Michelle Brass is an assistant at the Wells Fargo History Museum in San Francisco. She earned her BA in History at UC Berkeley (Go Bears!), and is particularly interested in World War II and the history of film. When not seeking new and exciting things about history, she enjoys hiking, baking and (slowly) learning how to ride a motorcycle. (CR)
One of the things I enjoy most about the Wells Fargo Museum is its location in the heart of San Francisco, and in the heart of the city’s vibrant past. A plaque affixed to the corner of our building marks one such historic site, Robert Woodward’s hotel, the What Cheer House. The hotel celebrated its grand opening on July 4th, 1852 , just nine short days before Wells Fargo opened for business on the same block. While many gold rush entrepreneurs opened gambling halls and taverns in the “Sudden City,” Woodward found great success offering his patrons a liquor-free environment. What Cheer House attracted many farmers, miners and sailors; even General Ulysses S. Grant stayed at the hotel. Soon it would boast the city’s first free library, first museum, premium lodging at 50 cents per night and fine food. But Woodward’s greatest achievement was still to come.
With the hotel’s success, Woodward purchased a plot of land in San Francisco’s Mission District (and the site of John C. Frémont’s former home). Woodward also constructed a decadent mansion to house his growing collection of plants, animals and artwork, a hobby sparked by the many gifts he received from frequent hotel guests. At first only lucky acquaintances were invited inside the mysterious estate, but after an elaborate buying trip overseas, Woodward was ready to share his collections with the curious public.
Soon referred to by locals as the “Central Garden of the West,” Woodward’s Gardens drew in massive crowds each week. One visitor, Charles Turrill, described the “fairy-like” architecture, sixteen-tank Marine Aquarium and grand landscaping, but was most taken by the Zoological Gardens. Turrill viewed “a large bear pit and yards for camels, deer, buffaloes” and many other exciting animals, though, it was not unusual for a visitor to encounter ostriches, flamingos and other tame animals roaming the grounds freely.
Woodward spared no expense to give patrons the most memorable experience, and he continued his trips around the world in search of new and interesting items. At its height, Woodward’s Gardens offered a variety of entertainment unparalleled by any other park. A typical day’s experience could encompass roller skating, meeting the shortest man alive, watching anything from acrobats to Roman chariot races in Woodward’s 5000-seat pavilion, or viewing a hot air balloon launch! (The balloon often hit Woodward’s windmill as it ascended.) Even transportation to the gardens was a noteworthy experience. One could utilize the tunnel Woodward placed beneath 14th Street, or they could ride one of the street cars in his privately owned rail line. The San Francisco News Letter called it a “Street Palace,” describing it as “luxuriously fitted up with velvet carpet, and sofas extending the length of the car [and] fresco paintings…at a cost of two hundred dollars.”
However, like all good things, Woodward’s Gardens came to an end. After his death in 1879, the grounds were improperly maintained and lost patrons to newer spaces, such as Golden Gate Park. Woodward’s land and precious collections were auctioned off, though many of the items found a new home at Adolph Sutro’s popular Sutro Baths. While it seems that Robert Woodward and his accomplishments are lost among the many other great historical figures of our city, it is important to recognize his passion to educate and entertain. And in such a way that has contributed greatly to San Francisco’s unique (and fun) history.