W.P.A. Construction in San Francisco (1935-1942)

Historical Essay

By Timothy Keegan

Originally published in The Argonaut Vol. 14, No. 1, Spring 2003

In his annual message to Congress on January 4, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the following declaration:

The lessons of history, confirmed by the evidence immediately before me, show conclusively that continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. To dole out relief in this way is to administer a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit…Work must be found for able-bodied but destitute workers…We must preserve not only the bodies of the unemployed from destruction but also their self-respect, their self-reliance and courage and determination…The Federal Government must and shall quit this business of relief.

On May 6, 1935, with the placement of his signature on Executive Order No. 7034, President Roosevelt honored his promise by creating one of the most beneficial relief programs in the history of our country, the Works Progress Administration.


Relief workers excavating Bayview Hill, site of the future Bayshore Avenue.

Photo: Private Collection, San Francisco

Sweeping in its scope (everything from road construction to mural and other public art commissions, building outhouses in rural areas, and instructing housewives in the domestic sciences was covered under the program), the Works Progress Administration (W.P.A.) was also remarkable in its simplicity. Cities and towns all over the country had two desperate desires: to get their citizens back to work, and to shore up the infrastructural needs of their communities that had languished since the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.

The guidelines for the program were also relatively simple. In order to be employed by the W.P.A. one had to be at least eighteen years old, unemployed and not on relief, physically fit, and in possession of the work skills required for the job undertaken. Only one person per family could work for the W.P.A. and, when candidates seemed equally matched, preference was to be given to veterans, their widows (unless remarried), and the wives of unemployed veterans.

The community seeking assistance supplied the labor and materials, and the federal government paid the majority of a project’s expenses (the difference was paid by the requesting community, or “sponsor”; in California’s case, the average split was approximately 67.2% / 32.8%). Once a project was complete, it was the sole possession and responsibility of the sponsor community. Honoring the separation of church and state, the W.P.A. was prohibited from constructing houses of worship. Funding was also to be used strictly for non-military purposes, but as the United States edged closer to World War II those lines were inevitably blurred.

San Francisco, as battered by the Great Depression as any other American city, was anxious to participate in the President’s new relief program, and, thanks largely to the tireless efforts of Mayor Angelo J. Rossi, was among the first cities to receive funding for local projects. An October 25, 1935 article in the San Francisco Chronicle announced “1000 To Get Jobs On WPA,” and went on to explain that the city’s first two projects would be “completion and grading of an underground drainage system and the surfacing of a road at Lake Merced,” and “a road through McLaren Park at Persia and La Grande.”


It is fitting that one of San Francisco’s first W.P.A. projects would involve road improvement, as it was asserted in Inventory: An Appraisal of the Results of the Works Progress Administration (Superintendent of Documents, Washington, D.C., 1938) that 34% of all W.P.A. funds nationally were to be devoted to “roads, streets, bridges and related facilities.” In addition to the necessity for general grading and paving of streets throughout San Francisco, the recent completion of the Golden Gate and Bay bridges had brought about both increased traffic and changes in general traffic routes throughout the city that needed to be accommodated.

The W.P.A.’s 1938 Report On Progress of the Works Program noted that “The need for street improvements such as widening and reconstruction had been keenly felt in the community. Since the advent of the W.P.A. three units embracing over 100,000 linear feet of widening and reconstruction have been completed. As a direct result of this work the city found it possible to extend the development of its street lighting program, which otherwise would not have been accomplished. It is conservatively estimated that due to the participation of the W.P.A. in the street improvement work this program was advanced by at least three years.”

From our modern perspective, road construction and repair seems a reasonably tame undertaking, but in the late 1930s it was still a painstakingly labor-intensive prospect. The 1938 Report On Progress states, “the actual work of widening a street comprises a number of steps which, to the layman, is completely astounding – 36 operations involved.” These included: breaking existing sidewalks, hauling surplus from excavation to dump grounds or other W.P.A. projects where they might be useful, pouring concrete pavement, cutting granite curb drops for driveway entrances, maintaining a blacksmith shop for servicing tools, constructing portable office buildings for the use of timekeepers and material men, repainting street sign posts damaged in moving, and sweeping up streets and sidewalks for final inspection and acceptance. Interspersed with these steps, it was the responsibility of San Francisco’s various public utilities to move and reestablish power poles, fire hydrants, water meters, gas valves, and the like.

The consequences of not properly following these procedures is illustrated in a June 22, 1937, correspondence from P.T. Mackie of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company to William R. Lawson, State Administrator of W.P.A. projects, wherein Mr. Lawson is informed that workmen widening Sloat Boulevard “grounded the series circuits at four locations…which caused it to burn our creosote wood duct and melt the cable sheath.” The letter concludes, “The damage amounted to $652.19 and…I would thank you to advise me what your attitude is towards effecting settlement of this claim.”

