127.
xvii. California Historical Society Quarterly, vol. 32, September 1953, p. 234.
xviii. Sutro Library, ibid.
xix. Tim Holt, “New Look at Author at his Peak,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 16, 2012.
xx. Sutro Library, ibid.
xxi. Sutro Library, ibid.
xxii. Sutro Library, ibid.
xxiii. Sutro Library, ibid.
xxiv. Sutro Library, ibid.
xxv. Richard Walker, Country in the City (Seattle, WA, Univ. of Washington Press, 2008), p.20.
xxvi. Walker, ibid., p. 63.
xxvii. “Elaborate Plans for Ceremony Made by Officials,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 8, 1929.
xxviii. Sutro Library, ibid.
xxx. Sutro Library, ibid.
xxxi. Sutro Library, ibid.
xxxii. Sutro Library, ibid.
xxxiii. Brandi, ibid., p.43.
xxxiv. Jacqueline Proctor, San Francisco’s West of Twin Peaks (Charleston, SC, Arcadia Publishing, 2006), p. 19.
xxxv. Jacqueline Proctor, Bay Area Beauty: The Artistry of Harold G. Stoner (San Francisco, CA, Blurb Publishing,
2011) p. 22.
xxxvi. Marie Bolton, The Contemplative Ideal in a Public Space: The Cross at Mt. Davidson Park, San Francisco,
1923-1990, unpublished manuscript 1991, p.2.
xxxvii. Proctor, San Francisco’s West of Twin Peaks, p. 49.
xxxviii. Ibid. p. 49.
xxxix. Ibid. p. 51.
xl. Walker, ibid.
xli. San Francisco Examiner, March 26, 1927, editorial page.
xlii. Memo to Finance Committee, San Francisco Board of Supervisors, April 29, 1927.
xliii. Young, ibid., p. 8.
xliv. Young, ibid., p. 247.
xlv. Memo to Finance Committee, ibid.
xlvi. Elaborate Plans, ibid.
xlvii. Marie Bolton, ibid., p. 11.
xlviii. Proctor, San Francisco’s West of Twin Peaks, preface.
xlix. Sutro Library, ibid.
l. Joe McBride, Ph. D. Professor of Landscape Architecture, letter to San Francisco Recreation and Park Dept., July
li. Marie Bolton, ibid.
lii. “San Francisco Natural Areas Management Plan in Peril,”Sierra Club Yodeler, September 15, 2012.
liii. Joe McBride, Ph D., “The History, Ecology, and Future of Eucalyptus,” Presentation to San Francisco
Commonwealth Club, April 9, 2014.
liv. Marie Bolton, ibid. pp. 4, 5, 11.
lv. San Francisco Presidio Vegetation Management Plan, December 2001, p. 70.
lvi. Brandi, ibid., p. 39.
lvii. Young, ibid., p. 116.
lviii. Brandi, ibid. p. 39.
lix. Mae Silver, Rancho San Miguel, (San Francisco, CA, Ord Street Press, 2000) p. 80.
lx. Brandi, ibid.
lxi. McBride, “The History, Ecology …”, ibid.
lxii. “San Francisco Garden Guerrillas Axing Alien Plants in SF Weed War,” Sacramento Bee, Feb. 2, 1994, Main News
Metro, p. A1.
lxv. San Francisco Urban Forest Plan, 2006
lxvi. Erwin N. Thompson., “The Forest at the Presidio: A Cultural Resource”, 1994, p. 11.
lxvii. Peter Ehrlich, “Urban Forest Management in the Presidio,” Western Arborist, Winter 2003, p. 8.
lxviii. Young, ibid., p. 92.
lxx. Farmer, ibid., p. 220.
lxxi. Carl Nolte, “Grand ruin a window to past,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 23, 2014, p. A2.
lxxii. Robert H. Willson, “Mt. Davidson Unknown to S.F. Citizens,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 4, 1923.
lxxiii . Bolton, ibid. p. 4.
lxxiv. Rybczynski, ibid., p. 412.