Aquatic Park History

Established: 1917
Location: Foot of Hyde Street
Bus: F, #19, #42,#30, cable car

The aqua preceded the park. In the 1860s, the site, then called Black Point Cove, was at the foot of Van Ness Avenue. Little swim houses like Mermaid Baths and the Dolphin Club supplied bathing suits and towels to the hardy who enjoyed a rigorous swim. In 1880, when business declined, the swim houses fell into disrepair. Architect Daniel Burnham included an aquatic park in his 1904 plan for San Francisco, but the idea perished with the 1906 earthquake. It was revived in 1909 when two rowing clubs formed the Aquatic Improvement Association. But when a bond issue to finance the park failed twice, a newly-formed Recreation League of San Francisco pressured the Board of Supervisors in 1912 to act on the League's demand for parks and other recreational facilities. The Board acted in 1917 by acquiring the first of the several parcels of land that comprise Aquatic Park today.

In 1922, the Supervisors transferred the park's jurisdiction from the Board of Public Works to the Recreation and Park Department and the following year, the remaining lands for Aquatic Park were granted to the city by the State of California.
Source: The South End Rowing Club by Bill Pickelhaupt, c 1995.

From 1923 to 1935, disagreements and delay dogged Rec and Park's efforts to construct Aquatic Park. A bond issue on the November 1928 ballot sought funding and failed. In 1935, the WPA (Works Progress Administration) took over the project of building the park and four years later, the $2,000,000 "Casino" was completed. The three-story, white concrete structure, designed to resemble a streamlined battleship, sparkled with glass and stainless steel. When, in 1939, Mayor Angelo Rossi dedicated the building, it offered swimmers and boaters the ultimate luxury in accommodations. But after its grand opening, the Casino's luster dimmed as wind, fog and frigid water discouraged bathers and beach users. The Casino restaurant went bankrupt, and the Department of Health declared the water unsafe for swimming.

During the war, the Army used the site as a staging area in connection with Fort Mason. Thereafter the Casino was largely ignored and deserted until 1949 when seaman Karl Kortum proposed turning the building into a maritime museum. He sold the idea to the city's four newspapers and Mayor Elmer Robinson who organized a citizens committee to sponsor the project. Two years later, the National Maritime Museum opened its doors.

Today Aquatic Park is the sum of many parts, offering visitors a variety of destinations and activities. The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park (SFMNHP) includes the Maritime Museum, the Hyde Street Pier and its historic wooden ships. The Museum Building houses two nonprofits — the SeaScouts of America and the San Francisco Citizens Senior Center. The park is also home to nonprofit boating groups — the Dolphin Swimming and Boating Club, and South End Rowing Club. Other attractions include the Municipal Pier and the Golden Gate Promenade to Ft. Mason and Ft. Point. These organizations operate under a tent of bewildering jurisdictions that includes the Port of San Francisco, the SFMNHP, the National Park Service, the Golden Gate National Recreation Center, the city's Recreation and Park Department, Department of Parking and Traffic, Department of Public Works, and the State Bay Conservation and Development Commission.

"Each agency," says Friends of Aquatic Park's Pete Bianucci, "has its own mission and agenda, but none of them include a priority to protect aquatic recreation." This aggravates the park's two most pressing problems — parking, and the deteriorating water quality resulting from commercial fisheries and discharge from the municipal sewer system.

Nevertheless, the park offers a scenic haven for recreation in or out of the water. Visitors picnic on the grass or walk past fishermen on the Municipal Pier. Swimmers train in the Bay, using the public beach and showers; kayakers and canoers put in at the docks. The Dolphin Club offers public access Tuesday-Saturday for $6.50 a day. "In spite of our problems, the beauty of our surroundings in Aquatic Park keeps us committed to preserving and protecting it," Bianucci declares.

Jeanne Alexander, Neighborhood Parks Council