The example of work done on O’Shaughnessy Boulevard illustrates the intricacy of W.P.A. street work done throughout San Francisco. The Project Proposal, dated October 9, 1935, partially described the work involved as:

…the completion of the grading and underground drainage system for a boulevard 60 feet in width around the west side of Glen Park Reservoir Site and Glen Park. It involves the movement of 87,716 cubic yards of material 90% of which is stratified red country rock and 10% is top soil and hard earth; also a temporary pavement of 1" marks emulsified asphalt wearing surface over 8" of red rock base, 16,000 square feet; and a temporary sidewalk with a 5" red rock base, 3,300 square feet; the raising of 5 brick manholes; the removal of 15 eucalyptus trees; and the erection of a masonry rubble wall of 8 cubic yards.

A partial list of other street work done in San Francisco by the W.P.A. is appended to this article, and will provide some indication of the program’s benefit in this single area of their endeavors.

As a sociological sidenote, the 1938 Report On Progress states that the street program “[gave] employment to an average of 2,715 men per month for a period of twelve months.” The term “men” is not a euphemism. In those pre-politically correct days of the W.P.A., manual labor was understood to be “men’s work,” and though over 400,000 American women were on the W.P.A. payroll in 1936, virtually none of them were employed on labor or construction projects.

A further reflection of the times is unashamedly noted in a San Francisco Chronicle photo caption from November 2, 1936 that states, “The Misses Marybelle McKinnon and Sarah Johnson are testing the expertness of Ging Wah Wong, graduated as A-1 Houseboy from the W.P.A. Training Center, 2124 Green Street, after an eight week course. The course trains Chinese youths for home service.”

Public Buildings

An April, 1939, release by the National Appraisal Committee states, “These reports, however critical in other respects, are almost unanimous in asserting that their chief W.P.A. projects have resulted in valuable and lasting community improvements otherwise unattainable at the present time… Progress in providing various civic facilities is said to have been advanced five, ten or twenty years in some communities.”

A number of public buildings and facilities in San Francisco to this day are the result of energies expended by the W.P.A. Some, like the Coroner’s Office and the Laguna Honda Hospital, involved improvements and refurbishments on existing structures. Others, such as the West Portal Library and the Police Stables in Golden Gate Park, were entirely the creation of the W.P.A.

The High School of Commerce received an enhancement to its athletic field that was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they were provided with the addition of a running track, 2 high jumps, 1 pole vault, 1 shot put, and 1 broad jump pit, the construction of a 10'x10' athletic equipment house, repair and painting of the two existing grandstands, and the surfacing of the practice basketball court. Conversely, these “improvements” reduced the size of the grounds to the extent that the football field was no longer regulation length, and thus official games could never be played on their own home field. Only football practice and other school-related events could take place there.

Galileo High School benefited from the construction of a reinforced concrete tunnel connecting the school with its athletic field.

The W.P.A. Statement of Project Estimate Detail from February 1, 1939 makes the following report on refurbishments to Civic Auditorium:

Work accomplished [includes]: tearing out partitions, laying concrete floors, plastering, painting, laying marble floor in Auditorium, revamping walls around the pipe organ, tile work in toilets, and various other minor improvements. Work under way: plastering and laying cement floor in main corridors where old partitions have been removed to provide more space. Laying floor tile and painting.

Cryptic notes further on in the report state, “Quality of work is good. Manpower is about right. Plasterers are scarce.” Finding the proper balance of workers needed for projects in the city was a constant struggle. With approximately 55% of W.P.A. workers classified as “unskilled,” it was never a problem to find laborers. But with only 15% listed as “skilled or semiskilled construction” workers, foremen were always waiting for these workers to finish one project so they could dash across town to the next.

Among the new public buildings that graced the city as a result of the W.P.A. were the West Portal and Bernal Heights branches of the public library.

Frederick H. Meyer was the architect of both buildings, and a July 7, 1936, letter from the Secretary of the West Portal District Improvement Club to the Board of Library Trustees expresses concern over at least one aspect of the building’s plans: “…it seems that the architect has arranged to have eight foot fences installed along the North and West lot lines. Please be advised that for many years…the height of fences in the West Portal District has been but four feet. West Portal is a home district and we do not feel there is a need for fencing in the Library yards. This neighborhood is well policed and the children are not of the destructive type.” Fences of any type were removed from the plans.

A W.P.A. Progress Report on the library, dated October 1938, informs that “quality of work is excellent throughout,” and that “as of October 4, 1938, [the] following workers were assigned: 1 supervisor, 4 foremen, 4 clerks, 3 bricklayers, 10 plasterers, 4 lathers, 6 hodcarriers, 1 plumber, 2 electricians, 2 cement finishers, 1 asbestos worker, 6 carpenters, 1 sheetmetel worker, 1 roofer, 1 semi-skilled laborer, 13 common laborers and 10 watchmen.”

