The Changing Landscape: West Portal Avenue

by Arnold Woods

When the Twin Peaks Tunnel opened on February 3, 1918, it began a century of change to the west of the tunnel. Of course, that was the whole point to the tunnel. By opening a direct public transportation route to downtown San Francisco underneath Twin Peaks, the City was encouraging development in the largely empty areas of the Outside Lands. Naturally, the West Portal area grew up around the tunnel’s western entrance with a business district along West Portal Avenue itself. Over the years, the businesses on West Portal Avenue and the vehicles that traversed it would see their share of change.
 

View northeast at west portal of Twin Peaks Tunnel, circa 1916.View northeast at west portal of Twin Peaks Tunnel, circa 1916. (wnp14.12550; DPW Horace Chaffee, photographer – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

We begin as things are beginning to take shape in the area. We have a tunnel entrance, but not much else. No streetcar tracks. No West Portal Avenue. Just a sign announcing the upcoming “First Station West of Twin Peaks Tunnel” and the obvious signs of construction. The image gives you some idea of how desolate the West Portal area was just over 100 years ago.
 

View northeast at west portal of Twin Peaks Tunnel and streetcar tracks, December 24, 1917.View northeast at west portal of Twin Peaks Tunnel and streetcar tracks, December 24, 1917. (wnp36.01790; DPW Horace Chaffee, photographer – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

We leap forward a year or so and find some progress. In this Department of Public Works image taken the day before Christmas in 1917, the tunnel is almost finished and streetcar tracks head southwest from it through a barren landscape. There are a few buildings in the distance, but there is no West Portal yet because there is no streetcar service yet. It is a reminder that there was some gambles happening. The City and land developers were gambling that by providing streetcar service to the Outside Lands, people would move out to areas that were largely sand and scrub brush at the time.
 

View northeast along West Portal Avenue toward Twin Peaks Tunnel entrance, January 20, 1927.View northeast along West Portal Avenue toward Twin Peaks Tunnel entrance, January 20, 1927. (wnp26.120; DPW Horace Chaffee, photographer – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

A little over nine years later, the same area is entirely different. On each side of the streetcar tracks, a road has been constructed with buildings lining both sides. A then still relatively new Portal Theatre–it opened on December 26, 1925–can be seen at the right with a movie called “The Wise Guy,” starring James Kirkwood and Betty Compson, on the marquee. A Piggly Wiggly market, the store that revolutionized supermarket shopping by allowing “self-service” for customers who then went through check-out stands, can be seen down the block from the theater. On the tracks is a MUNI K-line streetcar headed toward St. Francis Circle. The vehicles parked on West Portal Avenue all have a great deal of similarity.
 

View northeast along West Portal Avenue toward Twin Peaks Tunnel entrance, circa 1929.View northeast along West Portal Avenue toward Twin Peaks Tunnel entrance, circa 1929. (wnp67.0027; wnp67.0027.jpg)
 

Just two or so years later, there’s already some change along West Portal Avenue. The concrete dividers between the road and streetcar tracks have been removed and cars are now parked at an angle instead of parallel to the curb. These two developments are likely related as the angled parking cut into the roadway which may have necessitated removal of the concrete dividers so cars had more room to maneuver on the road. Then showing at the Portal Theatre was the 1929 Clara Bow film, The Wild Party, one of her first “talkies.” Over on the left, we see a Bank of Italy branch next to a drug store.
 

View northeast along West Portal Avenue toward Twin Peaks Tunnel entrance, September 1949.View northeast along West Portal Avenue toward Twin Peaks Tunnel entrance, September 1949. (wnp14.3736; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

We push forward 20 years to 1949. An M-line streetcar heads southwest down West Portal Avenue. The streetcar itself has been modernized and this one no longer has the pilot on the front, more colloquially known as the cow-catcher, to deflect potential obstacles on the track. Nonetheless, pilots would continue to be used on some streetcars for many years into the future. There is still angled parking, but the cars are much more modern, with more rounded edges.
 

View northeast along West Portal Avenue toward Twin Peaks Tunnel entrance, circa 1956.View northeast along West Portal Avenue toward Twin Peaks Tunnel entrance, circa 1956. (wnp14.10132; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Another seven years pass by and we find ourselves in 1956. The M-line streetcar looks largely the same, but because the view is back beyond the intersection at Vicente, we see the introduction of crosswalks painted on the street. The biggest change in the street is the introduction of a concrete median between the two directions of the streetcar tracks To the left, there is the same Bank of Italy branch, now known as Bank of America, a change that occurred back in 1930. The Empire Theatre, formerly the Portal Theatre, is showing the adventure film, Back From Eternity, starring Robert Ryan and Anita Ekberg. The name change had occurred back in 1936.
 

View northeast along West Portal Avenue toward Twin Peaks Tunnel entrance, circa 1965.View northeast along West Portal Avenue toward Twin Peaks Tunnel entrance, circa 1965. (wnp25.2255; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Another decade or so hence, we can see how busy West Portal Avenue has become. The M-line streetcar now features not just the line designation sign, but rotating route information that describes where the streetcar is going. While there had always been store signage along the street, it appears to have become really prevalent by the mid-1960s. Among others, we signs for a drug store, an ice cream shop, several realtors, a deli, two coffee shops, a bank, and, of course, the Empire Theatre.
 

View northeast along West Portal Avenue toward Twin Peaks Tunnel entrance, August 6, 1979.View northeast along West Portal Avenue toward Twin Peaks Tunnel entrance, August 6, 1979. (wnp25.5122; Courtesy of a Private Collector.)
 

