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Daniel Burnham’s Twin Peaks Vision

by Rex Bell
January 2012

Let me take you to another San Francisco. It’s located in the exact same spot as the city we know and love, but it looks vastly different. You will recognize the hills and the natural topography of this place – Twin Peaks, Mt. Davidson, Mt. Sutro, Lake Merced, the Pacific Ocean to the west… But the similarity stops there. Except for the familiar natural landmarks, what covers the landscape of the place we are about to explore looks nothing like the San Francisco you and I are familiar with.

You’re situated on top of Twin Peaks, looking west over the Outside Lands. Instead of gazing down at the familiar rows of pastel-colored houses of Midtown Terrace, Forest Knolls, and Forest Hill beyond, your eyes behold a drastically different scene. It’s a beautifully landscaped expanse, longer than Golden Gate Park and three times as wide, running from Twin Peaks southwest all the way to Lake Merced. The view is both breathtaking and startling – there’s greenery, meadows, flowers, and trees as far as the eye can see, along with a gentle flowing cascade of water. Not a house is in sight. The few structures that do exist on this landscape are monumental in proportion and design, reminiscent of Classical Greece and Ancient Rome.

This strange but beautiful place is part of a San Francisco that nearly was, and the scene I have described is what the western slopes of Twin Peaks, all the way to the ocean, almost became. A vision conceived a century ago, it was part of a plan expected to take 50 years and $50,000,000 (in 1904 dollars) to implement. The vision had formed in the mind of one of the greatest architects and city planners of the turn of the last century. His name was Daniel Hudson Burnham.

Architect and City Planner Daniel Burnham (1846-1912), is famous for the quote, "Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood." -

Born in New York, and raised in Chicago, Burnham was the chief architect of the Columbian Exhibition, held in Chicago in 1893 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus. After gaining notoriety for his work at the Exhibition and for the design of the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C., Burnham was invited to San Francisco in 1904 by former Mayor James Phelan, who was then president of The Association for the Improvement and Adornment of San Francisco. The Association was a quasi-political committee consisting of elected officials, elite citizens, and run by a board of directors. The task at hand was to transform San Francisco, with its newfound wealth, from the Barbary Coast into its rightful place in the world as the “Paris of the Pacific.”

Burnham gladly accepted the invitation. In fact, he was so enthused at the prospect that he offered to work without compensation and only asked that his expenses be covered. He began working on his plan, not here, but in the hill towns of Italy and Greece, studying the juxtaposition of streets, buildings, monuments, and parks in topographical settings similar to San Francisco.

When Burnham arrived in San Francisco, he brought with him his gifted assistant Edward Bennett and enlisted the help of local architect Willis Polk. He chose Twin Peaks as the best possible vantage point from which to study the layout of the City and create his plans. On this spot, Polk built for Burnham a simple wood cottage that would serve as his studio, office, and living quarters. The cottage faced east and provided a perfect view down Market Street and of the metropolis that sprawled to the north and south, bounded on the east by the shoreline of the Bay.

From the Twin Peaks location, enamored with the setting and enthralled with the view, Burnham worked out his plan for urban San Francisco. The City was to be organized by functional districts – the Civic Center, commercial, financial, residential, entertainment, and industrial areas - all separated but conveniently laid out, liberally spotted with parks, and connected by magnificent tree-lined boulevards. This, in brief, was Burnham’s vision for San Francisco’s city center as he looked east from his Twin Peaks vantage point.

But urban San Francisco was only half the picture. As Burnham did an about-face and gazed to the west, his eyes beheld an entirely different view, and his creative mind altered the plan accordingly.

Looking west, Burnham saw the glittering Pacific, blue on some days, gray on others. He felt strong cool winds and breathed fresh ocean air. He witnessed magnificent yellow, orange, and red sunsets. He saw forest-covered hills and open countryside. Immediately below him, Burnham saw the valley formed by the slopes of Twin Peaks, Forest Hill, Mt. Sutro and Mt. Davidson. Laguna Honda, a small natural lake, lay near the head of the valley; Lake Merced was at the far end to the southwest.

This picture of the view looking west from Twin Peaks was taken by one of Daniel Burnham's assistants in 1904. It presents the blank canvas on which Burnham was to design one of the largest and most elaborate city parks ever conceived., 1904 - Original image from "Report on a Plan For San Francisco," Daniel Burnham, 1905. Digital image from David Rumsey Map Collection.