Ever prideful of the work they were doing, the report also noted, “Should have one more W.P.A. sign for adequate publicity.”

The San Francisco Fire Department was also the beneficiary of W.P.A. efforts. The Department’s 1974 Historical Review noted, “One of the few advances made by the Department in these lean years resulted from the formation of the Works Project Administration. As a result of this program several of the Department buildings were remodeled, new heating and plumbing facilities installed, and much necessary maintenance accomplished.”

Assistant City Engineer Clyde E. Healy’s December, 1939, report notes repairs to no less than forty-one Fire Department locations throughout the city, including the construction of a new fire house at 38 Bluxome Street.

For those unfamiliar with Bluxome Street (a small alley south of Market between Fourth and Fifth streets), suffice it to say that, should a fire-related emergency ever occur at Pac Bell Park, firefighters from the Bluxome station would be the first on the scene. The October 20, 1938, Project Proposal informs, “The present fire house at this location was built in 1907, as a temporary structure. W.P.A. will start razing this building on October 10th and this proposal is for a new modern fire house on the same site.”

Golden Gate Bridge

Even San Francisco’s most famous iconic structure benefited from the W.P.A.’s presence in the city. The Lyon Street approach to the Golden Gate Bridge was built entirely by W.P.A. crews, and they were also involved in the bridge’s northern approach, referred to as the Sausalito Lateral.


May, 1937 view of W.P.A. crews at work on the Lyon Street approach to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Photo: California Historical Society, North Baker Research Library

Addressing the construction of the Lyon Street approach, the 1938 Report On Progress notes:

The submission of this project to the Works Progress Administration for operation was made with a certain amount of apprehension by the sponsors, due to the amount of heavy construction involved and the urgent necessity for the proposed work. After a period of less than a month, the Works Progress Administration was able to allay these doubts and the project was set up and operated on a basis comparable to any properly handled construction project in private industry.

Further along, the Report comments, “Heavy produce trucks going to and from the Bridge in the early hours of the morning use this new route, thereby saving the residents of the district considerable annoyance.”

But it is the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District’s archives that offer a rich and invaluable insight into the daily workings and human element of San Francisco’s W.P.A. projects. Never having thrown away so much as a telephone message, the District’s archives are an historian’s dream.

Critics of the W.P.A., and they were legion and voracious, routinely derided the workers as nothing more than “leaf rakers” and “boondogglers.” The District’s archives reveal the mountain of paper work that was scrupulously maintained in order to document the very real work being done by employees of the W.P.A.: Daily Report Sheets (tracking everything from on-site labor to equipment rental to, when applicable, yards [of material] moved and the number of loads required to do so); Purchase Orders (a June 14, 1937 delivery of 17.45 tons of pea gravel cost $30.54); Vendor Delivery Receipts (Form A-8, containing 8 carbon copies); and, among many others, Report On Liquidation of Sponsor’s Pledges. Subsequently, critics scoffed at W.P.A. employees as mere “paper pushers.”

Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District president, William P. Filmer, in a February 21, 1936 letter to District Director, Bayley Hipkins, responds to a recent editorial by stating, “I wish to assure you that I deeply regret any published criticisms of the W.P.A. in connection with the work which it is doing in cooperation with the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District. We are keeping very accurate and complete records of cost[s] and of the work performed. These are available to anyone, and when these two projects are completed…there will be made public a statement of all costs as compared to the estimates and of the savings which will have accrued to the District as a result of federal aid.”

Equally instructive are the District’s archives with relation to job seekers and employees of the W.P.A. on this project. The ratio of unemployed to jobs available was clearly disproportionate, and having someone advocate for you could only be an advantage. A January 22, 1936 correspondence from Edith S. Waterman, Chairman of the Marin County Chapter of the American Red Cross, poignantly illustrates this point. After first advocating employment for a Mr. Stanley Caton, she goes on to write:

Wiley Wilson, in whom we are even more interested because of the size of his family and the semi-invalidism of his wife, has driven trucks and tractors on large ranches, he drove a County truck on the S.E.R.A. Alpine Dam Road job, and is now employed on W.P.A. at Hamilton Field. He is an A.I. man and will never undertake any job he cannot handle. If there is any way in which these two men could be put to work, it would be greatly to the advantage of the County, as both of them are in danger of losing their homes if they cannot earn wages in excess of $55.00 per month. Even an increase of $10.00 per month would be a vast help to them.

Scores of such letters are to be found in the Bridge District’s archives. Finally, the Bridge District’s archives, in the form of a January 24, 1936 correspondence from Peterson’s Water Taxis, also give a tantalizing glimpse into the entrepreneurial opportunities brought about by the W.P.A.’s presence in San Francisco:

We would like to bring to your attention of placing [a] float on the Marin side for the W.P.A. If it is possible to get a permit to land the employees on the government dock, which is seldom used, it would be much…safer and also situated near to work…We hereat submit our figures on a daily basis of carrying W.P.A. employees from foot of Buchanan Street, San Francisco, to Material Deck on Marin side.

