Portals of the Past: A Door into San Francisco History
Memories of days gone by
Nestled in a quiet spot in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, on the far side of a small lake, stands a Greek portico. A curious, lone structure, once the entryway of a mansion, taken down by the 1906 earthquake.
Today, visitors can walk along the lake and find themselves in front of a piece of San Francisco history. A symbol of what the city was before the great quake and fire. A surviving structure representing the opulence and staggering wealth of the Nob Hill elite.
The plaque explains that this was once the “Portal of Residence” of the vice president and general manager of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, Alban Towne, a man who like many in his time made his fortune out west.
Alfred had the portico and the house around it built in 1891, it was located on California Street. He would die years before the 1906 earthquake but his portico would live on for decades. In 1909, The Portals, as they are known to locals, were moved to their new home next to Lloyd Lake in Golden Gate Park.
I remember the first time I saw The Portals; my dad and I were on one of our weekend adventures in the park and came across them. It’s not a sight you expect to see as you stand in front of Lloyd Lake, across the water, staring almost eerily back at you. My dad and I pretended they were a time portal, if you thought hard enough about how things were in 1906 maybe, just maybe, you could walk out through the other side and into that long-ago era.
Imagine San Francisco in 1906, before the quake hit, the city was alive, bustling, full of growth and never expecting the disaster that would soon occur. Go back in your mind, beyond the grainy black and white images, to how it was. Horse-drawn carriages filled the streets, women dressed in long, colorful dresses, their hair in an upsweep with a smart hat. Men wearing rounded derby hats smoking cigars and sporting large mustaches.
In 1849, the California Goldrush created a boom causing the small town of Yerba Buena to grow into the city of San Francisco. In an effort to keep up with the demand of a rapidly growing population, city builders simply filled in marshy lagoons and reclaimed parts of the bay to make room for growth. Filling it with ships abandoned by eager prospectors and other waste, whatever they could get their hands on. The city east of Van Ness Avenue was built up considerably, but many of the structures were made of brick and wood. These were times when people used gas for heating and light. A city built on unstable land, with little care for building codes. The disaster was imminent.
The morning of April 18, 1906, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake hit California at 5:12 AM, most of the city was jolted from sleep into the unfolding nightmare. Buildings fell, gas and water lines were ruptured, causing fires, and a lack of water to put them out. No area was immune, even the mansions of Nob Hill. For many years, the wealthiest of San Francisco had built palatial mansions on Nob Hill, seemingly to compete with one another on who could be grander. Most of these mansions came down in the quake and the resulting fire. There were some survivors, and our greek portico was one of them. Standing amidst the rubble, of what was once the house that stood around it. The entryway porch leading to nothing but a memory.
The Portals stand now, in their new location, one so peaceful and quiet that you can almost hear the sound of horse hooves and carriages bouncing along on cobblestone streets. As you stand in the entryway, the smell of eucalyptus and pine filling your senses, the memory of the past mingling with the present. It is easy to imagine, you really might be able to walk through to the other side and see the old city as it once was.
The Portals of the Past are a symbol of many things, but probably the most important is how, the city itself goes through changes, yet there are still pockets of the past to visit and imagine how it was before. Touching upon the layers of history that make this city what it is.