SAN FRANCISCO — The Golden Gate Bridge. Fisherman's Wharf. Alcatraz. Chinatown. To the long list of this California city's remarkable attractions, add a new one — a living tropical rainforest entirely contained within a four-story glass dome.
Rainforests of the World is the centerpiece of the newly redesigned California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. It is a spectacular permanent exhibit, one that provides a home for more than 1,600 live animals and thousands of individual plants in a hemisphere measuring 90 feet in diameter.
This exhibit — and, indeed, the entire new $488-million Academy of Sciences building — was designed by famed architect Renzo Piano, whose smaller prototype dome, and the only other one of its kind in the world, stands in his native Italy.
The Academy building notably features a dramatic, 2½-acre living roof covered with native California plants and wildflowers. Beneath its seven manmade hills, the recreated museum has restored every element housed in the original 1915 structure that was torn down in 2004 to make way for the new building. Its Kimball Natural History Museum, Steinhart Aquarium and Morrison Planetarium, as well as renowned research and education programs, persist in 21st-century form.
But the unqualified highlight is Rainforests. Temperature- and humidity-controlled to emulate tropical climates of Borneo, Madagascar, Costa Rica and the Amazon jungle, it is home to 250 free-flying birds and butterflies, nearly 100 reptiles and amphibians, and hundreds of flowering plants, including 30 species of orchids and other bromeliads.
An elevator raises visitors to the top of the dome, from where a spiraling ramp leads them downward through the various levels of rainforest canopy. And at the foot of the dome, an acrylic tunnel passes through a 100,000-gallon “Flooded Forest" tank inhabited by tropical freshwater fish — and exits into the aquarium.
The California Academy of Sciences faces upon the Music Concourse at the heart of historic Golden Gate Park, directly opposite the similarly spectacular new de Young Museum of fine art. A full day's visit could easily be split between these two museums.
But Golden Gate Park is so much more.
One of the largest urban parks in the world — at 1,017 acres, it is greater in size than New York's Central Park — Golden Gate Park stretches 3½ miles due east from Ocean Beach, on the Pacific Ocean, to San Francisco's fabled Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. It's only one-half mile wide, but its curving drives connect at 20 different spots along the park perimeter with the grid of streets of the Richmond district, to the north, and the Sunset district, to the south.
The museums are in the eastern section of the park, less than a mile from the Haight. So, too, are such other leading attractions as the Conservatory of Flowers, the Japanese Tea Garden and the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum.
West of circular Stow Lake, which dominates the heart of Golden Gate Park, broad woodland-fringed meadows extend past seven smaller lakes. In all directions are facilities for a wide range of sports and recreational pursuits — tennis, golf, soccer, horseback riding, polo, archery, horseshoes, lawn bowling, handball, football, softball, fly casting, rowing and remote-controlled model boats (in Spreckels Lake), as well as the more obvious running, walking, bicycling and in-line skating. There's even a bison paddock where the shaggy bovines graze.
Several roads are closed to vehicular traffic on Sundays year-round and Saturdays in summer, so visitors should be prepared to explore by foot at these times, or board a free shuttle that operates weekends every 15 to 20 minutes.
These shuttles are not cable cars — but, then, Golden Gate Park was already 2 years old by the time Andrew Hallidie invented the cable car in 1872.
To look at the park today, one might never guess that when its boundaries were established in 1870, it was a swath of wind-swept sand dunes. Indeed, it didn't appear to have much future as parkland. But its visionary first superintendent, William Hammond Hall, set to work stabilizing the dunes into hills and valleys by anchoring the shifting sand with vegetation.
Hall's successor, a young Scottish estate gardener named John McLaren, took over as superintendent in 1890 with a Park Commission mandate to make the park “one of the beauty spots of the world." Over the next 53 years, McLaren experimented extensively with sand-holding grasses and plants from all over the world, built up the soil with clay and manure, and transformed Golden Gate Park into one of the nation's loveliest urban parks.
