looking back

‘Looking Back’: John McLaren

How did a statue of a park superintendent who didn’t like statues wind up in Golden Gate Park?

Tom Girvan Aikman, a grandnephew of John McLaren, wrote the biography “Boss Gardener” which sheds light on how a Scottish gardener came to play a pivotal role in the history of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. 

McLaren statue fullThe statue of John McLaren near the entrance to the Rhododendron Dell in Golden Gate Park. Photos by Michael Durand.

McLaren, born on Dec. 20, 1846 in Scotland, finished his basic schooling at age 14 and looked for outdoor work. His first job was gardening at a small estate. After a few years of experience, McLaren moved on to working at a larger estate before enrolling as a student in the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh one winter. In summers, he worked in estates around Edinburgh; the Gosford estate in particular had sand dunes transformed into gardens (just like what would happen in Golden Gate Park).

An American, George Howard, was looking in Europe for a gardener to create a European-style park for his estate’s ranch in San Mateo, California. McLaren was hired as Howard’s head gardener in 1873 at age 26. Aikman described McLaren as a workaholic taskmaster eager to confront the challenge of laying down trees, roads, pipelines and waterways. In San Mateo, McLaren married Jane Mill in 1876; their son Donald was born in 1879.

Calls for more public space in San Francisco since at least 1854 (as noted in an article for the SF Chronicle by Gary Kamiya on Sept. 5, 2020) led to an undeveloped area on the west side that was full of sand dunes. It was later to be designated “Golden Gate Park.” 

The task of transforming that landscape was easier said than done. The park’s first superintendent in 1871, William Hammond Hall, planted some grass and trees, surveyed the area and tackled issues of water supply and where to build roads. Hall’s professional background was in engineering. John McLaren was appointed assistant superintendent in 1887 – with a glowing recommendation from the Howard family – and later became the  superintendent in 1890.

Over time, McLaren was able to create a barrier where Golden Gate Park meets the sea by having bales of wood strips anchored into the sand so that receding tides would deposit sand to cover the bales. As more bales were added with branches and tree clippings, successive tides would deposit more sand. McLaren tried various plants to stop the sand from shifting, eventually importing sea-bent grass seed because its roots grew deep. Later, topsoil and other plants could be introduced. To create artificial lakes that avoid water seeping through sand, the basins were covered in layers of clay.

What McLaren did not like in Golden Gate Park were statues, or “stookies” as he called them. Nevertheless, donors and supporters lobbied to have statues erected in the park. McLaren’s response was to plant shrubs to cover statues, according to Christopher Pollock’s article for the Encyclopedia of San Francisco. 

Alma de Bretteville Spreckels and her husband Adolph B. Spreckels, park commissioner and namesake of Spreckels Lake, were keen on having sculptor M. Earl Cummings memorialize their friend, John McLaren. The San Francisco Examiner in 1911 reported that McLaren modeled for Cummings, and the statue was ready for a Bohemian Club art exhibition. The Examiner also reported in 1921 that the park commissioners agreed to have the statue placed in Golden Gate Park “soon.” Even though a portrait of McLaren was unveiled in McLaren Lodge, his house in the park, the statue was “relegated to the storeroom of the park premises” because McLaren did not want to see it, according to the Oakland Tribune in 1922.

McLaren was praised over the years. San Francisco children presented a silver cup to McLaren for his work on the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. In 1923, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society awarded McLaren a medal of honor for “eminence in horticultural achievement.” In 1927, a Visitacion Valley neighborhood park was designated “John McLaren Park.” In 1930, McLaren became an associate of honor of the Royal Horticultural Society of England. In 1931, McLaren received an honorary doctorate from the University of California recognizing him as a “champion of beauty in city planning, his alchemy transformed the shifting sands of the Pacific into the loveliness of trees and flowers.”

McLaren served as park superintendent even after he reached the mandatory retirement age of 70. The city charter was changed to allow for McLaren to stay on, which he did until his death on Jan. 12, 1943 at age 96, as one of the park’s longest-serving superintendents. McLaren laid in state in City Hall and was buried in Colma. 

The statue of McLaren holding a pine cone, was finally unveiled in Golden Gate Park on May 20, 1945. The bronze statue is life size, standing on ground level, five feet, seven inches tall, according to the San Francisco Arts Commission. There is no label with McLaren’s name on or near the statue “because Cummings assumed everybody knew McLaren,” volunteer guide Judy Harrison said to the San Francisco Examiner, in 1983.

The statue is in the John McLaren Memorial Rhododendron Dell, on the south side of JFK Drive about 300 feet east of the intersection of JFK Drive and Eighth Avenue. The statue is not visible from the green dell entrance sign. At the entrance, take the right branch path. A few yards later, you will reach another fork, where you take the left to see a small grassy area. At its back edge near the tree line stands the McLaren statue. The statue’s green patina seems to blend in with the trees.

McLaren examining a pine cone.
McLaren Lodge, located near Stanyan, Fell and Oak  streets at the eastern entrance of Golden Gate Park, is named for the former park superintendent. Built in 1898, it once was McLaren’s residence and is now the park’s administrative headquarters.

Find an archive of “Looking Back” columns by Kinen Carvala on the history of the monuments in Golden Gale Park HERE.

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