Noe Valley Voice May 1998

Florence's Family Album: Talking Through My Hat About the deYoung

By Florence Holub

On June 2 the voters of San Francisco will get a second chance to save the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park. The damage caused by the Loma Prieta Earthquake of 1989 still has the potential to harm irreplaceable works of art, as well as museum visitors, and if the museum remains in this unsafe condition, it will be forced to close. That is unthinkable.

Fortunately, the museum trustees have listened to the voters and formulated Proposition A, which will pay for rebuilding the de Young in the park. A complementary proposition, Prop. J, will allow for construction of an underground parking garage.

As Voice readers know, I am a big fan of both A and J. I'm also a docent who gives tours at the museum. So in March, not wishing to constantly inflict my vocal opinion upon everyone, I decided to throw my hat into the campaign -- literally.

Remembering the old Chinese saying "A picture is worth a thousand words," I drew a picture of the de Young facade, pasted it on cardboard, and fastened it onto my wide-brimmed straw hat. The drawing featured an SOS banner across the building's tower, with a Yes on A and a Yes on J printed on either wing. I hoped my message would come across succinctly, but also sportingly!

For a trial run, I wore the hat to museum director Harry Parker's house. He had gathered us docents together to explain the finer points of the June ballot measures. When he saw my hat, he chortled loudly. I thanked him for his enthusiastic response.

Later, on my way home on Muni, I found the reaction to my hat surprisingly positive -- especially while riding through the Twin Peaks tunnel where there is a long stretch of nothing to see. A couple even asked about the details of the propositions. Having just been filled in, I was able to answer their questions. The other riders were also listening, their eyes glued to my hat. And at the Market and Castro transfer point, even more attention was forthcoming, with smiles and comments such as "Nice hat!" and "Right!"

In addition to the hat, I was wearing a large tee shirt that my good friend Anne Michel, who also lives in Noe Valley, presented to me several years ago. I wore it over a pair of gold slacks that had never seemed to go with anything before. On the front of the shirt was a side view of a crouching sphinx, over the words 100 Years (in bold gold letters), and below that the words of Art in San Francisco (in smaller type). An old gold necklace the same color as the sphinx, which I'd found in a secondhand store in Grass Valley, finished off my appearance as a fairly tasteful walking billboard -- but for a worthy cause, certainly.

The first time I wore this ensemble to a social gathering (before the addition of the hat), my man Leo introduced me as his 100-year-old wife, and everyone was amused, including the wife.

The tee shirt was created in 1994, for an exhibition in honor of the de Young's 100th birthday, which took place in 1894 at the Midwinter Fair in Golden Gate Park. The fair came about because of the efforts of M. H. de Young, editor and owner of the San Francisco Chronicle. De Young had visited the World's Columbian Exposition, a spectacular international fair in Chicago on May 1, 1893. The Chicago exposition featured cultural, scientific, and industrial inventions and works of art from around the world. De Young was so enthralled by what he saw that he vowed to bring the fair to his city on the West Coast.

Because of Chicago's freezing winter weather, the exposition was scheduled to close in the fall, before the snow began falling. When the energetic Mr. de Young learned this, he approached the people behind the exposition and began extolling the glorious sunny winter weather and the scenic wonders to be enjoyed in San Francisco. By the end of May, he was garnering support and financial backing in the Bay Area. Seven months later, on Jan. 1, 1894, the Midwinter Fair opened in San Francisco, to the delight of all.

It was such a success that when it closed, the city voted to retain the Fine Arts Building as a permanent museum. And they appointed as its director the public-spirited man who'd made it all possible, M. H. de Young.

Although the original building was demolished in 1929, a pair of sphinxes from 1894 still flank the entrance. The present de Young evolved as a series of additions, tacked on when needed. Over the years, several have been demolished or rebuilt when judged unsafe.

Now the entire building, with the exception of the Asian wing, has been deemed structurally unsound, so the museum is at a crossroads. Its supporters do not want to lose this grand old institution, and have thus begun a campaign to rebuild the museum, contingent upon the passage of Proposition A.

When added to the $44.2 million in private donations that have already been pledged, Prop. A, an $89.9 million bond measure, will cover the $134 million needed to build a new museum at its same location in Golden Gate Park. Because it will boost property taxes ($39.50 a year for a $300,000 abode), Prop. A requires a two-thirds vote. (Incidentally, I spend twice that amount to be a member of the two museums in the park. So this is a bargain for the residents of our city!)

On April 8 the campaign held a kickoff rally. Of course I attended, wearing my hat, and received more attention than anticipated when a number of photographers -- including Najib Joe Hakim from Noe Valley -- began snapping my picture. A young Asian woman also photographed and interviewed me for a nationally distributed East Bay newspaper written in Chinese.

During the interview, I was able to slip in my feelings on the importance of Golden Gate Park's two museums, the de Young and the Academy of Sciences, especially to the busloads of children who come from all over the state to enjoy the science displays and the art and antiquities. For many, this is their first exposure to cultures other than their own.

As I was sounding off, the speakers' stand filled with dignitaries, and the stairs became crowded with school children waving Yes on A placards. The campaign chairs, Mayor Willie Brown and Senator Dianne Feinstein, then took to the podium and received tokens of esteem from the head co-chair, Noe Valley's own Ruth Asawa. The gifts were tote bags that Ruth, one of our many great "artists-in-residence," had created herself.

Several days after the rally, I was in the West Portal neighborhood when Harry Parker happened to walk out of a shop. Upon seeing me, he declared, "You and your hat were on television, Channel 2!" Of course by then the news was old hat. But I was still gratified to learn that my headdress had made it onto the airwaves.

On Sunday, April 19, people opposed to Prop. A held their own rally along the Concourse in Golden Gate Park. My man Leo and I went and were pleased to note that they were outnumbered by the proponents (surprisingly, many on bicycles and rollerskates) of Props. A and J.

Proposition J, by the way, is a separate ballot measure, funded entirely by private donations. It would authorize an 800-space parking facility to be built under the Music Concourse, with entrances and exits outside the park. The 200 surface parking spaces now in the Concourse area would be replaced by landscaping. All in all, this garage would give much better access to the museums, as well as to the Japanese Tea Garden, Arboretum, and Music Concourse (which the measure's sponsors assure me will not be torn up during construction!).

It is a rational remedy for all of the problems that have plagued the area for almost a decade. For this reason, I intend to be out and about until the election, hoping that my hat will speak for itself.

Knowing the wonderful voting record of Noe Valley, I want to urge everyone to be sure to vote on June 2. And when Propositions A and J win, I will take off my hat to the good sensible people of our city for voting so wisely!