Neighborhood History

A Victorian Botanical Oasis Amidst the City’s Concrete Expanse


An oasis exists amidst the expanse of San Francisco’s concrete landscape in the Sunnyside district, which, according to local historian Woody LaBounty, is, “actually more foggy than sunny.”

Located between Glen Park and City College, the district’s arterial thoroughfare is Monterey Boulevard. Sunnyside Conservatory is its heart. A botanic jewel, the Sunnyside Conservatory is located on Monterey Boulevard near Joost Street.

While the conservatory currently belongs to the Recreation and Park Department, but it had once once been part of an estate away from the city for inventor William A. Merralls.

Merralls built the conservatory in 1898. At the time, people prized gardens and cultivated respites of nature. LaBounty describes Merralls as Thomas Edison type, who was interested in motorized vehicles and aviation.

“Merralls liked exotic plants and trees,” LaBounty says. This seems to be why the conservatory was built. And based upon the tastes of the turn-of-the-19th-to- 20th century, Merralls was not alone in his interests.

“It was the trend in those days to build eight-sided or octagon shaped buildings. Some people thought eight sides promoted better health, or something like that,” LaBounty says. Merralls had the structure built with two adjacent wing-annexes on either side.

According to LaBounty, Merralls was killed after being hit by a trolley-train, perhaps along one of the trolley lines in the Sunnyside area established by the Joost brothers that Joost Street is named after.

“Merralls’ widow wanted to make the conservatory and their home on the estate into a sanitorium, or what we would refer today as a rehab and recovery facility,” LaBounty says. She was strongly against drinking and envisioned her husband’s endeavor had a way to help those in need.”Unfortunately, she lost the property in the 1920s to
foreclosure and in turn the property was sold to the Van Beck family.”

Yet that did not save the building entirely. “Through some sort of bureaucratic mistake, in 1978 portions of the building were demolished,” LaBounty says. As a
result, the two wings on either side of the octagon were taken away.

“The conservatory was decrepit and in pretty bad shape,” says David Gallagher, who is part of the Western Neighborhoods Project, along with LaBounty. “By the early 1980s, the conservatory and its remaining land were incorporated into the San Francisco Recreation and Parks system.” Then, in 1999, Arnold Levin officially formed the
Friends of the Conservatory with the help of Stacy Garfinkel, who also served as co-chair and later president of the group.

After much community effort and collaboration with the Recreation and Parks Department, the Department of Public Works and others, Sunnyside Conservatory was officially rededicated in 2009 at an estimated cost of $4.2 million.

“Rec. and Parks handles the gardening and the scheduling of events like weddings and private parties,” says Garfinkel. “Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory
must cover the staffing for the concert and events that we provide,” she adds.

Yet, with a modest operating budget, Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory are seeking members to join. “People are generous with donations,” says Charles Hartsough, president of Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory. “But we do need people to participate
and volunteer, help us to foster more ideas for events and activities that will keep the conservatory firmly rooted in the heart of the community.”

For more information about the Sunnyside Conservatory, visit their website.

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