To Burnham, the western half of San Francisco was a blank slate. Though he was committed to preserving the land as open space, in his early 20th Century mind, it was simply not good enough to leave the natural setting alone. The entire southwest portion of the City, from Twin Peaks to Lake Merced was to be transformed into a vast parkland, contrasting to the urban setting of the eastern half of the city.

I will take you now, in the mind’s eye and in Burnham’s own words, to the places he envisioned for the western slopes of Twin Peaks.

Map of San Francisco showing Daniel Burnham's plan for a huge 4,764-acre park extending from Twin Peaks to Lake Merced. It was to be San Francisco's largest, dwarfing Golden Gate Park to the north. , 1905 - Original image from "Report on a Plan For San Francisco," Daniel Burnham, 1905. Digital image from David Rumsey Map Collection.

The following are excerpts from “Report on a Plan for San Francisco”, Daniel Burnham, 1905.

Twin Peaks and Merced Park

“…Twin Peaks and the property lying around it, extending as far as the Lake Merced country, should be acquired by the city for park purposes. The privilege to use the Merced property should be obtained and restrictions should be made in regard to building…in order that the vista from the Peaks to the ocean may be unbroken.

"This park area of Twin Peaks, which includes the hills that surround the San Miguel valley and is terminated by Lake Merced, is a link in the chain of parks girdling the city. The planting (for it ought partly to be planted), should be carried to a height on the north and south sides of Twin Peaks and sweep lower across its face as a great festoon from which Twin Peaks will rise with greater effect as the focal point of the city.

"The forests on the hills inclosing the San Miguel valley should be cleared through its natural axis, leaving a clear sweep to lake [Merced] and ocean. This is a superb vista toward sunset.

Close-up of the area showing the Twin Peaks Park and accompanying monuments of the Burnham Plan, 1905.. - Original image from "Report on a Plan For San Francisco," Daniel Burnham, 1905. Digital image from David Rumsey Map Collection.

"A [new] lake, to serve as a reservoir, as will be described under "Water Supply," should be created west of the peaks, at the head of this valley, and perhaps the water might be carried in cascades to Laguna Honda or even to Lake Merced.

"From the level contour drives many beautiful vistas will open. Terraces must be built, the trees cleared away, and a special selection made of plunging views into the valley.

"Bordering the [new] lake and in part surrounded by it, are certain eminences. This spot in the heart of the valley would be an attractive place for public recreation buildings. But if they were too large they would disfigure the general beauty of the park”.

“From crest to crest of these hills might be cut forest glades, festooning from one to the other. The highest crests should be left free from trees and crowned with terraces.

"Twin Peaks ought to be not only a public park, but a center for great public fetes in which the natural beauties of city and county would be the chief attraction. Every improvement directed towards this end would contribute to the growth and beauty of the city.

"West from Twin Peaks would stretch the valley to the lakes and ocean. Here there would be already the forests of planted trees, themselves characteristic of California, and in the bed of the valley, flowing up under the trees, into the glades, from terrace to terrace and from hill to hill, masses of the most beautiful of California's fruits and flowers—some as permanent planting, some for fete purposes and still others, sheltered in delicate structures, accentuating the natural lay of the ground by the terraces in which they are placed…by night the chain of forest glades will be outlined in their undulations from hill to hill by permanent or temporary illuminations”.

The Athenaeum

“High in the hills grouped about Twin Peaks, yet sheltered by them, it is proposed to establish an Athenaeum.

"Its natural site is the termination of the great vista from the hills north of Twin Peaks to the Merced country and the ocean. The orientation on its axis is a good one, facing neither the prevailing winds of summer nor winter.

"The Athenaeum, so called, should receive some few of the greatest works of art. It would consist of courts, terraces and colonnaded shelters. These latter would be arranged after the manner of the great Poecile of the Villa Hardian. This consists of a wall so built as to collect the warmth of the sun and afford protection from the wind. On either side of the wall is a colonnade with a covered promenade where visitors may walk in the sunshine or the shade without being bothered by the wind. There should also be protected or colonnaded terraces commanding the principal views of the city and parkland. These too, might be modeled on similar terraces commanding the principal views in the Villa Hadrian overlooking the Vale of Tempe”.

Burnham's vision for San Francisco's Athenaeum, looking west toward Lake Merced from today's Marview Drive. A waterfall pours down from a lake just below the Athenaeum into the valley. The 300-foot-tall female statue, "San Francisco.", 1905 - Original image from "Report on a Plan For San Francisco," Daniel Burnham, 1905. Digital image from David Rumsey Map Collection.

