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At home in Lafayette Square

In 1919, looking west into Lafayette Square from the intersection of Gough and Clay Streets, the St. Regis apartment building is on the left and a long-gone single-family residence on the right. Through the trees at the crest of the hill is Samuel Wirt Holladay’s compound he called Holladay Heights. OpenSFHistory photograph.


Of the 220 public spaces the city’s Recreation and Park Department administers in San Francisco, Lafayette Park is unique: It has a privately owned six-story apartment building cut right into its municipal landscape on the side bordering Gough Street.

In the city’s early days, several parks had issues over real estate title, including Alamo Square, Holly Park, Jackson Park and Lafayette Square, as the park was originally known. The city usually won its legal actions to wrest public properties from squatters, some of whom were shrewd and persistent through years of litigation.

Spaces for 11 city parks were designated by the Van Ness Ordinance of 1855-56 and confirmed by the state legislature in 1858. Like Lafayette Square, many of the spaces reserved for public use consisted of foursquare blocks. Some of the parks were patriotically named for past presidents or others important in the country’s creation — in this case the Marquis de Lafayette, a Frenchman who fought for the U.S. during the American revolution.

Samuel Wirt Holladay claimed he owned land in the eastern half of the park that was also claimed by the city. Holladay, born in New York in 1823, came west in 1849 in search of gold. He arrived in San Francisco at the end of 1850. Soon after, in February 1851, he said he purchased six 50-vara lots, the unit of measure originally used in San Francisco.

Holladay was city attorney between 1860 and 1863. During that time, ironically, he was responsible for ousting squatters from city-owned properties.

In 1863, when Holladay began building a fence around his claim in Lafayette Square, his workmen were arrested for digging in a public space. Later that year, the attorney general brought charges against Holladay, but the court sided with him. The next year Holladay brought a lawsuit to quiet the title and got it cleared; no one could find a loophole in his claim.

The lots covered nearly half of the east side of the park. In the tract layout, Clay Street was to be extended west from Gough Street to Octavia Street, providing access to the lots. Holladay chose the northwest lot at the apex of the hill for his own residence. In 1869 he built a two-story Victorian Italianate-style residence with a barn and windmill, calling it Holladay Heights. How Holladay physically accessed his residence is unclear, since Clay Street was never extended into the tract and there is no evidence he had a right-of-way across the park.

More than three decades after the first lawsuit over the property, the last of four legal actions against Holladay ended in September 1896 when the California Supreme Court ruled that his claim was valid. In 1902 his son, Edmund Burke Holladay, also a lawyer, represented his father and offered to sell four of the six lots to the city for $200,000. No deal was made, however.

Immediately following the 1906 earthquake and fire, Lafayette Square, along with other public open spaces, became campsites for refugees. Originally the displaced residents were told they could remain until August 1907. But with temporary wood shelters being built elsewhere, the refugees were ordered to vacate the tent camps; only two tents remained in the square by February 1907.

After the earthquake, real estate magnate Alexander W. Wilson purchased the lot in the southeast corner of the tract and commissioned a large structure to be constructed as luxury rentals for the city’s elite. Called the St. Regis, its original five stories at 1925 Gough Street contained graciously sized apartments. The Beaux Arts-style building, designed by architect Conrad A. Meussdorffer, was completed in 1908. Today the St. Regis houses privately owned co-operative apartments that are among the city’s most desirable residences.

In the years following the earthquake, small amounts of park infrastructure were added to make the slopes usable to the public. In 1910, about half of the park’s land had been improved, including a concrete wall along Washington Street, between Gough and Octavia, and a stairway of 26 steps. A public toilet and sidewalks were constructed in 1913.

Holladay and his wife, Georgiana, had moved to New York, but later returned to reside in Holladay Heights. Just a few days before the opening in 1915 of the spectacular Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which could be viewed from his home, Holladay died at age 92.

Real estate mogul Louis Lurie acquired the remaining Holladay lots in the 1920s, but after being frustrated by attempts to get Clay Street continued west beyond Gough Street, he sold them to the city in 1935 for $200,000. Without street access, some of the lots were landlocked. The buildings of Holladay Heights were demolished, with the land becoming part of the park, as the city had always intended. But the St. Regis Apartments remained.

With the rest of the originally designated four-block-square tract now available as a park, it became a Depression Era project of the Works Progress Administration, a federally funded program to put the country back to work. Between 1936 and 1938, improvements costing $89,000 were carried out within the park, including pathway resurfacing, the addition of drinking fountains, a new tennis court and construction of new and larger restrooms.

Various renovations to the park have been carried out over the decades, but the privately owned apartments remain. The residents of the St. Regis will likely have views into the verdant landscape of Lafayette Park for a very long time.

Christopher Pollock is historian-in-residence at the city’s Recreation and Park Department.

Portfolio of photographs of Lafayette Park by Art Bodner