McLaren's first test was the world's fair of 1895, conceived by San Francisco Chronicle publisher Michael H. de Young as a means of jolting the city into economic recovery following a nationwide depression in 1893. Elaborate exhibits such as the new Japanese Tea Garden and the pre-existing Conservatory of Flowers helped draw 2.5 million people into the park, where they visited pavilions representing 20 nations. Also erected at this time was the Fine Arts Building, which subsequently stood as the M.H. de Young Museum of Fine Arts for more than 100 years.
Directing an army of gardeners with the skill of a symphony conductor, McLaren carried the park into the Second World War years. The most trying period, perhaps, came in the days and weeks following the devastating 1906 earthquake, when scores of suddenly homeless refugees set up temporary shelters in the park. Perhaps McLaren's spirit was still looking over the park during 1967's “Summer of Love," when thousands of hippies camped in the park and gathered for concerts and other events at Speedway Meadow.
De Young Museum
The original de Young museum might still be a part of Golden Gate Park, had it not been badly damaged in the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989. At that time, it housed not only the de Young collection — mainly American fine and decorative arts from the pre-Columbian era to the present — but also, in an adjoining wing, the city's renowned Asian Art Museum.
Both institutions closed here in the fall of 2001. The Asian Art Museum reopened a year later in a new building at the San Francisco Civic Center.
The de Young moved its collection into storage, demolished the original building and began work on a new one, which finally welcomed the public again in 2005.
Herzog & de Meuron, a Swiss architecture firm whose designs include London's Tate Gallery of Modern Art, was hired to design the new museum. Constructed of recycled redwood, eucalyptus and copper, it stands three stories tall and is crowned by an observation tower 144 feet above the surrounding acreage, offering panoramic Bay Area views at no charge.
And although the new de Young occupies 2 fewer acres of parkland than its predecessor, its multi-story construction gives it twice the gallery space. That's great news for lovers of American art.
I began my recent visit on the main gallery level, winding first through several rooms of Mesoamerican, Mayan and Native American art, including ceremonial and funerary objects. Then I wound down a hallway into additional galleries of 20th and 21st-century American art, with special emphasis on such famed California artists as Wayne Thiebaud, Richard Diebenkorn and Jay De Feo, as well as New York-based painters Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning and Robert Rauschenberg.
One floor above, the galleries that feature pre-20th-century American art are especially strong in portrait and landscape paintings, as well as trompe l'oeil still lifes. Painters like Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and Frederic Remington are prominent. I also discovered a fine exhibit of early American decorative arts, including furniture, silver, glass and porcelain.
The international collection emphasizes sub-Saharan African arts and Oceanic pieces, especially New Guinean masks and tribal totems. There's also a section on world textiles, including what is claimed as the finest collection of high-quality Anatolian kilims (flat-woven pile-less tapestries) outside of Turkey.
Through mid-February, a special exhibit recalls the life and work of legendary dancer-choreographer Rudolf Nureyev, and it is a moving tribute. On display are more than 80 costumes from Nureyev's personal collection, along with video footage of some of his most grandiose productions in New York and around the world.
Gardens and beyond
One of the park's most beloved attractions is the 5-acre Japanese Tea Garden, immediately west of the de Young and practically over the fence from the art museum's sculpture garden.
More than 100 years old, the garden has wedded traditional Japanese landscaping and architecture to create an atmosphere of serenity and tranquility. Points of special interest include a bronze Buddha dating from 1790, a pagoda, a Zen rock garden, a hillside of bonsai trees with a miniature waterfall, and an open-air Japanese tea shop offering cookies and green tea.
Opposite the Japanese garden is a secondary entrance to the Strybing Arboretum, home to the San Francisco Botanical Garden Society. With more than 7,000 plants from all over the world spreading over 55 acres of rolling terrain, this outstanding collection puts primary emphasis on regions of Mediterranean climate, such as South Africa, Australia, Chile — and California.
Other attractions here include the Garden of Fragrances, where plants are labeled in Braille; a hillside garden of succulents; the New World Cloud Forest, where special mist-emitters supplement the San Francisco fog; and a Redwood Trail planted in 1898 with coast redwoods.