The rate for carrying 100 passengers was 18 cents per round trip, per passenger.

Mayor Angelo Rossi

No account of the W.P.A.’s history in San Francisco would be complete without acknowledging Mayor Angelo Rossi’s contributions to these programs. A native of California (Volcano), his family moved to San Francisco when he was twelve, and his entire adult life was spent in public service to the city (Director of the Downtown Association; Board member of the Playground Commission; member of the Board of Supervisors; Mayor).

Rossi on gg bridgeAAD-1501.jpg

Mayor Rossi shares a photo-op with New York Mayor Fiorino La Guardia on the new Golden Gate Bridge.

Photo: San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

As Mayor of San Francisco from 1931 to 1944, Rossi shepherded the city through the economic and psychological difficulties of the entirety of the Great Depression. The San Francisco News reported on December 19, 1932 that San Francisco was the only major city in the United States to end the year with a treasury surplus, and, the year before, had even managed to reduce taxes.

Mayor Rossi, though a Republican, was a dedicated proponent of the W.P.A. An October 26, 1935 headline in the San Francisco Examiner declared “Rossi Given Credit For WPA Wages In S.F.” and went on to explain:

On the eve of today’s meeting of 200 labor leaders to discuss WPA wage scales in California, Mayor Rossi yesterday was given full credit for establishment of prevailing wages on Federal projects here…The tribute came from Frank Y. McLaughlin, State WPA administrator, who said: “Neither the administration as a whole, nor I as an individual, deserves the credit for the higher wage scale in San Francisco. That credit belongs entirely to Mayor Rossi.”

The acquisition of W.P.A. funds is somewhat analogous to organizations’ modern day quest for grant money – there is only so much money to go around, and only those who ask the right questions and open the right doors are the recipients of the much sought–after funds. Mayor Rossi was indefatigable in his quest for federal funds for city projects. San Francisco newspapers throughout his years as mayor carry innumerable references of his trips to Washington, D.C. in pursuit of W.P.A. funding.

In his Annual Message of January 8, 1936, Mayor Rossi writes:

I am happy to announce that nearly all citizens of San Francisco eligible under the Works Progress Administration, are now engaged in gainful occupation of a character commensurate with their abilities and previous business and professional training. San Francisco, at this time, is the only one of the Pacific Coast municipalities which has been able to comply fully with the Federal program. The morale of those affected has been admirably maintained and the added payrolls are giving great stimulus to all local business interests and enterprises.

San Francisco was fortunate to have such a passionately dedicated advocate of the W.P.A. in City Hall during the agency’s brief years of service.

Zoological Gardens/Aquatic Park

San Francisco’s two most ambitious original W.P.A. undertakings book-end the city with almost perfect symmetry – Aquatic Park in the northeast corner, and the San Francisco Zoo in the southwest. They also supplied the city with the W.P.A. era’s most controversial moments in San Francisco.


Construction well under way for the future San Francisco Maritime Museum at Aquatic Park (January 1938).

Photo: California Historical Society, North Baker Research Library

Described in the United States Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places Inventory-Nomination Form as “perhaps the most outstanding example of a Works Progress Administration project in California,” Aquatic Park had been a city dream since Chicago architect Daniel Burnham first suggested a “bay shore park” at the former site of Black Point Cove in 1905.

The major controversy among critics of the W.P.A. was that the venture simply took too long to complete. After nearly thirty years of petitions, bond measures, land exchanges, and assessments in preparation for green-lighting the enterprise, it is possible that people were worn out hearing of this project before the first shovelful of earth was even turned.

The creation of Aquatic Park was a remarkably complicated undertaking, requiring among its 782 W.P.A. employees 9 supervisory engineers and inspectors, 36 labor foremen, 284 skilled and intermediate workers, 453 common laborers, and a full staff of artists and sculptors to create the main building’s murals and décor.

Creation of the 3,250 cubic yard masonry rubble seawall was accomplished entirely from materials salvaged from the old Odd Fellows Cemetery and W.P.A. street improvement projects throughout San Francisco. Work on the seawall had to be scheduled in conjunction with the cove’s ebb tides, and was mostly done in the early hours of the morning. The project also required the construction of 101,000 square feet of promenades and the relocation of 1,400 lineal feet of railroad track.

A hint of the general conditions at the Aquatic Park site is conveyed in a January 4, 1940 notation in the Minutes of Meeting of the Board of Park Supervisors: “A memorandum was submitted to the Commission from Superintendent of Construction, Bart Rolph, recommending that the owners of the Pullman cars on Beach Street near Aquatic Park be ordered to remove them immediately and that the occupants of the sheds at the same location be ordered to vacate…in order that there might be no interference with Works Progress Administration activities.”