The Almshouse

Burnham saw the Almshouse, which was an institution that housed San Francisco’s poor and destitute (located at the site of today’s Laguna Honda Hospital), as a blight on the landscape. Of this he wrote, “It is proposed to remove the Almshouse from its present location in the San Miguel Valley. This section is to be a great parkland extending from Twin Peaks to the ocean. Such an institution belongs on the outskirts of a city and it is suggested that it be moved as far to the south as possible. A site might be found for it in Sunnyside in the neighborhood of the County Jail”. (The County Jail was located at the present site of City College).

The Amphitheater

“To the north of Twin Peaks lies a natural hollow bounded by Clarendon and Parnassus avenues, Clayton and Stanyan streets. Here it is proposed to create an amphitheater, or stadium, of vast proportions. Natural slopes, which might easily be converted into grass terraces, surround it on three sides. Its southern side runs to an elevation of 800 feet and commands not only the field below, but a fine view of the Golden Gate beyond”.

“This amphitheater would recall by its location the stadium in the hills at Delphi, which overlooks the Gulf of Corinth, and the theater of Dionysos, at the foot of the Acropolis, from which the Piraeus and the Sea of Aegina come finely into view. In it might be held the horse show, polo matches, football, lacrosse, and other games”.

View of the Golden Gate from Ashbury and Seventeenth Streets, 1904, 1904 - Original image from "Report on a Plan For San Francisco," Daniel Burnham, 1905. Digital image from David Rumsey Map Collection.

The amphitheater as imagined in today's Cole Valley, overlooking the Golden Gate., 1904 - Original image from "Report on a Plan For San Francisco," Daniel Burnham, 1905. Digital image from David Rumsey Map Collection.

The proposed location of the Amphitheater (top) and a depiction of what it would have looked like. The Amphitheater sits in a “hollow” just above Cole Valley in the vicinity of what is now Clayton Street and Twin Peaks Blvd. The slope at left is the north side of Mt. Sutro. San Francisco Bay is visible in the distance with the Marin Headlands forming the north side of the Golden Gate at upper right.
Looking over Cole Valley to the Golden Gate, 2011, 2011 - Photograph by Rex Bell

The Cole Valley location of the proposed Amphitheater as it appears today. (Photo by Rex Bell)

The Maternity

Burnham saw the western slopes of Twin Peaks as a fitting place to bring new life into the world. He proposed for this location an institution called “The Maternity,” which was to be a birthing center for San Francisco’s elite expectant mothers. Of this Burnham writes, “It is thought that the influence of such an establishment, in surroundings of most ideal character, yet not far removed from the city, would be of great moral value.”

The proposed location of the Maternity is in the vicinity of what is now Panorama Drive and Cityview Way in Midtown Terrace (just above the SF Youth Guidance Center which, of course, would have never been built). It would have provided new mothers a healthy and inspirational environment with fresh, clean air blown in from the sea and amazing views of the valley, hills, forests, and ocean to the west.

The Academy

During the planning for the 1893 Columbian Exhibition, a group of American architects, painters, and sculptors, including Burnham, discussed the idea of forming an American school of the arts in Rome, considered the cultural heart of Europe. The school was founded the following year (1894) and still thrives to this day. It was Burnham’s inspiration for a similar Academy to be established on the southeastern slope of Twin Peaks.

“The plans for Twin Peaks include a collective center or academy, which is to be arranged for the accommodation of men in various branches of intellectual and artistic pursuits. […] Here they will be grouped for independent study or collaboration and will enjoy the constant inspiration of ideal surroundings, an association the city will do well to cultivate. It will consist of […] administrative headquarters, assembly, reception, lecture and dining halls, together with the necessary services, […] small structures fitted for special work or study, provided with living accommodations and connected with the central group by easy approaches. These structures might be grouped under the three heads of letters, science, and art. A little open-air theater, after the ancient Greek model, would form part of this scheme."

Water Supply

Burnham planned a huge waterfall cascading down what is now Clarendon Avenue. It would have flowed through the canyon between Mt. Sutro (then called Blue Mountain) and the hill on which Sutro Tower is now located. The water would then pool into a lake in the bowl of the valley, in the approximate location of today’s Sutro Reservoir. The land that is now occupied by the Midtown Terrace Playground would have been under water. A dam would have been built at the lake, allowing water to flow in a controlled manner into Laguna Honda Reservoir below it. Villas were to have been built on the shore of the lake, with an island in the middle.

