Volunteers “Pitch in” to Save WPA Sculpture at Golden Gate Park

Horseshoe player at Golden Gate Park, 1969

Horseshoe player at Golden Gate Park, 1969
Long neglected, the courts have been largely restored.

A thousand acres of shifting sand with clusters of old-growth live oak were the raw materials for San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. By the 1870s the dunes had been transformed into a Victorian-era commons for the burgeoning city.

San Francisco’s elite mingled with the town’s hoi polloi at the ornate Victorian Conservatory of Flowers, on trails wending through the oak woodlands in Mayor Coon’s Hollow, and at the Horseshoe Courts in the old Lick Hill quarry—its stone walls and platforms a tribute to the ancient game of “quoits,” devised by Roman soldiers in occupied Britain subsequently embraced by medieval English peasants.

Horseshoe Courts at Golden Gate Park

Horseshoe Courts at Golden Gate Park
The larger-than-life-size, bas relief horse and rock walls are artifacts of the WPA. The sculpture fell in 2009 and is beyond repair.
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

In the 1930s, with unemployment at an all-time high, Golden Gate Park became one of San Francisco’s major job sites. WPA workers resurfaced roads, installed landscaping for Strybing Arboretum and built horse stables. The archery field, Angler’s Lodge and casting pools, the Model Yacht Club at Spreckels Lake, and the enhancement of the Horseshoe Courts were among the WPA’s projects.

In 1934 Jesse S. “Vet” Anderson, a Spanish American War veteran, illustrator, cartoonist, sculptor, and member of the Golden Gate Horseshoe Club, was commissioned to adorn the Horseshoe Courts with two bas-relief sculptures—the regal “Horse” and the athletic horseshoe “Pitcher.” Cast in concrete, the painted artworks presided over the courts only briefly. By the 1950s, society’s recreational tastes had changed. The courts were neglected, and were slowly overtaken by sand and vandalized. The surrounding oak woodlands became choked with ivy, blackberry, homeless camps, and trash. The sculptures vanished.  

"The Pitcher" at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park

"The Pitcher" at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park
Volunteers launched an effort to restore the court’s remaining 9×12 foot sculpture.
Photo Credit: Rob Bakewell

Forty years on, upset by the loss of the park’s natural assets and diminished public safety, neighbors, civic and environmental groups, and the Recreation and Parks Department’s new Natural Areas Program came together to turn the tide.  It took years and thousands of hours of volunteer labor, but the courts were cleared and repaired, the sculptures were recovered from the tangle of overgrowth, and the surrounding oak woodlands were revived.

Sadly, Vet Anderson’s concrete “Horse” could not be saved. It fell and crumbled in 2009. The WPA “Pitcher,” though partially restored the same year, is now structurally endangered. The estimated cost for the required restoration is substantial.

The artist’s signature

The artist’s signature
Vet Anderson, 1937
Photo Credit: Rob Bakewell

Fortunately, Friends of Oak Woodlands GGP, a partner of the San Francisco Parks Alliance; a new San Francisco Horseshoe Pitching Club; and community volunteers continue their advocacy and stewardship. As Golden Gate Park celebrates its 150th birthday in 2020, efforts are underway to restore Anderson’s WPA-era “Pitcher.”  For information and to support this project, please contact: Friends of the Oak Woodlands GG Park, [email protected], 415-710-9617.

Rob Bakewell has lived hard by Golden Gate Park for 30 years. He is co-founder of the Friends of Oak Woodlands GG Park, a volunteer organization that, under the fiscal sponsorship of SF Parks Alliance, has worked for more than 25 years to restore the park’s historic woodlands. A nature trail through the woodlands was recently dedicated by San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department and reopened to the public.

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