We end our review of West Portal Avenue in 1979. In the background, you can see the blue coverings for the new West Portal tunnel station. In the 1970s, the tunnel and prior station were revamped for the MUNI conversion to a hybrid light rail and streetcar, which necessitated the new entrance and station to the Twin Peaks Tunnel. The new MUNI Metro cars had a sleeker look and feature a new color scheme, ditching the old green and white color for a bolder red, orange, and white. Not everyone was a fan of the new look when it happened. Although unseen in this image, the Empire Theatre had also undergone a revamping, becoming a triplex by this time. On the street itself, the median is gone, but there is a concrete MUNI loading area next to the tracks. A new much smaller median would be built later.

Over the last 100 years, this view went from virtually nothing to a vibrant, bustling neighborhood, alongside a major public transportation route in the City. It remains that today.
 

Fire In The Dome: A Closer Look

by Arnold Woods

When it opened in April 1879, the Conservatory of Flowers became Golden Gate Park’s first “attraction” and quickly a favorite of visitors.1 The structure had been purchased by James Lick from Lord & Burnham’s in New York in the early 1870s. Lick died on October 1, 1876, before it could be constructed. The Society of California Pioneers then received the conservatory from Lick’s estate. They sold it to some prominent San Franciscans, who in turn donated it to the City for construction in Golden Gate Park.
 

Conservatory of Flowers, circa 1879.Conservatory of Flowers, circa 1879. (wnp37.00788-R; Carleton Watkins, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

In its original incarnation, the Conservatory of Flowers featured two fountains, one in the entryway and another in the Palm Room under the dome. The west wing’s two galleries displayed flowering and ornamental foliage and hardwooded plants. In the east wing, there was an Orchid House and aquatic plant gallery. The latter held the famed Victoria regia, a giant water lily, the first to be grown in California.
 

View of fire damage to Conservatory of Flowers and dome, January 1883.View of fire damage to Conservatory of Flowers and dome, January 1883. (wnp26.1318.jpg; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

At the rear of the structure was a half-story furnace room that was used to maintain temperatures for various plants. At approximately 9:30 a.m. on Friday, January 5, 1883, a fire broke out in this furnace room.2 The wooden structure in the dome section of the Conservatory was quickly consumed with flames. Unfortunately, there were no fire hydrants in the area yet and the Golden Gate Park firehose lacked sufficient pressure to reach the upper portions of the facility. The dome’s glass ceiling eventually shattered and shards fell on the plants below.
 

Conservatory of Flowers after fire, January 1883.Conservatory of Flowers after fire, January 1883. (wnp37.02292-R; J.J. Reilly, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Firefighters did manage to save the Conservatory’s wings, but the dome section was largely destroyed. Damage was estimated to be about $10,000-15,000 to repair. The cause of the fire was undetermined.3 Most of the plants lost in the fire were thought to be easily replaceable, except for a “magnificent” orchid that had been in full bloom near the entrance. Fortunately, weather was favorable at the time for plants that otherwise needed heat from the destroyed furnace.
 

View west from Arizona garden to Conservatory of Flowers with dome under reconstruction, 1883.View west from Arizona garden to Conservatory of Flowers with dome under reconstruction, 1883. (wnp37.02290-L; J.J. Reilly, photographer – Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

In their annual report delivered ten days after the fire, Golden Gate Park Commissioners recommended repairing the conservatory and installing a nearby water main to prevent future “calamity.4” Reconstruction did not begin immediately, however, as the City lacked the funds to appropriate for it.5 Fortunately, help would soon arrive.
 

View north across Main Drive (now John F. Kennedy Drive) at Conservatory of Flowers, circa 1885.View north across Main Drive (now John F. Kennedy Drive) at Conservatory of Flowers, circa 1885. (wnp24.526a; C.H. Graves, photographer / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Charles Crocker, one of the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad, who later took control of the Southern Pacific Railroad with his partners, stepped up for the cash-strapped City. In the Summer of 1883, he donated $10,000 to repair the Conservatory.6 The work began in mid-July 1883 with one significant change to the design.7 The dome was raised by 25 feet to accommodate the expected growth of the palms. In addition, the eagle filial atop the dome was replaced with one of the planet Saturn, which was named after the Roman god of agriculture.
 

View northeast to Conservatory of Flowers, circa 1890.View northeast to Conservatory of Flowers, circa 1890. (wnp15.998; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Another fire that also started in the furnace room partially damaged the dome section of the Conservatory on April 1, 1918.8 Although the fire department acted quickly, a portion of the glass dome collapsed again. However, the overall damage was not as extensive as the 1883 fire and the structural damage, exclusive of the value of damaged plants, was estimated to be about $3,000. Fortunately, there have been no further fires in the just over 100 years since then. The entire building went through a restoration effort in the early 200s and the Conservatory of Flowers remains a major attraction of Golden Gate Park.
 

Notes:

1.Our History,” Conservatory of Flowers website.

2. “A Fire In Golden Gate Park,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 6, 1883, p. 3.

3. “The Burned Conservatory,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 8, 1883, p. 2.

4. “Golden Gate Park,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 16, 1883, p. 4.

5. “The Finance Committee,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 31, 1883, p. 4.

6. “The Park Conservatory,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 13, 1883, p. 3.

7. “Jottings About Town,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 20, 1883, p. 3.

7. “Flames Sweep Rare Plants In Park Hothouse,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 2, 1918, p. 7.