Stern Grove (and Pine Lake)

If you spend much time in San Francisco, you can’t help but notice that it’s jam packed with people. Go anywhere on any day in the downtown area or the Wharf or anywhere in between and you’ll find busy streets and crowded sidewalks. Our little 47-square-mile city is crowded because 815,000 of us live here, another 300,000 commute here for work, and another 16 million or so visit here every year.

There are lots of upsides to having such a dense population; it means we can support world-class performing arts and cultural venues, major league sports, decent public transit, and thousands of eateries and watering holes. The downside is that our housing is dense and compact; many of us live in small apartments without yards or decks or even so much as a balcony. We need places to get fresh air and exercise, calm our minds, and smell the roses. Fortunately, we have lots of parks to fill this need, and Stern Grove is one of our best.

01) Redwood Grove (Z-15-819) 03) Picnic Area (Z-15-805) 04) Trocadero Inn (Z-15-807) 06) Rhoda Goldman Concert (Z-15-825) 09) Pine Lake (Z-15-875)

Stern Grove is a 63-acre park located in the Sunset District at 19th Avenue and Sloat Boulevard. The park is 15 blocks long and roughly two blocks wide; it fills a long narrow canyon with steep sides and a meandering, narrow valley at the bottom. The canyon sides are densely covered with giant eucalyptus, redwood, and fir trees, which makes the houses rimming the canyon walls and the noise from the nearby streets barely noticeable. Once you descend into the canyon, it’s easy to forget that you are in a crowded, noisy, bustling city, and, except during concerts, it’s very peaceful and serene.

Stern Grove is most noted for its free summer concerts and as a great place for locals to exercise their dogs; it’s also a great place to walk or jog or just enjoy the flora and breathe the eucalyptus-scented air. My favorite way to experience the park is to take public transit to the main entrance at Sloat and 19th Avenue and walk the length of the park. Along the way, the road and trails pass by a beautiful little picnic area, a redwood grove, a clubhouse, the amphitheater (where free concerts are held), a long grassy meadow where dogs can play off-leash, and Pine Lake, one of three remaining natural lakes in San Francisco. At the far end of Pine Lake, a trail and service road lead to 34th Avenue — from there it’s a short walk to a public transit stop.

History

In the 1840s, George Greene and his family homesteaded a large land grant in what is now the Sunset District. The property included a small canyon, and in the 1870s, the family planted eucalyptus trees on the canyon’s hillsides. In 1892, Greene opened an elegant Victorian hotel and resort in the canyon called the Trocadero Inn. For more than two decades, it was a popular roadhouse frequented by well-heeled San Franciscans; it closed in 1916, a casualty of prohibition.

In 1931, Rosalie Meyer Stern set out to create a memorial for her late husband, Sigmund Stern. She wanted a site suitable for a park that she could name in his honor and donate to the city. With the help of Tenor Lawrence Strauss, Rosalie found that the site of Green’s Trocadero Inn had excellent natural acoustics, and with the encouragement of John McLaren, San Francisco’s Superintendent of Parks, she purchased the 33-acre property from George Greene for the sum of $50,000.








Rosalie had the Trocadero Inn (photo above) restored and the property landscaped into an amphitheater (left photo); she deeded it to the city with the stipulation that it be controlled by the playground commission and “preserved as a park in which the public could enjoy admission-free music, dance, and theater performances.” In 1932, the Sigmund Stern Recreation Grove opened with a series of performances, and that summer the San Francisco Symphony held its first Stern Grove concert. By 1938, the city had purchased additional land and expanded the park westward to include Pine Lake, and the Grove’s performances had evolved into a major annual event called the Midsummer Music Festival.

Midsummer Music Festival

Every year, on every Sunday afternoon from mid-June to mid-August there are free concerts held in the amphitheater at Stern Grove. These are first-rate concerts including the San Francisco Symphony, Ballet, and Opera, and popular performers of folk, rock, jazz, blues, and more. What sets these concerts apart is that they are held in this beautiful outdoor setting, and THEY ARE FREE.

If you wish to attend a concert, there are two really important things to know. First, take public transportation if possible, because during concerts the only available parking is on the streets outside the park. Second, these concerts are really popular, and once the venue is filled to capacity the gates are closed. The concerts start at 2pm, but come early if you want a decent seat with a view of the stage — early means by mid-morning. Go to the Stern Grove Festival website for the concert schedule, and download the Festival Guide for details about things like food, drink, and festival rules.


Parking, Restrooms, and Rentals

There are restrooms at both ends of the park, but, alas, they are only open during events. Parking, on the other hand, is difficult during events, but is generally available the rest of the time. From the main park entrance (at Sloat and 19th Avenue) you can drive to the Trocadero Clubhouse where there is a small lot with 16 spaces. The second vehicle entrance is on Vale Street (off of Sloat) and ends at a larger lot with 60 spaces. The park map shows a road running through the park from the main entrance all the way to Pine Lake, but sections of the road are only open to park service vehicles. If your goal is to walk through the park, public transportation works best because you can enter at one end and exit the other.

The restored Trocadero Inn is now called the Trocadero Clubhouse and is available for rent; it’s a popular venue for weddings and parties (third photo above). There’s also a beautiful and secluded little picnic area available for rent; it would be perfect for a family gathering (second photo above). Go here for contact information.

The Strauss-Haas Connection

The amphitheater in Stern Grove is officially called the Rhoda Goldman Concert Meadow. Rhoda’s full name is Rhoda Haas Goldman; that’s “Haas” as in the very prominent San Francisco family who own Levi Strauss & Company and whose money and personal involvement support many things in this city including the Museum of Modern Art, the restoration of Crissy Field, miles of trails and a campground in the Presidio, after-school programs in low income neighborhoods, and much, much more. For six generations, the Haas family has been one of the most charitable in the nation.

I’ve wondered how the company founded by Levi Strauss back in 1854 ended up being owned and run by the Haas family. Now I know. When Levi Strauss died in 1902, he left his company to his two nephews, Jacob and Sigmund Stern. Sigmund and his wife Rosalie had a daughter named Elise who married Walter P. Haas. Walter joined Levi Strauss & Company in 1919 and, when Sigmund Stern died in 1928, Walter became president. Elise and Walter had three children; Rhoda Haas Goldman was one of them. Sigmund Stern was a descendant of Levi Strauss; Rhoda Haas Goldman was his granddaughter. Sigmund Stern is the link between Levi Strauss and the Haas family.

When Sigmund Stern died, his widow, Rosalie, wished to honor his memory by creating a park in his name and donating it to the city. She gave us Stern Grove — the honor is ours.

 

Giving credit where credit is due:

Stern Grove Festival Website: History of the Festival

Parks Department website: Stern Grove and Pine Lake

THE HAAS LEGACY / How one family's generosity and commitment to civic life are transforming the Bay Area - By Julian Guthrie, July 01, 2007

© Virginia E. Vail 2012