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article imageOp-Ed: A gem-oasis for music reclaimed by a San Francisco neighborhood Special

By Jonathan Farrell     Jun 18, 2014 in Music
San Francisco - Amidst the urban expanse of the City's ever-changing landscape, there are these little-known spots where it is as if an oasis of sorts has sprung up for anyone and every one to enjoy.
The enclave of Sunnyside which as local historian Woody LaBounty described as "actually more foggy than sunny" is located between Glen Park and City College. Monterey Blvd is the little district's main thoroughfare and seemingly at its heart is an unexpected conservatory.
Described as a 'botanic jewel' The Sunnyside Conservatory on Monterey near Joost Street is a treasure for the neighborhood. What had once been part of an estate away from the City, for inventor William A. Merralls is now part of the City's Recreation and Parks system.
Stacy Garfinkel who has served as co-chair and past president of the Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory was excited to tell this reporter while on assignment for The Ingleside Light about a free evening performance at the Conservatory provided by vocalist Kelsey Lauritano on June 26. Lauritano is studying at the prestigious Julliard School of music in New York City. "All of our concerts and free music evenings have good turn-outs," said Garfinkel.
The Sunnyside Conservatory has distinguished itself as a place for music, similar to that of Stern Grove, only perhaps on a much smaller scale.
Garfinkel is very dedicated to The Sunnyside Conservatory and she and many others hope it will be preserved as San Francisco marches further into the 21st Century. She mentioned a bit about its history and the community's hopes for the future.
For over a century the octagon building has been one of the special gems of the Sunnyside District o...
For over a century the octagon building has been one of the special gems of the Sunnyside District of San Francisco. Today after many years of effort and collaboration, the distinctive octagon building serves as a cultural center and meeting place.
Courtesy of Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory
Today Sunnyside is fortunate to have this little oasis. Yet it was not that long ago when it was almost abandoned and lost to potential real estate developers. When Merrills built the Conservatory in 1898 it was at a time when people prized gardens and cultivated respites of nature.
Western Neighborhoods Project historian Woody LaBounty noted that Merrills was "like a Thomas Edison type." He had an interest in motorized vehicles, aviation and some say he had an affinity for astronomy. "Merrills liked exotic plants and trees," said LaBounty. This seems to be why the Conservatory was built. And based upon the tastes of the turn-of-the-19th-to-20th Century, Merrills 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," he said. Merrills had the structure built with two adjacent wing-annexes on either side.
According to LaBounty, Merrills was tragically killed after being hit by a trolley-train, perhaps along one of the trolley lines in the Sunnyside area established by the Joost brothers of whom Joost Street is named after. Chronicles of those early days of municipal transportation in the City are detailed at the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco web site by archivist Gladys Hansen. The accounts confirm that around that time streetcar or light-rail accidents were common.
"Merrills widow wanted to make the Conservatory and the Merrills home on the estate into a 'sanatorium.' That was sort of what we would refer today as a rehab and recovery facility," said LaBounty. She was strongly against drinking and envisioned her husband's endeavor has a way to help those in need.
"Unfortunately, Merrills' widow lost the property in the 1920's to foreclosure and in turn the property was sold to the Van Beck family."
Over the years LaBounty noted that the Conservatory was left neglected while portions of the land around it was sold or developed by subsequent owners. "Walter Anderson bought the Conservatory (and the land that remained around it). And, tried to save as much as he could of the Conservatory," LaBounty said.
"When Anderson's widow sold the Conservatory and its land in 1973 for $70,000.00 that is when neighbors became concerned," LaBounty said. Fortunately, the Conservatory was awarded historical landmark status in 1975.
Yet, that did not settle things entirely as LaBounty explained, "through some sort of bureaucratic mistake, in 1978 portions of the building were demolished." The two adjacent annex/wings on either side of the octagon building were taken away.
David Gallagher also of the Western Neighborhoods Project said, The Conservatory was "decrepit" and in pretty bad shape. By the early 1980's the Conservatory and its remaining land was 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 Garfinkel who also served as co-chair and then president of the group. After much community effort and collaboration with Rec. and Parks, SF Dept. of Public Works and others, Sunnyside Conservatory was officially re-dedicated in 2009. The estimated cost was $4.2 million.
"Rec. and Parks handles the gardening and the scheduling of events like weddings and private parties," said Garfinkel. "Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory must cover the staffing for the events/concerts that we provide," she added.
Current president of Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory, Chester Hartsough agreed. "It is so great to work with such good people for these free events," he said. This year there are over 2-dozen events. Usually, events scheduled, vary (including private functions and weddings).
Yet, with a modest operating budget, Friends of Sunnyside Conservatory need help and are seeking members to join. "People are generous with donations," said Hartsough. 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," he said.
For more information about Sunnyside Conservatory visit the website. Or call, 415-937-8899.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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