Cornelius Amory Pugsley Silver Medal Award, 1935
John McLaren (1846-1943) received the Pugsley Silver Medal in 1935 "for his work in developing Golden Gate Park." Uncle John, as he was affectionately known, for 56 years was superintendent of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. McLaren was born not far from Stirling Castle in his native Scotland. His father owned a ten-acre "croft" along the banks of the Bannock River, from which his family eeked out a living. McLaren's first job at the age of fourteen was a gardener at Bannockbarn House, a small estate less than half a mile from his home. He developed an intense passion to learn the more formal aspects of landscape gardening after working on several other Scottish estates as a gardener's apprentice.
By his late teens, McLaren understood the practical aspects of gardening, but wished to know more about botany, taxonomy, and design. Thus, before he was twenty he went to Edinburgh to work in the Royal Botanical Garden. "I worked there quite a time," he once told an interviewer "work and life in a good garden were the nicest things I could think of as a boy, and I've not changed my mind." His curriculum was a practical one; he was hired as a gardener's helper in the gardens where he gained experience with more elaborate styles of gardening. He acquired a great deal of horticultural knowledge, took formal classes in botany, and worked and read voraciously.
After he had served his apprenticeship he followed the path of dreams to California to begin a prearranged tenure as the head gardener on a San Mateo County estate. He was hired by George Henry Howard, a trustee of the Bank of California who owned 6,500 acres on the peninsula south of San Francisco. Howard was scouring Europe looking for an "able gardener with the necessary knowledge and experience" to create a park on his ranch in San Mateo similar to those he had seen in France and Austria, and interviewed McLaren in Scotland. Howard had been developing his grounds for many years -- Frederick Law Olmsted had prepared a plan for the estate in 1865 -- but now he wanted gardener McLaren to enlarge the estate's ornamental landscape. McLaren busily labored for Howard over the next fourteen years until he was hired away to become superintendent of Golden Gate Park.
When he arrived in California from Scotland in 1870, McLaren saw a new and young country, a country of young men who were enthusiastic builders. He saw fortunes being made and cities being built. But he saw one other thing that meant more to him than all the other amazing wonders of the young West. In the hills behind San Mateo he saw the Sequoia semprevirens -- the "evergreen" redwoods. They were the oldest living things on earth. They had stood since before Christ was born. They were more than two thousand years old, the everlasting trees. They would stand through untold future generations unless the avarice and the folly of man should destroy them.
McLaren looked at the redwoods and said, "I, too, would like to grow redwoods." Men who knew the young Scotsman laughed and told him to stick to his gardens. But he cited his father's frequently reiterated admonition: "Me boy, if ye have nothing to do, go plant a tree and it'll grow while ye sleep."
So, McLaren planted trees, on George Howard's estate that sprawled across the San Mateo foothills; he also planted trees on the ranch of Leland Stanford at Palo Alto, and turned grain fields into a botanical garden. On a small peninsula called Coyote Point that juts into the Bay, he planted at one time seventy thousand trees. And he said, "I hope to plant a million trees before I die. Firs, pines, redwoods, eucalyptus -- a million trees!"
During his years of working for Howard, the village that was sprawled along the waterfront of San Francisco Bay became a city. It was no longer a boomtown, no longer a hectic mushroom town. Its dwellings had reached westward towards thousands of acres of sand dunes that lay between it and the ocean. He conceived an idea that was so fantastic that even those who were sympathetic said, "It's only a utopian fantasy that never can come true, but it would be a fine thing if some day, some way, those acres of sand could be turned into a great park."
McLaren had been successful in his first big enterprise in Scotland, when he had planted a grass called "sea bent" in the shifting sands that were swept by the winds of the North Sea and had fastened down the sands along the Firth of Forth. He believed he could plant sea bent in the thousand acres of city-owned dunes that ran down to the waters of Golden Gate and create Golden Gate Park. Before accepting the challenge, however, he demanded a budget of $30,000 a year for grading and planting; all the water he wanted and needed; the dung sweepings of San Francisco streets to fertilize the ground; and, above all, he insisted that never in this park should a sign read "Keep Off the Grass." The parks and the green lawns were to be places where men could sleep in the sun, where children could play, and where all could enjoy green grass and shade trees and beds of flowers unhampered by "No Trespass" signs.
At this stage of the park's development it was nothing but a barren 1,000 acre waste of sand. One of his triumphs was creating the park's artificial lakes. Critics scoffed that the water would seep through the sand. However, his workers dug out the holes, carted in loads of clay, and constructed windmills to draw up water from wells.
As a lover of the mountains from his youth in Scotland, McLaren enjoyed tramping the Sierras with John Muir, bringing back mental pictures of waterfalls, fern-hung canyons, pine-covered slopes and flower- filled meadows. These pictures he translated into scenes that made Golden Gate Park so picturesque. On one of these tramps, his fellow-Scot Muir showed him a waterfall he had discovered in a gorge. "You've nothing like that in your park John" twitted Muir. "No," McLaren replied, "but we will have." This exchange led to him constructing Huntington Falls in the park. Its great dramatic power may make it McLaren's greatest achievement in the park.
There was considerable skepticism about the viability of the project. Some newspaper editorials suggested that San Francisco was reverting to the madness of forty-niner days if it believed that sand dunes could be transformed into flower gardens. McLaren ignored them. For almost ten years he emptied the dung sweepings of the city streets into his thousand acres of sand dunes until the humus lay at least a foot thick so the Golden Gate Park became a beautiful reality. The trees were growing, the flowers were growing, bridle paths ran along the broad driveways, and an artificial lake was created in a plateau of sand. The park almost reached to the ocean's edge; almost, but not quite.
