Golden Gate Park’s historic McLaren Lodge needs earthquake upgrades, but other projects take precedence 

click to enlarge McLaren Lodge
  • mike hendrickson/Special to the S.f. Examiner; courtesy San Francisco Public Library History Center
  • The historic McLaren Lodge in Golden Gate Park, shown left in 2014 and right in 1951, needs seismic upgrades.
At the eastern edge of Golden Gate Park sits a Moorish-Gothic structure with thick ashlar masonry walls harking back to ancient Greece. From the outside, it appears to be a deserted home.

But within McLaren Lodge’s 1½-foot-thick walls, there’s plenty of activity.

The 1896 landmark building houses the entire Recreation and Park Department administration. General Manager Phil Ginsburg’s office occupies the old living room of John McLaren, the department’s third superintendent for whom the home was built. The staff’s offices are spread across the former bedrooms, attic, and nooks and crannies in the 2½-story west wing and 1½-story east wing.

A large oil painting of McLaren still looms over the conference room, watching over all important meetings at the lodge.

Though Rec and Park staffers do not live at the lodge like McLaren and his family did, Ginsburg said they feel at home in the cozy setting.

“It’s an honor to work here. We’re in the park,” he said. “It’s an old building, but there are those of us who love it.”

Indeed, the lodge is old, which means its very foundation could collapse in the event of an earthquake — although it withstood the temblors of 1906 and 1989.

Architect Edward R. Swain designed the lodge to the building standards that existed a decade before the 1906 earthquake. Its condition today is “fair at best,” Ginsburg said.

“It’s never been retrofitted, to my knowledge,” he added.


To save the lodge — and Rec and Park staff — during the next big quake, seismic upgrades need to be performed. However, the list of competing needs across the park system’s nearly 5,000 acres of facilities is long.

The L-shaped home-turned-department-offices received a seismic hazard rating of 4 on a scale of 1 to 4, which is the most unsafe. Within the 4 rating, its collapse potential is moderately high, as is its safety hazard assessment. Only high is worse.

In the event of a 7.2- to 7.5-magnitude earthquake, “The expected seismic performance of this building is poor and some of the deficiencies could result in life safety hazards, such as partial collapses of porch columns, in-plane and out-of-plane failure of the masonry walls and falling loss clay roof tiles,” according to an evaluation of the lodge done two years ago.

“The building is likely to have to be vacated during repairs, or possible not prudent to repair,” the evaluation stated.

In layman’s terms, “The walls are not mechanically anchored to the floors, so there’s a higher chance of the walls falling away from the building,” explained Raymond Lui of the Department of Public Works. And if enough of the wall falls, he said, the floors could collapse as well.

McLaren Lodge is a registered San Francisco landmark, but is not at the top of the list for funding given that the department has more than a billion dollars of deferred maintenance needs.

“On one hand, you have one of The City’s oldest buildings,” Ginsburg said. “It is a public building, but it is an office building. There’s a lot of park history here, but I think right now our priority is our parks and playgrounds and facilities that people find most important.”

The lodge is part of a 10-year capital plan that is San Francisco’s first comprehensive, citywide look at infrastructure, including several major seismic and public-safety programs. It is “not one of those buildings you can just add a bunch of bracing to,” Capital Planning Director Brian Strong said. And a seismic upgrade would cost an estimated tens of millions of dollars.


Aside from housing Rec and Park staff, the lodge preserves the memory of generations of park superintendents, most notably McLaren, who earned the nickname “grandfather of Golden Gate Park.”

A horticulturist, McLaren became superintendent in 1890 after serving as assistant superintendent for several years. He presided over the park for 53 years.

McLaren adamantly worked to preserve the nature of the park through changing political climates.

In one account retold by Ginsburg, McLaren had his staff plant rhododendron trees to prevent a Muni line from running through the park. McLaren also butted heads with a police chief who wanted to remove an oak tree perceived to be in danger of collapsing onto the Park Police Station.

“I’ll remove the tree if you remove the police station,” McLaren reportedly told the top cop.

McLaren kept his position — and the lodge as his home — until his death in 1943 at the age of 96.

“He was known to be a very dour fellow, and so he’s keeping an eye on us here,” Ginsburg said.

In Ginsburg’s office hangs a photograph of the legendary park superintendent looking over the lodge balcony at a gigantic Monterey cypress dubbed Uncle John’s Tree.

“He’s looking at me to make sure I’m staying on the straight and narrow,” the general manager said.

The last park superintendent to live at the lodge was Julius Girod, who was informed by a San Francisco Examiner reporter in 1959 that his family could no longer live there because Rec and Park administration staff was moving in.


While many projects such as the lodge do not have a number in line within The City’s capital plan, work on others has progressed well.

“We’re right now working to make sure we get folks out of the Hall of Justice and our General Hospital, the two most populated buildings we have, and populated 24/7,” said Strong, the capital planning director.

San Francisco has a long retrofit list — an estimated 250 buildings have received seismic hazard ratings, and nearly all of the buildings with ratings of 4 have been addressed except McLaren Lodge. But the rating system itself puts The City ahead of the rest of the nation, according to Strong and Lui.

“As far as I know, we may be the only city in the U.S. that has seismic hazard ratings,” said Lui, who manages infrastructure design and construction for the DPW. “It was developed right before [the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake] by a bunch of really smart people, and we looked at it and tweaked it a little, but the concept has remained intact.”

San Francisco is also the only city to have a Building Occupancy Resumption Program, which allows engineers to quickly inspect approved buildings after an earthquake. Under the program, a determination on whether a building is safe to re-enter can happen within eight hours, Strong said.

The lodge was given a seismic hazard rating in 2003 and re-evaluated in 2012.

“McLaren is definitely a building we need to address,” Strong said. “But it still meets the building code and we expect people to get out of the building alive” in the event of an earthquake.

Rec and Park has yet to figure out how to convince the tax-paying public that McLaren Lodge should get attention, and soon. To compete with popular recreation facilities for funding, the lodge has its 118-year history.

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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