Probably the park's best-known repository of plant life is the Conservatory of Flowers. Erected in 1879, the oldest surviving wood-and-glass greenhouse in the United States was shipped in prefabricated parts from Dublin, Ireland, to be installed on a San Jose estate, but by the time it arrived, its purchaser had died. A group of San Francisco businessmen then bought it for the new Golden Gate Park.
The ornate Victorian greenhouse appears as a white bubble amid a sea of flowering formal gardens, with two wings flanking an octagonal central rotunda. It holds 1,750 species of rare tropical flowers and plants, representing the flora of more than 50 countries. Within the five galleries are exhibits of medicinal and economically important rainforest plants.
Just outside the Conservatory are gardens of dahlias (the official flower of San Francisco), fuchsias, roses and rhododendrons. Nearby is a Shakespeare Garden, presenting plants mentioned in the Bard's plays, and the National AIDS Memorial Garden.
The southeast corner of Golden Gate Park, across Sharon Meadows from the Conservatory, is where San Francisco opened the country's first public playground in 1887. Like so many other features of the park, it too has been renovated, to the tune of $3.8 million. The new Koret Children's Quarter reopened in 2007 with its famous 1914 Herschell-Spillman carousel remaining as its centerpiece.
West of the Botanical Garden, a footbridge leads over moat-like Stow Lake, which doubles as a paddleboat playground and an irrigation reservoir. At its heart is 428-foot Strawberry Hill, the park's highest point but one too wooded to allow views.
In the northwest corner of the park, the Queen Wilhelmina Tulip Garden, a small but beautiful formal garden that blooms in early spring, provides a setting for the Dutch windmill, which pumped water for irrigation during the early years of the park. The windmill was restored for decorative purposes in 1981.
Golden Gate Park's western boundary is delineated by Ocean Beach, now administered by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Though few brave the chill waters without wetsuits, Ocean Beach is a haven for joggers, beachcombers and pensive strollers.
Academy of Sciences
I love all of Golden Gate Park, but my favorite spot remains the California Academy of Sciences.
Founded in 1853, the oldest scientific institution in the West has been housed in the park since 1915. It has three distinct divisions — the Kimball Natural History Museum, one of the 10 largest in the world, with access to more than 20 million specimens; the Steinhart Aquarium, oldest in the U.S. (1923) and home to an estimated 38,000 marine animals of 900 species; and Morrison Planetarium, which takes visitors from our solar system into the far reaches of space.
Rainforests of the World and the Morrison Planetarium dominate the main floor of the Academy like two giant orbs on opposite sides of a central plaza. I suggest heading first to the left from the main entrance, where you can reserve a seat for a planetarium show before heading into an exhibit called “Islands of Evolution."
This exhibit focuses on the unusual creatures of Madagascar and Ecuador's Galapagos Islands. Adjacent is an area where short films are presented on new scientific discoveries. The flow of visitor traffic then takes you through the African Hall, the only section of the original Academy of Sciences to be recreated in the new building with 21 natural-history dioramas, as well as a live colony of African penguins.
Next, cross to the other side of the plaza, where indoor and outdoor cafes flank an extensive exhibit on earthquakes. Seismic preparedness is a catchword throughout California; these displays explain the causes of earthquakes and advise what to do when one occurs.
Then it's time to take the elevator into the Rainforest dome — three stories of heat and humidity, with a ramp spiraling down to the Steinhart Aquarium. Here you may meet Claude, an albino alligator who shares his home with snapping turtles. You'll see the world's deepest display of living corals in a recreated Philippine reef. You'll explore the diversity of San Francisco's own offshore waters. You'll see a “discovery tidepool," where children may touch sea life under the watchful eye of docents. You may see a giant octopus, a chambered nautilus, an electric eel and a school of ferocious piranhas.
Then you'll head back for the show at the Morrison Planetarium, the largest all-digital planetarium in the world. Its changing programs assure a great finish to a full day — or two — in Golden Gate Park.