McLaren had tied down the sand dunes, but he had not yet controlled the ocean waves that swept new sands over the man-made garden. Along the ocean beach, McLaren put down a row of thousands of bundles of laths. In front of the laths, facing the ocean, he dumped twigs and branches that had been pruned from the park trees. The ocean piled sand into this simple barricade. A nice ridge ran the length of the beach. McLaren planted more laths atop the ridge. Again the ocean piled sand around them. There were more laths, higher still, more twigs and branches piled up, more sand sweeping it from the ocean. That job took forty years, but when it was finished the ocean had built an esplanade twenty feet high and three hundred yards wide. That is the story of the Esplanade with its double highway that runs from the Cliff House along the ocean's edge for mile after mile.
As it evolved, the city council authorized statues for "every great and near-great man of whom they could think." McLaren hated statues. "Stookies!" he called them. So, every time the city fathers planted a "stookie," he planted trees to hide it. Some of the most beautiful groves planted by McLaren are there to hide the "stookie" of a famous man. The memorial to John McLaren is located near the entrance of the John McLaren Rhododendron Dell, west of the Conservatory of Flowers, along John F. Kennedy Drive. It was not until after McLaren's death in 1943 that the life-size monument of him, created in 1911 by sculptor and Park Commissioner M. Earl Cummings, was erected in the dell. Park lore has it that McLaren hid the monument soon after its creation under an old mattress in the West Side Stables, and it was not discovered until after his death.
McLaren had an autocratic side to his nature which made him a hard man to work for. A human dynamo himself, he expected everyone else to be the same. He had high work-standards and ruthlessly demanded their observance. Woe, betide the man who fell short! A gardener would be summarily dismissed for smoking on the job. And yet, he was also a man of great humanity. If the breadwinner fell sick, he would hire another member of the family to take his place so the family would have an income. He had a fetish about punctuality and immense dislike for the lazy.
He drove his men relentlessly, but he was equally hard on himself. Up each day at the crack of dawn, he would be in his office punctually at seven. He spent as much time outside as possible, "Superintending is not an office job," he would say. McLaren was a specialist in many areas which tend to be separate departments today. He was all of them rolled into one -- arborealist, floriculturalist, botanist, landscaper, biologist, fertilizer expert -- everything!
McLaren regarded the park as a vast work of art and jealously guarded it from all hints of commercialism. Only two small concessions were permitted, the Japanese Garden and the boat rentals on Stow Lake. The park commission minutes are replete with requests for activities or concessions in the park which were uniformly turned down with the stern notation: "denied, for it would tend toward the commercialization of the park." What was kept out of the park was as important to the commission as what was planted in it.
Depending on the source, McLaren was considered either a martinet or a benevolent dictator. A strong-willed, independent-minded man, he was described by one of his foremen as "gruff," "dour," and "a plucky Scotsman of boundless energy." He felt that McLaren had been an excellent choice for superintendent because he had local experience, was a "superb plantsman," and had the gardening "confidence born of good training." Only someone like McLaren "would attempt the monumental task of taming several hundred acres of rapidly shifting sands." His confidence extended to other arenas. McLaren "was never afraid of anyone whether he is an influential politician or a powerful gardener." Another contemporary offered a similar analysis --"politicians hated him because he did not take orders. He gave orders, and they were obeyed." He fearlessly confronted grafting politicians and dishonest mayors, refusing to allow them to pay their political debts by padding park payrolls or insisting on the votes of park workers.
McLaren was politically astute, knowing how to manipulate the city's constituencies and agencies to defend the park from intrusions. McLaren's battles with bureaucracy were legion. He fought the San Francisco Municipal Railway to a standstill when it planned a streetcar line through the park. At a key meeting, he protested, "You'll ruin the trees." It was pointed out to him that, according to the map, there were no trees in the area proposed for the line. "Then your maps are wrong" he told them. "That's where the rhododendrons are." The truth was that there were no rhododendrons. It was agreed the planners would visit the area the next day to inspect the site. All that night, McLaren had his gardeners planting rhododendrons, and then when the engineers arrived in the morning, they beheld a resplendent field of color and abandoned their scheme. When the police chief sought to remove an oak tree that he perceived to be too close to the park police station, McLaren responded, "I'm a reasonable man, let's compromise, and you move the station." When the city decided to extend Sunset Boulevard north through Golden Gate Park to Lincoln Park, McLaren shrewdly offered park land in the line of this route to the police department for an academy. The police department jumped at the offer, and soon a police academy stood in the way of the proposed connection with Lincoln Park.
He was an astute judge of San Francisco society and was perhaps the best-loved man in San Francisco. The position of park superintendent controlled the employment of hundreds of workers and large budgets, so people actively pursued it. Only a politically astute superintendent could have kept his position for 56 years while the city's demographic, social, and political environment changed rapidly about him. In 1917, when McLaren reached the mandatory retirement age of 70, the citizens protested with such vehemence and devotion, that the Board of Supervisors wrote legislation that permitted him to remain superintendent as long as he lived. Since he would thus lose his pension, the board also doubled his salary for life. The gruff little man ruled the park with a strong hand for more than a quarter century after that.
McLaren wanted to grow redwoods, and wise men laughed at his folly. Nevertheless, from seeds McLaren planted emerged the grove of Sequoia sempervirens, the evergreen redwoods, in Golden Gate Park. He was eighty years old when he planted them. He lived to be ninety-seven, a clear-eyed little Scotsman working almost to the day of his death. And when he died, his grove of redwoods stood in Golden Gate Park - trees thirty feet high! McLaren died in 1943. For eighty years he had lived by his father's admonition: "Me boy, if ye have nothing to do, go plant a tree and it'll grow while ye sleep." McLaren planted more than two million trees. In 1927, a 550-acre park he had created in the southern hills overlooking the bay was named John McLaren Park.