How the portals of the past ended up in Golden Gate Park

Lloyd Lake is generally a quiet scene in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Golden Gate Park on a bright day. The water is always calm as the ducks swim through the pond and visitors make their way to the small waterfall from one edge. On the northwest side, a majestic portico sits with six white marble columns reflected on the surface, appearing both as a replica of Roman ruins or the spooky entrance to a cemetery.

But it’s neither. The entrance leads nowhere, and a floor plaque inside the odd structure doesn’t help much.

“Portal of residence, California and Taylor Streets of AN Towne, was for many years President and CEO of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company. This relic of the fire of April 18, 1906 was obtained through the kindness of Mrs. AN Towne.

Known as the Portals of the Past, this park attraction is actually a memorial to the 1906 earthquake and fire.


As the cryptic tablet indicates, this entry was once part of a Nob Hill mansion owned by then-Vice President of Southern Pacific Alban Towne. It was built in 1891 at 1101 California St., and the home of the railroad magnate was one of many wealthy estates that collapsed due to the fire. Designed by famous architect Arthur Page Brown and built in the Bryn Mawr style, popular for a brief period in the late 1800s, it stood where the Masonic Auditorium is located across from Grace Cathedral today. His neighbors included the “Big Four” – Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington and Mark Hopkins – all wealthy and powerful directors of the Central Pacific Railroad whose homes collapsed in the fire.

Even after commissioning his large estate in this upscale part of town, Towne didn’t live very long in his new home. In 1895, he had a heart attack in the middle of the night and died within two hours, according to an obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle that spanned almost an entire page. “Sir. Towne’s sudden disappearance was a grave shock to his family members and to his large circle of friends and acquaintances,” read the July 17, 1895 article.

An illustration of the Towne Mansion featured in the San Francisco Chronicle for July 17, 1895.

Chronicle of San Francisco

His widow, Caroline Mansfield Towne, continued to live in the house until that fateful day in 1906. While approximately 25,000 buildings were destroyed in the disaster, the remains of Towne Mansion were saved probably thanks to a early photography.

German-American photographer Arnold Genthe had worked in the city since he emigrated in 1895 and became known for his portraits, although many of them were also destroyed in the fire when his studio burned down. In the aftermath of the earthquake and fire, Genthe wandered the city, capturing famous images of the ruins. One of the most praised was a picture where he used the remaining entrance to a house to frame a picture of the city after it was destroyed. In the distance we can see a ruined town hall, surrounded by the rubble of the town.

Genthe later wrote a book, “As I Remember,” in which he describes the day he took the iconic photograph, “The ruins of Nob Hill became a rich field for my camera. Standing from the Towne Residence on California Street was the marble pillared entrance. The moonlight photo I took of it brought out its classic beauty. “

A woman stands under the remaining portico in 1906.

A woman stands under the remaining portico in 1906.

OpenSFHistory / wnp14.4607

The ruins were later donated by Caroline Towne in memory of her husband in 1909. According to Golden Gate Park historian Christopher Pollock, Senator James Duval Phelan led the efforts to remove and relocate the structure and architect Edgar A Mathews chose his new location. Only then did it earn it the nickname Portals of the Past because of that quote, “This is the portal to the past – from now on, once again onward”, found by the poet Charles Kellogg Field and considered representative of the city which moved into a new stage.

But that wasn’t the end of the photo legacy. Painter Charles Rollo Peters eventually used it as inspiration for a painting of a similar scene, hung at the Bohemian Club. Then acclaimed photographer Ansel Adams brought the image back to life by creating prints from the Genthe negatives that the California Legion of Honor Palace had in its collection. One of Adams’ prints, “Portals to the Past” from 1956, is now part of the de Young Museum’s collection of photographs, although it is not currently on display according to the. Museum.

The portals suffered another stroke of bad luck on March 22, 1957. Another earthquake struck – this time a 5.3 magnitude agitator which had been the largest since 1906. The rear eastern interior column collapsed, a said Pollock, and a square wood post replaced the column until 2009, when a replacement was finally devised.

Today, the portals, located between JFK Drive and Crossover Drive, are a popular backdrop for Golden Gate Park wedding photos, although they are unfortunately prone to the occasional graffiti. But standing below them, you can almost imagine a young town, eager for a new start.

The portals reflect on Lloyd Lake.

The portals reflect on Lloyd Lake.

Tessa McLean

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