A San Francisco Chronicle article, dated February 22, 1936, complained that “WPA Workers Get $195,922 For Doing Nothing During Rain,” and singled out Aquatic Park, where 21,372 out of 100,383 man hours were lost during San Francisco’s rainy season. Bayley Hipkins countered by stating that he hoped the workers could make up the deficit, and pointed out that “had the men not been paid their [W.P.A.] relief wages they would have been on direct relief, which would have been as costly.”

Weather conditions, however, could only account for a portion of the project’s delays. James P. Delgado points out in his Historic Structures Report that, in some measure, the slow progress was due to “a serious lack of direction.” He goes on to quote a W.P.A. Investigation Report that asserts, “…of at least six different WPA superintendents during the course of construction…few of those interviewed were able to give a concise description of the intended use of the building.” At various times the building was referred to as a “bath house” and a “casino,” neither of which was ever the building’s function.

The other controversy associated with Aquatic Park – the city’s two-year legal battle with concessionaires, Kenneth and Leo Gordon – had nothing to do with the W.P.A.’s involvement on this project, other than the fact that anything to do with Aquatic Park was automatically assumed to be W.P.A.-related in the public’s mind.

Finally, after years of struggle and controversy, the city’s dream of Aquatic Park was a reality, and as pointed out in a 1939 W.P.A. Fact Sheet, “A Palace For The Public,” “Aquatic Park, although the work of thousands of minds and hands, seems so coordinated as to be the master stroke of one mind, one pair of hands. There is no sense of division between the sea, the buildings, the decorations – all seem as one, the perfect blend.”

Fleishhacker Zoo (referred to in W.P.A. records as the Zoological Gardens), though a more orderly and efficient W.P.A. project than Aquatic Park, did offer Depression-weary San Franciscans a brief media frenzy in February of 1936.

On February 6, 1936, four San Francisco newspapermen, responding to a report of a “cave in” at Fleishhacker Zoo, were unprepared for the riotous scene that met them. Indeed, there had been a cave-in of a fifteen-foot sewer trench that had trapped three W.P.A. workers. Two of the men managed to slip from the tangle of timber and shifting sand unhurt, but a third worker, Jose Rodriquez, was trapped in the wreckage for three hours. A handful of W.P.A. workers, under instructions from Project Superintendent C.M. Kerr to “keep everyone out,” had taken his command literally, and met the reporters armed with picks, shovels, rocks, and clubs.

The confrontation was reported in the next day’s paper as a “vicious and unprovoked attack” in which the newspapermen were “beaten, slugged and mauled by a mob of W.P.A. workers.” Overstated with predictable yellow journalistic hyperbole, the incident was nonetheless something of a black eye for the W.P.A. program in San Francisco. Bayley Hipkins, upon reaching the scene that afternoon, declared, “There is absolutely no reason to exclude newspaper reporters or officials from the scene, and Superintendent Kerr had absolutely no right or authority to incite these men to riot.”

A shakeup of personnel and policy resulted from the cave-in and “riot” at Fleishhacker Zoo, not the least of which was Hipkins’ own dismissal as San Francisco Director of the W.P.A. in April of that year (he was replaced by W.R. Lawson). An April 16, 1936 Examiner article reported that “…his policy of selecting the best man he knew for each job [in] his organization, regardless of political affiliations, may have been bad politics,” but others believed the fracas at Fleishhacker Zoo had more than a little to do with his dismissal.

Once the dust settled on this tawdry incident, work continued unabated on the Zoo project. Helen Civelli, in a series of articles entitled “Streamlining The City’s Zoo” which appeared in the San Francisco Examiner shortly before the Zoo reopened in October of 1940, offered a concise and informative overview of the W.P.A.’s accomplishments on this undertaking.

Work on the $1.5 million Zoo project, which would expand the original zoo by about eight times its existing size, began by dynamiting forty-eight acres of eucalyptus forest. Architect Lewis P. Hobart, who had previously designed the Steinhart Aquarium and Academy of Sciences buildings in Golden Gate Park, decided to use the barless pit system first utilized by the Hagenbeck Zoo in Hamburg in the city’s new Zoo.

“By this means,” Civelli wrote, “spectators apparently are separated from such ferocious creatures as lions and leopards by no more than a low concrete moat… Bars, cages and service corridors from which some of the beasts are fed and cared for are skillfully hidden behind cliffs and simulated rock walls… Actually, the rocks are made of reinforced concrete built over heavy galvanized framework, which is bolted together and imbedded in the ground… Even such details as light switches have been installed with an eye to safety. They have been devised to eliminate danger of shock as the result of operating them when hands or feet are wet.”

Other features of the new Zoo — the Flight Cage, Monkey Island, Lion Yards, and Bear Dens — were equally modern and innovative. Civelli reports that Hobart was fascinated by the challenges presented to his W.P.A. crews: “There are so many interesting problems to solve, and I’ve learned just how intriguing animals can be. They all have personalities that must be considered when building places for them to live. For them, long life and happiness! That’s been my motto in building this zoo.”

