West Portal Playground Historical Background
By Christopher Pollock, Historian in Residence, San Francisco Recreation and Park Department
The genesis of the land for this playground comes as a by-product of the West Portal rail station (now Muni), which opened on Feb. 3, 1918 as the western terminus of the Twin Peaks Tunnel. The 12,000-foot-long tunnel was the longest subterranean bore in the world up to that time. More importantly the public transportation opened the area to the construction of homes.
A New Playground
The first mention of this playground was in September 1926 when the Playground Commission requested the Board of Supervisors to transfer the property atop the tunnel. The following February, the Board of Works, which had jurisdiction over the land, was ordered to transfer the land to the Playground Commission. The playground was operational by 1931 as a sports team from the playground was represented in a citywide sports meet. A 1938 aerial photo shows a tennis court occupying the entire east end of the park with what appears to be a playground just west of that, but otherwise it was green space.
In 1942 the West Portal P.T.A. recommended naming the park for Charlotte Estes who died in 1941. Estes was the principal of the adjacent West Portal School from 1927 to 1940. The Recreation Commission turned down the proposal. The alternative was a bronze sundial, which was dedicated to her memory on Nov. 15, 1942 with funding from the P.T.A., friends and patrons of the school, educational leaders and former pupils. The piece remains today.
A Clubhouse is Constructed
The clubhouse was added and inaugurated on June 1, 1951 by Mayor Elmer E. Robinson, a product of the 1947 Recreation Bond Fund. William G. Merchant was architect for the building; its cost was $25,000.
A New Clubhouse
An unusual opportunity came about when the adjacent West Portal Muni station was slated for reconstruction with an entirely new portal and station. Discussions started in 1970 and continued through the decade as the design was developed toward completion. Being in close proximity, the existing clubhouse was affected by the work and would be demolished and a new one constructed. In 1974 it was revealed that the costs would not be borne by the Recreation and Park Commission but rather by BART. The playground reopened with its entirely new building on Oct. 26, 1979.
A $1.5 million renovation project in 2005 saw the park’s clubhouse expanded and upgraded. On the exterior of the building are garlands of flush ceramic pieces that depict birds, animals, and plant life, while tiles depicting branches are imbedded into the entry. Titled “The Secret Garden” this was created by ceramic artist Aileen Barr and installed in 2004; it was administrated by the San Francisco Arts Commission.