Muriel Leff Mini-Park Historical Background
By Christopher Pollock, Historian-in-Residence, San Francisco Recreation and Park Department
Creation of this small park at 420 Seventh Ave. in the Richmond District was before the era of the official mini-park, a federally subsidized program initiated in San Francisco in 1968, and creating it was a complicated business as it was a public-private project, a virtually unknown notion at the time but common today.
When the Order 800 map was created, an official 1868 city map showing the city’s west portion known as the Outside Lands, it reserved numerous lots for public purposes such as parks and school buildings. However, no parks were allocated within the Richmond District.
A small one-story building, the Park Primary School, was built in the northwest corner of the lot sometime prior to 1899. The school was no longer using the site by 1909. With that action the city appropriated the school lot for another municipal use; the newly formed Richmond Police Station, which was opened in 1912. The west third of the property was open yard space, which may have originally been a paddock for horses prior to the automobile taking over as transport. (The building behind the station, which faces today’s park, has an exterior hoist to the second floor, which would have probably been used for hay bales stored on the second floor as was done in Golden Gate Park and Balboa Park Police Station stables in the pre-automobile age.)
A New Park
This park is the result of a true community effort where a group of local property owners, residents, and merchants got together and discussed the pros and cons of the physical community they lived in. Out of discussion came a list of 10 objectives.
The first was “to establish open green areas, such as a shaded plaza, tiny tots play areas, and parks wherever possible.”
In June of 1961 Leff and friends approached the city’s property department to find out who owned the property and it turned out to be the city’s police department. First she made the rounds of the police department and got their approval, and then the planning department: it fit their master plan.
The park’s layout was donated by Landscape Architect Edward A. Williams, a partner with Eckbo, Dean, Austin and Williams. The design was to create a quiet enclave. In May 1962 the Arguello Park Community Association went before the Board of Supervisors and the agreement stated that the group had to get public liability insurance paid in perpetuity. Clarifying that they intended to turn the finished product over to the city, the plan was finally approved.
More time elapsed and the Recreation and Park Commission approved the agreement in their June 13, 1963 meeting.
The local non-profit SPUR (San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association) was involved with the park’s creation and obtained funding from a national department store chain and a local philanthropic foundation. They further enlisted churches and clubs to help finance the project. Much of the construction was done by Youth for Service, an agency combating juvenile delinquency.
Originally known as Arguello Park, the mostly privately enhanced property was turned over to the city on May 2, 1965 by the association. Some 100 people attended the dedication ceremony.
Muriel Lerner Leff (1920-2001) was the wife of Dr. Walter Leff, a surgeon and a stay-at-home mother who was instrumental in the park’s creation and was also responsible for getting trees planted in the neighborhood.
The park’s 35th anniversary was celebrated with the installation of an engraved plaque on May 21, 2000. The plaque, designed by artist Ruth Asawa, is set flush with the pavement at the park’s entry.
A freestanding red-painted pierced-sheet steel sculpture is located near the park’s northeast corner, which is titled “Red Gothic.” A bronze plaque set into the pavement below notes the piece was sculpted by artist Aristides Demetrios in 1986 and donated by the Syril Lerner Foundation for the Richmond Neighbors.