The January 9, 1941 Minutes of Meeting of the Board of Park Commissioners offers a hint of the “interesting problems” presented to Hobart and W.P.A. crews in the endeavors on this project:

President Fleishhacker then reported that it had been called to his attention that the elephants were suffering from rheumatism due to the fact that they slept on the concrete floor, and that the cost of installing a wooden floor was an expensive item for which no funds were available. The suggestion was made that the Works Progress Administration might provide the necessary labor and material for this work.

To assist him in realizing the engineering innovations and challenges of his Zoo project, Lewis P. Hobart had at his disposal the dedicated services of no less than 900 W.P.A. workers.


Possibly the W.P.A.’s greatest overall legacy to the City of San Francisco is its citywide contributions to our park system. Seventy separate W.P.A. park and recreation projects are listed on Clyde Healy’s December, 1939 Report – everything from multiple undertakings in Golden Gate Park, to improvements to existing parks (Buena Vista; Bay View; Sutro Heights), and to the creation of entirely new park facilities (Rossi Playground; Glen Park).


Federal relief workers exhuming former occupants of the Odd Fellows Cemetery in December 1933, Columbarium in background. This site would be converted to Rossi Playground by W.P.A. workers later in the decade.

Photo: Private Collection, San Francisco

Understandably, the Parks and Recreation Department had a particularly rough time during the Depression. Time and time again throughout those years, like a modern mantra of hope, the Board of Park Commissioners’ Minutes of Meeting contain variations of the following entry: “Secretary instructed to reply that no funds were available for the purpose, but that the Works Progress Administration would be requested to undertake the improvements in question.”

Golden Gate Park was the beneficiary of numerous W.P.A. projects within its borders. The Horseshoe Courts in the park’s northeast corner were entirely the result of their efforts. Thirteen miles of existing roads throughout the park were regraded and resurfaced. Initial tree removal and landscaping of Strybing Arboretum, funds for which had been bequeathed to the park by Helene Strybing in the late 1920s, were performed by the W.P.A., and W.P.A. workers built horse stables for the San Francisco Police Department (still maintained). The little known Archery Field, tucked away at 47th Avenue and Fulton, and the charming San Francisco Model Yacht Club building at Spreckels Lake are both W.P.A. legacies.

A July 13, 1939 Minutes of Meeting entry illustrates another aspect of W.P.A. contributions to San Francisco’s park system:

Mr. Clyde Healy, Coordinator of the Works Progress Administration projects, appeared personally before the Board and stated that for the purpose of properly rehabilitating the general area adjacent to the new Presidio By-Pass Drive and other W.P.A. park projects he would be willing to furnish up to five thousand yards of loam if the Park Commission would supply a like amount from its special Soil and Fertilizer account.

One of the W.P.A.’s most appreciated labors within Golden Gate Park is the construction of the Angler’s Lodge and fly casting pools to the west of the Polo Fields.

Founded in 1894 as the San Francisco Fly Casting Club (known today as the Golden Gate Angling & Casting Club), the organization originally had a small lodge and dock at Stow Lake. When they outgrew those facilities, it was John McLaren himself who picked the site for the current Angler’s Lodge and casting pools. Internationally known today as one of the finest casting facilities in the world, people from all over the globe, many of whom have never even been to San Francisco, are members simply so they can claim an association with the Club.

Ralph Keating, who remembers meeting John McLaren the first time his father took him to the Stow Lake facilities when he was just ten years old, wrote in his 1998 tribute to fellow Club member Carl Hittenberger, “…[the W.P.A.] built our Angler’s Lodge, the casting pools and the Model Yacht Clubhouse – a near twin – at Spreckels Lake nearby. There were real bumps in the road, but one of the significant decisions for our side came at an important civic meeting when Herbert Fleishacker jumped into the argument and said, ‘They are performing a public service. Give ’em the pools!’”

The Angler’s Lodge as it stands today is virtually untouched from the Sunday afternoon in March of 1939 when the facility was officially handed over from the Works Progress Administration to the jurisdiction of the Board of Park Commissioners. The original lockers, which came from the old Stow Lake facility, are still in service and have been modified only to the extent that the tops were cut off in order to accommodate the members’ nine-foot fly rods (previously, they were required to dismantle the rods after each use). Club members (who number between 400 and 500) still honor their gentleman’s agreement made with the Park Commissioners at the Club’s inception to provide guidance and instruction to any new member or novice who requests it.

Golden Gate Park, though easily the city’s most famous park, was by no means the only recipient of W.P.A. attentions. In fact, it is unlikely that one could drive one square mile anywhere within San Francisco city limits without encountering a park, playground, or recreation area that was the result of W.P.A. efforts.

