February 16, 2009
1921: the cornerstone of the Palace of the Legion of Honor is laid … but what was underneath?
On this date the cornerstone for San Francisco’s spectacular Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum was levered into place.
The Museum was to be a vehicle for the cultural pretensions of the notorious Alma Spreckels. This social-climbing dynamo envisioned her Museum as a far western outpost of French art and culture. Drawing on the vast fortune of her husband — sugar baron Adolph Spreckels — she constructed a replica of the
Palace of Versailles Parisian Palais de Legion D’Honneur out at Lands End. Alma would stock the place with art treasures from her own vast collection — including one of the finest assemblages of Rodin sculpture on the planet.
I’ve already talked myself hoarse on the subject of Alma Spreckels’ rags-to-riches clamber up the social slopes of Pacific Heights, but what’s really interesting me today is not what’s inside her museum, but what lay underneath that cornerstone in 1921.
Location, location, location!
As Alma recognized, the site is just spectacular — one of my favourite spots in all of San Francisco. The circular parking lot out front, overlooking the Lincoln Park golf course, offers a sweepingly dramatic view of the city skyline, and the winding road leading down towards Seacliff is a wonderful spot from which to admire the Golden Gate.
But there’s something else about the site of that Museum that makes it a bit … mmm, “unusual”.
It’s located smack dab in the center of what was once the largest cemetery in San Francisco.
Golden Gate Cemetery
The Golden Gate Cemetery was established out at Lands End in 1868 as a final resting place for a rainbow of ethnic groups and fraternal orders. The largest section, though, was a “potter’s field” — a dumping ground for San Francisco’s indigent population, people too poor to afford a proper burial.
By the turn of the century, as the city grew westward, it became clear that this land was just too good to waste on dead people.
In 1909, the land was “repurposed” as part of the new Lincoln Park, and construction of the golf course began. Sure, the City requested that the various groups, associations and orders connected with the graveyards dig up their bodies and ship them to the vast new cemeteries down in Colma. And many of them did.
Construction crews simply knocked down the gravestones and scraped all evidence of the cemetery away — leaving the corpses mouldering beneath the surface.
By the time the cornerstone of the Legion of Honor Museum was laid in 1921, there was no evidence that a cemetery had ever existed.
Fast forward 62 years.
In 1993, the Museum launched an expansion and renovation project — and guess what they uncovered?
Right under the columned courtyard, right beneath Rodin’s massive bronze “Thinker”, workmen revealed the remains of 300 bodies.
As was to be expected, most of the bones were of poor old men interred in the last years of the 19th century — but the remainder were much much older, dating back to the days when San Francisco was still known as Yerba Buena.
If you’ve heard the Sparkletack podcast called “Moving the Dead“, you already know something about how the bodies of hundreds of ’49ers were shuffled from graveyard to graveyard as San Francisco grew — finally shoved out here to the City’s far western margin.
After workmen stumbled on the first of the coffins, an archeological team was called in. They uncovered a minor historical treasure trove: Rivets from ancient Levi’s jeans, rosaries still wrapped in bony fingers, the remains of hand-made dentures, and even a withered heart in a small tin box. A map detailing each body’s location is online at SFGenealogy.com.
The scientists had access only to the land underneath the Museum’s courtyard, and begged to be allowed to make a more extensive dig — but with an eye on renovation deadlines, officials refused.
Between 1868 and about 1890, 11,000 bodies had been buried in the land underneath Lincoln Park — and just 300 were recovered. Are there still mortal remains lying beneath the Museum, the golf course and your feet as you take in the gorgeous view?
You do the math.
Alma tries to join the haunt
It’s unclear just how much Alma Spreckels knew about the haunted history of Lands End when she picked the site for her Museum — but perhaps the ghosts are what prompted her to attempt her own minor addition to the underground population.
In a vain attempt to sneak around the 1903 ordinance forbidding burials within the city limits, Alma ordered her architect to construct a secret burial chamber in the walls of the Museum, with space for both her and Adolph.
The Spreckels were eventually buried — but not in the Museum.
Newspapermen sniffed out the story, thwarting Alma’s plans and causing a scandal. The thousands of bodies left beneath Lincoln Park should have ended up down in the cemeteries of Colma. Instead, Colma would be the final resting place for Alma and Adolph Spreckels.