San Francisco, CA

Portals of the Past: A San Francisco Experience

Jocelyn Joy Thomas
Portals of the Past Golden Gate ParkJocelyn Joy Thomas

Nestled in a quiet spot in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park is an unexpected sight, on the far side of a small lake, stands a Greek portico, a curious, lonely 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 this 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 at 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. There is a small waterfall to the right as you stand in front of Lloyd Lake, and across the water, staring almost eerily back at you are the portals. My dad and I always pretended they were a time portal, that if you thought hard enough about how things were in 1906 maybe, just maybe you could walk out through the other side of the portals 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. In your mind, go beyond the grainy black and white images, to how it really was. Horse-drawn carriages fill the streets, woman wear long colorful dresses, their hair in an upsweep with a smart hat. Men wear rounded derby hats smoke cigars and sport large mustaches. The city east of Van Ness is built up considerably, much of it out of brick and wood. These are times when people predominantly use gas for lights and heat.

To make matters worse, much of the city is built on landfill. Back in 1849, the gold rush created a boom remaking the small town of Yerba Buena into San Francisco. In an effort to keep up with the demand of a growing population, city builders filled in the native marshy lagoons and reclaimed parts of the bay to make room for the growth.

The morning of April 18, 1906, a magnitude 7.9 earthquake hit California, it was 5:12 AM, most of the city was jolted from sleep into a nightmare. Buildings fell, gas and water lines ruptured, fires erupted, and there was 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 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, the house around it gone, the entryway porch leading to nothing but a memory.

The Portals stand now, in a different location but 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 mingles with the present. It is easy to imagine you really could walk out through the other side and see the city as it once was.

The Portals of the Past are a symbol of many things, but probably the most important is how even though San Francisco goes through many changes, there are still pockets of the past to visit and imagine. Touching upon the layers of history that make this city what it is.

If you have a chance to visit the Portals of the Past you can find them off of John Kennedy Drive at Lloyd Lake in Golden Gate Park. They will not disappoint.

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San Francisco places to see, eat, and local history. I love to travel, explore and learn. My hometown is San Francisco, and this is where most of my focus is for now until we are able to travel the world again!

San Francisco, CA

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