Friday, August 14, 2015

HISTORICALLY SPEAKING — Stern Grove: "Mystical" Gift to San Francisco

Stern Grove Amphitheater, 2005; courtesy of the Stern Grove Festival Association
Stern Grove Amphitheater, 2005; courtesy of the Stern Grove Festival Association
August 16, 2015, concludes the 78th Stern Grove Festival—the annual outdoor performing arts event sponsored by the City of San Francisco—at the historic Sigmund Stern Recreation Grove south of Golden Gate Park.

As the season closes, we recall the history of Stern Grove and celebrate the contributions of the celebrated landscape architect Lawrence Halprin (1916–2009). Halprin’s design for the 2005 renovation of the Stern Grove Amphitheater has created what Stern Grove Board Chairman Doug Goldman describes as “a world-class park and performing space.”

BRUSH, MARSH, AND SAND

It’s not clear how the Ohlone tribe used today’s Sunset District during the Native American era (pre-contact), nor the Spanish and Mexicans during the Spanish-Mexican period (1775-1847). But when the George Greene family arrived in the peninsula during the Mexican-American War (1846-48), they saw its value, even as squatters on part of the Rancho Laguna de la Merced, a Mexican land grant issued to the Galindo family in 1835. Later the family claimed this land of brush, marshes, and sand dunes—from Stern Grove to the beach and including Pine Lake south to Lake Merced.

Sand Dunes, Sunset District, c. 1900. Photo: private collection; courtesy of foundsf.org.
Sand Dunes, Sunset District, c. 1900. Photo: private collection; courtesy of foundsf.org.
The Greenes planted crops and a eucalyptus grove and built the famous Trocadero Inn (still standing today), which offered among its amenities trout fishing, dancing, and gambling. In 1916, worried about Prohibition bootleggers, they shut the lively roadhouse down and made it their home.

DEPRESSION-ERA OASIS

In 1931, Rosalie Stern purchased the property from the Greenes as a memorial to her late husband, Sigmund, a philanthropist and nephew of Levi Strauss. She hired architect Bernard Maybeck to restore the Trocadero and donated the property to the city, stipulating that it be used exclusively for recreation—“music, dramatics, and pageantry.” On June 4, 1932, Stern Grove was dedicated as a recreational site offering free public performances that continue to this day.

(Left) Stern Grove, c. 1931; (right) Trocadero Inn, c. 1936  California Historical Society, CHS2012.944, CHS2012.945
(Left) Stern Grove, c. 1931; (right) Trocadero Inn, c. 1936
California Historical Society, CHS2012.944, CHS2012.945
(Left) Stern Grove Concert, 1939; (right) Ballet at Stern Grove, c. 1940s California Historical Society, CHS2012.946, CHS2015.2026
(Left) Stern Grove Concert, 1939; (right) Ballet at Stern Grove, c. 1940s
California Historical Society, CHS2012.946, CHS2015.2026
Rosalie Stern was taken with the grove’s natural acoustics on the east side of the property. That is where, in the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration—the largest of the Depression’s New Deal agencies—built an amphitheater as a sloped meadow with low stone walls set among giant eucalyptus, redwood, and fir trees.

REDESIGN AND RENOVATION

Over the years Stern Grove steadily declined, a victim of hillside erosion and deteriorating facilities. In 1999, the Stern Grove Festival Association commissioned landscape architect Lawrence Halprin—known for his innovative work in reimagining public spaces—to design a plan for the amphitheater’s renovation. Halprin, inspired by the great Greek amphitheaters, terraced the slope toward the front and fashioned benches out of stepped granite up the hill.


Lawrence Halprin’s renderings of the meadow (left) and the stage (right), 2003  Courtesy of the Stern Grove Festival Association
Lawrence Halprin’s renderings of the meadow (left) and the stage (right), 2003
Courtesy of the Stern Grove Festival Association
Stern Grove Amphitheater before the Halprin renovation (left) and in 2005 (right) Courtesy of the Stern Grove Festival Association
Stern Grove Amphitheater before the Halprin renovation (left) and in 2005 (right)
Courtesy of the Stern Grove Festival Association

Halprin had first visited Stern Grove in 1954 for the premier of Anna’s work Madrona. In 2009, following his renovation (2004–2005), Anna choreographed Spirit of Place. The large-scale work was performed in May of that year in the new amphitheater as a tribute to Lawrence for his accomplishment there.

“As soon as I went into that space,” she recalled, “I was just wow, this is just like the Delphi. You know, it was so ancient and the rocks just seemed to come right out of the ground and this scale was just so immense. And yet it was very, what's the word? It was very generous. It wasn't imposing. . . . I was so inspired that I said . . . oh, I want to do a dance in that site. But you know what? I want the audience to be sitting on the stage. And I want the dancers to be where the audience is, because that's where the excitement is and the inspiration.” 


(Left) Spirit of Place performance, May 2009, photograph by Kegan Marling,  San Francisco Chronicle; (right) Anna Halprin in Madrona at Stern Grove, c. 1954  Courtesy of Anna Halprin Digital Archive, Museum of Performance and Design
(Left) Spirit of Place performance, May 2009, photograph by Kegan Marling,
San Francisco Chronicle; (right) Anna Halprin in Madrona at Stern Grove, c. 1954
 Courtesy of Anna Halprin Digital Archive, Museum of Performance and Design
“When I designed Stern Grove,” Halprin told the Cultural Landscape Foundation in 2009, “my intention was to create a mystical place where one would be inspired to reach into oneself. I wanted to design a living theater for everyone to use, a place where people can walk their dogs, picnic, meditate. I wanted a place where lovers could meet and children could play. Such everyday activities are incorporated in the dance choreographed by my wife, Anna.


Lawrence Halprin’s renderings of the entry trellis (left) and upper seating (right), 2003 Courtesy of the Stern Grove Festival Association
Lawrence Halprin’s renderings of the entry trellis (left) and upper seating (right), 2003
Courtesy of the Stern Grove Festival Association
Stern Grove Amphitheater, 2005; courtesy of the Stern Grove Festival Association
Stern Grove Amphitheater, 2005; courtesy of the Stern Grove Festival Association

Following Lawrence’s death in October 2009, Anna choreographed the trilogy Remembering Lawrence in celebration of their 70 years of marriage and collaboration. Their collaboration, particularly during the mid to late 1960s, is highlighted in Experiments in Environment, the California Historical Society’s forthcoming exhibition and events project (January 21, 2016–May 8, 2016).



 Lawrence Halprin, Anna Halprin, and architect Charles Moore at Sea Ranch, California  Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 4, 1966  Courtesy Lawrence Halprin Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania
 Lawrence Halprin, Anna Halprin, and architect Charles Moore at Sea Ranch, California
Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 4, 1966
Courtesy Lawrence Halprin Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

Shelly Kale

Publications and Strategic Projects Manager
skale@calhist.org


Further Reading:  

Choreographing the Environment: The Counterculture of Anna and Lawrence Halprin, by Shelly Kale, July 13, 2015. 
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