Today, tourists or city dwellers exploring North Beach’s Pioneer Park (referred to in W.P.A. documents as Telegraph Hill Park) are enjoying the fruits of W.P.A. undertakings. Clyde Healy’s 1939 Report states, “Telegraph Hill (2.87 acres) is now one of the most attractive observation points in San Francisco…The rock steps, paths and landscaped embankments make a safe retreat and a picture of rare beauty. As an example of artificial landscaping this has excited the admiration of eminent landscape architects.”

Noe Valley’s Douglass Park must have presented daunting challenges to W.P.A. work crews. The steep inclines within the park’s borders not only required excavation and removal of 5,700 cubic yards of loose rock, but also the facing of 12,000 square feet of slope with rubble masonry. Clyde Healy’s 1939 Report concludes, “This is an example of what a city can do with a worthless, abandoned quarry…This was an unsightly lot.” Rossi Playground and Recreation Center is built on the site of the former Odd Fellows Cemetery (the clearance of which was the grim task of federal relief workers early in the decade). Broken headstones from this cemetery were, among other uses, recycled as landfill for the Aquatic Park project and for the creation of retaining walls and rain guttering in Buena Vista Park.

The playground and recreation center was built as a tribute to San Francisco Mayor Angelo Rossi, and at the time of its completion was the largest supervised playground in the Richmond District.


Relief workers constructing retaining walls at Stern Grove’s east entrance, January 8, 1934.

Photo: Private Collection, San Francisco

Comprised of 318 acres, McLaren Park is San Francisco’s second largest park and was the city’s newest park at the time of W.P.A. activities in the city. Minutes of Meeting for the Board of Park Commissioners during the 1930s are peppered with references to the purchase and acquisition of the various plots of land that eventually comprised this parkland tribute to San Francisco’s most esteemed park superintendent.

John McLaren’s ideal of a city park was one devoid of any buildings or statuary, completely natural except for an occasional hiking trail. In keeping with this vision, the W.P.A.’s 1939 Report On Progress notes “the macadamizing of 125,400 square feet of foot paths and equestrian paths…planting 10,000 trees and scrubs, and boxing and transplanting 600 trees.” No doubt to Mr. McLaren’s dismay, 400,000 square feet of roadway were also integrated into the park.

W.P.A. labors in Glen Park greatly enhanced neighborhood appreciation of this public facility. A December 1939 W.P.A. Report of Accomplishment lists the following activities at this park site: “Loam hauled and placed. Plant trees and shrubs. Reinforced concrete walls, stairs. Chain link fence. Surface tennis courts. Surface paths. Raze old building. Baseball diamond construction. Relocate flagpole. Install playground signs. Concrete sand box. Concrete gutter, curb and forms. Sprinkler system.”


Glen Park Recreation Center shortly after completion in January 1938. W.P.A. workers are seen landscaping the park grounds.

Photo: California Historical Society, North Baker Research Library

Additionally, the park was given a new Recreation Center, containing a gymnasium, director’s office, community theatre and, according to Clyde Healy’s 1939 Report, “special accommodations for children and women.” Although the July 22, 1936 W.P.A. Project Inspection Report expresses concern that the “building appears over-size for this community and available recreational facilities,” sixty-five years down the road the Center still provides community recreation and services in the form of after-school programs, yoga classes, volleyball for adults, and other activities that bring between 100 and 200 people to the Center daily.

By the end of 1937, with barely two years remaining before this unprecedented relief program was disbanded, the Federal government had expended more than $8,000,000 on park, playground, and recreation facilities in San Francisco. The city’s price tag for this work was approximately $420,000.

In April 1939, under the Reorganization Act of 1939, the Works Progress Administration became the Works Projects Administration. It was President Roosevelt’s intent to turn the program into a permanent government agency. Recovery of business in the private sector and the gathering clouds of war soon superceded that hope, however, and in 1942 the program was dismantled.

During its years of operation, the W.P.A. provided an unparalleled array of services to the citizens of the United States. The index for the W.P.A. 1938 Inventory: An Appraisal of the Results of the Works Progress Administration hints at the scope of this program’s impact: Roads and Bridges; Parks and Playgrounds; Public Buildings; Water and Sewer; Aviation; Historic Shrines; Education; Health; Libraries; Conservation; Historical Surveys and Records; Science and Research; Recreation; Music; Theatre; American Art; American Guide; Disaster Relief.

“Talking books” for the blind and the recordation of former slaves’ oral histories are just two more examples of the seemingly endless societal services provided by the W.P.A. to the citizens of the United States.

In his December 4, 1942 correspondence to Major General Philip B. Fleming, Administrator of the Federal Works Agency, President Franklin D. Roosevelt draws the agency’s years of service to a close with these words:

I am proud of the Works Projects Administration… It has displayed courage and determination in the face of uninformed criticism…With the satisfaction of a good job well done and with a high sense of integrity, the Works Projects Administration has asked for and earned an honorable discharge.

