the old beach chalet in golden gate park

The Original Beach Chalet was built in 1892 on the west side of the Great Highway across from Golden Gate Park. - Jesse Brown Cook Scrapbooks, BANC PIC 1996.003, UC Berkeley

The current Beach Chalet in Golden Gate Park dates to 1925.  It’s a building in the Spanish Colonial Revival style and one of the landmark historic structures in the park.  Few people know that there was another Beach Chalet, predating the the current building, on the other side of the Great Highway.  The fascinating history of the older Beach Chalet (now lost) is recounted by John Freeman on the Outside Lands website:

Here’s an excerpt from that story:  ‘As Golden Gate Park developed in the 1870s, most of the landscaping and public structures were concentrated at the eastern end, near Stanyan Street. There were dirt roads leading out to the western end of the park and Ocean Beach, but little planting and no public structures for those who took carriage or bicycle rides to see the surf. There was the Cliff House on the bluff, and at its base, a roadhouse called the Seal Rock House, and next door the Ocean Beach Pavilion for dancing. All these early building were more associated with entertaining adults than providing genteel recreation for families.

In November 1891, the Park Commission let contracts for $8,000 to construct a building designed by architect William O. Banks to serve as shelter from the wind, provide bathrooms and changing rooms for bathers, and offer observation decks to watch the waves on one side and the developing park on the other. As the San Francisco Chronicle said, “it will be an elegant addition to the few structures which at present relieve the monotony of sand dunes.”1

The new “House on the Beach” opened on Sunday, March 20, 1892. The building was described as “a two-story structure having steep roofs with ornamental gables in Queen Anne style.” There were towers at each end of the building, one of which contained a staircase leading to the second or “observation” floor. “This is divided into a large lounging room, a reading room and toilet and dressing room for women,” the Chronicle noted, making no mention of facilities for the men. One can only assume men were also provided a room for changing into their woolly swimming attire. The newspaper description continues:

The entire seaward side of the building is utilized as an observation platform and supplied with basket-shade chairs, stools, etc. On the landward side between the towers is located another platform, also well equipped with chairs. The building is designed especially for accommodation of ladies with children who wish to avoid the crowds at the Cliff House.2

The building was flanked at each end by low sheds for visitors to store carriages or bicycles during their visit.

In the early years, there was no clear identity for “The House on the Beach;” it was sometimes also called “The Observatory.” By 1895, there were newspaper references to Chalet Beach at the end of Golden Gate Park, and the building there seemed to have developed a permanent identity, but not a firm foundation. The Beach Chalet got little notice in the press, except for the annual reports to the Park Commission, which listed revenue from food concessions at the Chalet and Sharon Lodge at the Children’s Playground in the same category. The Chalet served “approved” refreshments, not alcoholic beverages, since that would be out of character for a building “designed especially for ladies with children.”

After the 1906 earthquake, the Chalet was mentioned in the park superintendent’s report on damage to structures in the park, and $2,000 was requested for unspecified repairs, most likely to stabilize the foundation. The location of the structure provided wonderful views and a comfortable place to get out of the wind; yet a building situated on the beach was constantly subject to the encroaching waves, especially during winter storms.  .  .  .

In the third week of January [1914], a major storm worked its way down from Vancouver, sinking ships and destroying beach and harbor structures all along the Pacific Coast. Amazingly, thousands of people braved the wind and rain to journey to Ocean Beach, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “to watch the work of destruction that is being done by the heavy seas […] that have been pounding against the embankment along the seawall end of Golden Gate Park.” The Chronicle continued:

Aside from the magnificent sight furnished by the heavy surf, interest centered in the heroic struggle which is being made to save the Park chalet from the hungry sea. Last night it looked as though the chalet was doomed. The breakers have eaten away the sand embankment up to the very walls of the chalet, and a number of the balcony supports have been washed out. Unless there shall be an immediate abatement of the storm and the high seas the chalet will be destroyed.4

Crowds turn out to see if the original Beach Chalet can survive a winter storm and eroding Ocean Beach, 1914. - Courtesy of Jack Hudson Collection

The structure survived that particular storm, but eventually the building proved no match for the location too close to the ocean.  When the new Beach Chalet was completed in 1925, the older structure was moved to 24th Avenue, between Irving and Judah, given a new first floor with a large meeting hall and renamed the Sunset District Boy Scout Hall.  It remained in use for community and club meetings, occasional church services and a nursery school until 1958 when it was destroyed by fire.  For the complete story see:   The Odyssey of the Original Beach Chalet – Western Neighborhoods Project – San Francisco History.


About fromthethicket

I'm a landscape historian and professor emeritus of landscape architecture, UC Davis. I live in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in "lost" golden gate park, history and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to the old beach chalet in golden gate park

  1. RKB says:

    That’s a fascinating story! Thanks for writing it.

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