The Hunt for Sweeny Observatory at Strawberry Hill

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One of the things I love most about writing historical fiction is exploring the areas that I'm writing about. It's fun to go to a place in a scene I'm writing and imagine what it must have been like during the period of my story.

With historical fiction, I try to be as true to life as possible with the historical backdrop. It helps paint a more accurate picture of how the place would have influenced the characters and the events.

In writing, you don't always know where you'll end up going. That's one of the fun things about writing fiction. Sometimes the adventure can surprise you. One of the places I didn't know I would end up going to for my current project that takes place in 1906 San Francisco is Strawberry Hill, located on an island in the middle of Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park.

Sweeny Observatory (seen above in its hay day) was built in 1891. Thomas U. Sweeny, a wealthy landowner, offered to build the structure on the condition that he could put his name on it. Even though the building's design went strictly against the park's policy that only buildings rustic in nature were to be allowed, the park allowed it anyway. There were also regulations prohibiting all forms of self advertisement, which was also ignored in this case.

William Hammond Hall, the designer and superintendent of Golden Gate Park apparently regretted this decision, commenting privately that the Observatory was a disgrace to the park. When the earthquake struck, Hall reportedly told his friends that “Apparently, a Higher Power has taken matters into His own hands.”

Needless to say, it's not a total mystery why the building wasn't reconstructed! In fact, in 1917 Maria Becker, the widow of banker Bernard Becker offered $42K to rebuild the Observatory but was rejected by the Park Commission. The money was instead used to build the Pool of Enchantment in front of the old de Young museum.

Source: SFpix.com

It was a particularly warm Friday in San Francisco, which means locals and tourists were out in droves. I'd been to the park several times, but never to this particular location. The husband (TH) and I fumbled out of the car with all the baby gear. Traveling with a 3 month old is uncharted territory and we were bound and determined to make it work.

TH was not particularly thrilled about having to push the kid's stroller up to a 400 foot elevation on a dirt trail, but he tried not to complain too much. Round and round we went getting peeks of a panorama from all different angles. The trees were definitely more filled in now than they were back then, compared to the photos.

We spiraled upward until we reached the top, where I realized the rumors were true. Not much was left to indicate there was once a building here.

The biggest indicator were rocks arranged in a circle around a big indentation in the ground where a pond had once been. Jagged rocks of various height stood like a henge to indicate there was some purpose to their arrangement.

But as far as the coliseum-like structure, the only thing left of it were a couple stones here and there and a part of a wall that now served the purpose of a glorified planter box.

I spun around in disbelief that there once could have been a two story structure here that assuredly would have offered the most spectacular views of the city. Now, the trees were overgrown and you could only use your imagination to paint a picture of what once was.

It was only on our walk back down the hill that we realized that pieces of the structure had been taken, covered with concrete and lined the very top of the trail on the outside edge. If you look closely you can see the rusty red bricks, some of them still holding twisted remnants of structural rebar indicating they once carried a weight and served a purpose. No one traveling up that path now would even take a second look at them now.

As TH and baby and I made our way back down to the real world located outside this secret magical history bubble, I couldn't help but think in between my uncomfortable steps of my toes pushing up close to the edges of my boots, that I bet if my characters had come here the night of the fires what a spectacularly haunting scene that must have been.

I also can't help but compare it to my own vantage point from Sebastopol the early morning of October 9th, 2017 where we could see the glow of the valley on fire from the tentative safety of the back deck. You can never truly feel at ease when the world around you is aglow, surrounded by water or not.

Team Geissinger at the Summit of Strawberry Hill
Team Geissinger at the Summit of Strawberry Hill

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