“The water supply of San Francisco will eventually be obtained from the Sierras. As it will be limitless, the reservoirs should be vast and designed to be in themselves a feature of the city. They should be placed at such a height that the water may be used for fire purposes, fountains, and water works of all descriptions.

"At some extra cost, a superb effect might be produced by using a number of reservoirs at successive heights. The water, arriving at the highest point through a triumphal entrance, would fall from one level to another in cascades, thus producing a veritable 'Chateau d'Eau.' These reservoirs at different levels would supply corresponding heights in the city and the water would be aerated by means of the cascades."

Plans Submitted

Burnham’s completed plans and drawings were submitted to the City on September 27, 1905. They were accepted amid formal gatherings, fanfare, and speeches. Mayor Schmitz said, “On behalf of the citizens if San Francisco, it gives me great pleasure to accept these plans and to state that in the future, they shall forever be our guiding star, as far as the beauty of the city is concerned.”

The next day, the San Francisco Call ran full-page coverage of Burnham’s work along with enthusiastic descriptions of what the City would become. The following excerpt is from article that appeared in the San Francisco Call on September 28, 1905:

Plans for a City Beautiful Are Superb

Unity and Dignity Have a Place in the Scheme

By Laura Bride Powers

As the possession of an ideal is essential to the development of the characters of men, in just such measure is an ideal necessary to the consistent development of a city. And, it is an ideal— a superb ideal— of what San Francisco may become, and shall strive to be, that the wizard Burnham has given us in the plans turned over yesterday by William Greer Harrison of the Association for the Improvement and Adornment of San Francisco, to the Board of Supervisors, which formally accepted them on behalf of the city. Thus is the first step taken to carry out the destiny of beauty that the Father intended when he fashioned the hills and stretches of valleys upon which our city lies.

Steeped in the conviction that the City by-the-Golden Gate was divinely endowed — but undeveloped and therefore damply appreciated— James D. Phelan induced Mr. Burnham to come to this city. To him he confessed his convictions, and then begged an expert opinion upon them. Taking the visitor out to Twin Peaks one summer afternoon, when the blue haze hung lightly over the city in its turquoise setting, Mr. Phelan heard his answer. And it ran something like this—
after the artist Burnham had rediscovered articulation: "Sir, your city has one of the most beautiful situations in the world. It is incomparable. It surpasses in point of natural beauty any other city I have ever known.

Now, Mr. Burnham has known quite a few cities. Moreover, he is a man of
 truth. And thus did it come to pass that the man from Chicago, who caught the grandeur of the view in a sweep of his eye, was soon commissioned to create an ideal, which the adolescent city should set before it, and for which it should reach out to achieve year by year…

All that remained was to begin raising the necessary capital and put the forces of civil engineering and construction into effect to make Burnham’s San Francisco a reality. Concerns about the staggering cost were dismissed with the reasoning that implementation of the plans would attract business, commerce, tourism, population growth, and wealth, allowing the undertaking to pay for itself over a relatively short period of time.

But despite the confidence, enthusiasm, and support of the City’s elite, skeptical voices soon began to make themselves heard. Concerns about the immense cost were raised again. Business interests and property owners expressed opposition and resentment that eminent domain necessary to carry out the plans would claim what was rightfully theirs, creating upheaval and economic hardship.

While the debate was still raging, less than a year after the plans had been accepted, nature settled the argument. On April 18, 1906, a powerful earthquake literally shook The City to its foundations. The subsequent fire destroyed Burnham’s original plans and drawings, which were stored at City Hall. Daniel Burnham’s dream and vision for San Francisco, which had come close to being realized, perished that day and support for his plan was never resurrected.

It is ironic that the very forces of Nature that had created the magnificent setting that inspired Daniel Burnham’s vision were, in large part, also responsible for his vision’s demise.

Grading and Excavation work for Midtown Terrace and Sutro Reservoir, October 1953, Oct 19, 1953 - San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

A far cry from Daniel Burnham’s vision. Rather than being covered with parkland, the western slopes of Twin Peaks are graded for construction of the Midtown Terrace Neighborhood (October 1953). Somewhat true to his plan, but with more focus on practicality than aesthetics, Sutro Reservoir (large pit at middle right) is being constructed in the valley below the peaks.
Midtown Terrace, 1961, 1961 - Photograph by Earl Martin, digitization by Gary Snow of Paragon Realty.

The modest single-family houses are located on land once proposed for a vast park with structures and monuments inspired by those of Classical Greece and Ancient Rome.

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