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Buena Vista Park

Buena Vista Park was created in 1870 by the same legislation that created Golden Gate Park.  At that time the area had long been owned under pre-emption claims, but remained unsettled except for a very few farm houses.  Owners whose land was taken for the park were compensated, and the city’s Park Commissioners allowed the park to remain in its natural state for some decades, until the neighborhood became more settled.  Thus, the decision to purchase land for Buena Vista Park, for the benefit of a future generation, was far-seeing.

The main change to the park in its early years was the result of grading Haight Street as a thoroughfare.  This grading left a bluff at the northern edge of Buena Vista Park, and whenever there were heavy rains, earth would collapse from the hillside onto the street.  The earth was then carted off for gardening use in Golden Gate Park.

A plaque in the park states that the park was developed in the 1890s.  However, the concrete staircases and paved paths in the park appear to date from a later time.  A newspaper article from 1895 describes the park as “neglected and barren,” adding that “no one would now believe that it is a public park.”  Another article in 1896 reports that neighbors had organized as the Park Hill Improvement Club, and were urging the Park Commission to make improvements.  The paper reported, “the Park in its present condition is declared to be a disgrace to the city.  It is a barren piece of land containing thirty-six acres and is covered with a growth of scrub oaks.”

As far as is known, not until 1910 did the Park Commission request $25,000 from the city supervisors to develop the park.  Work finally began in 1912 and was completed in 1913, to a plan devised by Parks Superintendent John McLaren.  This work, costing $15,000, included grading the eastern slope of the hill, making a driveway to the top of the hill, widening an esplanade there, grading a new footpath from Buena Vista Avenue to the top, building a staircase from a sidewalk to the top of a terrace, and planting thousands of trees.  This work was formally dedicated in April 1913.  The next year, the Haight and Ashbury District Improvement Association requested another $25,000 for Buena Vista Park improvements.  It may be that the staircases leading into the park and the pathways in the park were built in stages over time.

The Park Hill Homestead Association

Just as the land that became Buena Vista Park had been owned under pre-emption claims for many years, so had the land surrounding the park.  In the 1860s and 1870s the city surveyed this land, dividing it into blocks and streets and making intensive development possible.  Once this was done, speculators moved in, bought the land, and formed homestead associations.  Their purpose was to survey the land they had purchased, demarcating small lots for residences, and then market the land to individuals who would build residences for themselves.  Invariably, homestead associations would form after the streets had been surveyed, but long before residential development had occurred close to the area.  These were long-term investments, ones that would pay off many years later, after the land came into demand for development.

The Park Hill Homestead Association was formed in 1869, after Buena Vista Park had been surveyed but a year before legislation creating it had passed, by about a dozen investors.  Over the next decade they donated land to the city for use as South Broderick Street (now Buena Vista Terrace), petitioned the city to grade other streets within and near their tract, and made certain improvements, such as grading their land to make it suitable for building.  In 1878 and 1879 the homestead association trustees fully surveyed their land, which comprised some or all of six city blocks, dividing it into 25-foot wide lots.  Lots were finally offered for sale in 1884, and by 1887 they were selling briskly.  Some of the buyers did indeed build houses on their lots, while others were small-time speculators who bought lots with the expectation that their value would rise over time.

One of the major investors in the homestead association was the sugar manufacturer, Claus Spreckels.  He had retained ownership of 38 lots at the north end of the tract.
By 1891 there were enough residents in the Park Hill Homestead and the adjacent Flint Tract to organize in protest against the planned construction of a hospital on Park Avenue (as the road surrounding the park was then called).  The hospital was probably St. Joseph’s, which was first constructed in wood, and then was rebuilt in 1927 to designs by Bakewell and Brown.  (It has since been converted into condominiums.)
Today the Buena Vista Park neighborhood is one of the most exclusive areas for housing, with its stately older homes and vibrant modern new construction, all the natural beauty of the hillside park, the ease of commuting downtown or to the south bay and its beautiful sweeping vistas of the surrounding bay.