Other W.P.A. Projects in San Francisco


17th Street – Market to Harrison
18th Street – 3rd Street to Missouri
25th Avenue – Fulton to El Camino del Mar
Aquatic Park – Van Ness to Municipal Pier
Bay Street – Polk to Embarcadero
Bay Street – Polk to Fillmore
Brannan Street – Embarcadero to 10th Street
Broadway – Davis to Mason
Bush Street – Fillmore to Presidio
California Street(1) – Presidio to Lyon
California Street(2) – Lyon to Fillmore
Castro Street – 17th to 19th Street
Castro Street – 24th to 26th Streets
Columbus Avenue – Montgomery to Bay
Duboce Street – Market to Mission
Fell Street – Van Ness to Baker
Franklin Street – Market to Bay
Fulton Street – Franklin to Masonic
Golden Gate Avenue – Masonic to Parker
Golden Gate Avenue – Van Ness to Masonic
Gough Street – Market to California
Grove Street – Gough to Market
Guerrero Street – Market to 14th Street
Harrison Street – 10th to 14th Street
Lombard Street – Lyon to Broderick
Market Street – Gough to Castro
Oak Street – Franklin to Stanyan
Otis Street – Duboce to 12th Street
Palo Alto – Sutro Forest line to Twin Peaks
Third Street – Bayshore Boulevard to Burke
Townsend Street – Embarcadero to 4th Street
Twin Peaks Boulevard – Clayton to Palo Alto
Valencia Street – Market to Mission
Van Ness Avenue – Market to Beach
Wawona(1) – 19th to 24th Avenue
Wawona(2) – 25th to 28th Avenue

Public Buildings

Academy of Sciences
Coroner’s Office
DeYoung Museum
Laguna Honda Home
Municipal Railway “L” line extension
Police Department pistol range
San Francisco Airport
Visitacion Nursery School

Parks/Playgrounds/Recreation Centers

38th & Fulton Recreation Center
Amazon Recreation Center
Aptos Playground
Balboa Park
Bayview Park
Chinese Playground
Corona Heights Park
Crocker Amazon Recreation Center
Dolores Park
Excelsior Playground
Funston Playground
Gilman Playground
Harding Park Clubhouse
Ingleside Recreation Center
Inspiration Park
Jackson Park
James Rolph Playground
Julius Kahn Playground
Lafayette Square
Lincoln Park Clubhouse
Lombard Park
Mt. Davidson
Mt. Lake Park
Ocean View Playground
Portola Playground
Potrero Hill Playground
Sharp Park
Sigmund Stern Playground
St. Mary’s Playground
Sunset Park
Sutro Heights Park
Visitation Playground

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Timothy Keegan is a native of Spokane, Washington, but he has considered San Francisco his adopted home since his arrival here in 1976. His twenty-seven years in the city have been assiduously chronicled in his photographs; and his passionate love of San Francisco has been the subject of his freelance writing since 1998.


Carl H. Hittenberger, Essay by Ralph Keating (October 1998).

Historic Structures Report / Historical Data Section: Pioneers, Politics, Progress and Planning: The Story of San Francisco’s Aquatic Park, James P. Delgado, Park Historian (January 1981).

Investigation Report, Aquatic Park, NARG 69, WPA, Box 902, File 651.109.

Inventory: An Appraisal of the Results of the Works Progress Administration (Superintendent of Documents, Washington, D.C.), 1938.

Minutes of Meetings: Board of Park Commissioners (1937-1941).

Northern California’s Three Years of Achievement Under the Works Progress Administration (1935-1938), by William R. Lawson, Administrator (1938).

Report of Clyde E. Healy, Assistant City Engineer – City of San Francisco – and Coordinator of W.P.A. Projects; Period: October 10, 1935 to August 31, 1939 (December 1, 1939).

Report On Progress of the Works Progress Administration, William Mooser, Jr., Branch Manager (January 1938).

Report On Progress of the Works Program; Works Progress Administration, San Francisco, CA 1938; prepared for William R. Lawson, Administrator Northern California (January 1938).

Security, Work and Relief Policies: Report of the Committee On Long-Range Work and Relief Policies to the National Resources Planning Board, Washington, D.C. (1942).

Summary of Relief and Federal Work Program Statistics 1933-1940, by Theodore E. Whiting and T.J. Woofter, Jr., United States Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. (1941).

U.S. Community Improvement Appraisal: A Report on the Work Program of the Works Progress Administration, April 1939.

United States Department of the Interior/National Park Service: National Register of Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form (Form 10-330a) (1974).

Workers On Relief In The United States In March 1935: A Census of Usual Occupations, Washington, D.C. (abridged edition, January 1937).

National Archives W.P.A. microfilm records; South San Francisco; Washington, D.C. (1935-1941).

San Francisco Chronicle (1935-1941).

San Francisco Examiner (1935-1941).