By Suzie Racho
Tucked away on a wooded hillside in the middle of San Francisco sits a big concrete cross. When it was built, it could be seen from miles around. Now, a thick grove of trees partially shields it from view.
Over the years, Bay Curious has gotten several questions about the cross. Even lifelong San Franciscans, like Julia Thollaug and Phil Montalvo, have wondered about it.
“I grew up in and around S.F. I’ve always noticed the cross and just wondered why it was there and where it came from?” says Thollaug.
“Growing up in the Outer Mission/Crocker Amazon, the cross was always in view. I never understood when it was constructed, or even as of today, why it’s still up on Mount Davidson,” adds Montalvo.
Neither of them has ever visited Mount Davidson Park, where the cross is located. And after living here for decades, I hadn’t either.
Mount Davidson Park rises above a quiet residential neighborhood just west of Twin Peaks. It’s not well known or well marked. But once you start walking the park’s trails, you’re surrounded by eucalyptus trees and it’s easy to forget you’re in the middle of a major city.
When you get to the top, you see two things: a view that stretches all the way to the East Bay and one very big cross.
“A guy named James Decatur, who is an employee of the Western Union Telegraph Company and involved with the YMCA, hikes through that forest and comes to the top, ” Proctor says. “And he sees this incredible view of downtown. And he is just overwhelmed. He is inspired then to build a cross to crown the highest point of the city.”
An imposing sight, the concrete cross stands 103 feet tall and measures 10 feet wide at the base.
Decatur thought it would be a perfect place to hold an Easter sunrise service. Holding religious ceremonies in natural settings was a trend at the time. Proctor says people were pushing back against the materialism of the Roaring ’20s by reconnecting to the natural and to the spiritual. So it wasn’t hard for Decatur to find support for his idea.
Several of Mount Davidson’s trails had already been established by its landowner, a developer named A.S. Baldwin. Baldwin was already starting to build houses in the surrounding area. These would become neighborhoods like Westwood Highlands, Forest Hill and St. Francis Wood. Baldwin saw the service as a way to introduce more people to new neighborhoods west of Twin Peaks. So he not only gives Decatur permission to hold the event, but donates $2,000 to get a 40-foot tall wooden cross constructed for the service. That’s nearly $31,000 in today’s dollars.
The event also received enthusiastic backing from city officials, religious leaders and community groups. Boy Scout troops camped out the night before and acted as ushers for attendees. The dean of Grace Cathedral led the service.
That Easter morning was a rainy one, but Proctor says that didn’t stop 5,000 worshipers from showing up.
“James Decatur thinks, ‘This is great. Had no idea 5,000 people would come, so let’s do it again!’ ” Proctor says.
Decatur raises money for a bigger wooden cross for the service the following year. But it wouldn’t be the last service or the last cross. There were five in all. Each temporary cross was replaced as the now annual service got more and more popular, drawing tens of thousands of people, Proctor says.
“People are dressed up,” Proctor says. “They’re wearing fancy shoes and their fur coats. It was this incredible civic event. “
But it was still being held on private land, land that was beginning to fill with new houses.
The encroaching development alarmed nature lover Madie Brown. In 1926, she led a campaign to urge the city to buy 25 acres on Mount Davidson to create a public park. Bolstered by women’s groups across the city, the three-year campaign was a success. She even won the support of Baldwin’s widow, Emma, who donated the six acres at the peak. The cross would now be sitting on public land.
After years of temporary crosses, construction began on the monument in 1932.
It took two years and $20,000 to build the enormous concrete cross — almost $400,000 in today’s dollars. By the time it was completed, the country was in The Great Depression. But the people still wanted a grand celebration.
As part of the ceremony, a dozen 1,000-watt flood lights were installed on poles surrounding the cross.
Madie Brown envisioned a dramatic moment when the lights would be switched on for the first time. She wrote to an envoy of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt asking him to do the honors.
“It seems most appropriate that the President, who has brought light into many a darkened American home and who through his New Deal has instilled the principles of the Golden Rule into American business, should take part in this cross lighting ceremony,” she wrote.
Western Union set up a trans-Atlantic hookup between Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. And on the evening of March 24, 1934, President Roosevelt pressed a gold telegraph key that sent electricity across the country to light the Mount Davidson cross. Once lit, the cross was visible from 50 miles away. That Easter, 50,000 people journeyed to the monument.
The cross became a San Francisco landmark. But other than an appearance in the Clint Eastwood movie, “Dirty Harry” in 1971, it had largely stayed out of the news until the early 1990s, when the issue of a cross on public land ends up in court.
After several years of litigation, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rules that city ownership of the cross violates the California Constitution’s separation of church and state laws. San Francisco has to find someone to buy the cross or tear it down.
“The city decides they’re going to sell the land around the cross and the cross and they have to sell it with no conditions,” says Proctor.
In 1997, San Francisco settles on a plan to auction off the cross and the little over a third of an acre it sits on. The sale requires any bidder to keep the site open to the public and places restrictions on how many days it can be illuminated.
Three groups come forward in hopes of preserving the cross as a landmark: The Friends of Mount Davidson Conservancy (of which Jacquie Proctor was a member), the Museum of the City of San Francisco and the Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California.
The Armenian group thought that the cross could become a memorial.
“Most Armenian Americans, including those in the San Francisco Bay Area, are descendants of the few survivors of the Armenian genocide, which was carried out by the Turkish leaders of the Ottoman Empire in 1915,” says Roxanne Makasdjian, a member of Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California.
Makasdjian says that descendants often built two things in the places where they settled: churches and genocide memorials. The Armenian Council thought a visible symbol like the cross on Mount Davidson could educate the public about this history.
With the support of the neighborhood group, who share the goals of preserving the cross and the park, Makasdjian’s group wins the rights to buy the site and the cross for $26,000.
Now, the cross is lit two nights a year, April 24 to commemorate the Armenian genocide and the night before Easter.
The annual sunrise service still exists. Now it’s non-denominational, and a few hundred people usually show up. Not quite the same scene as the thousands who appeared in their finery in the 1920s and 1930s.
But Proctor is thankful for the sunrise service. Without it, she says, Mount Davidson would look very different today.
“If we didn’t have the sunrise service, we wouldn’t have a park there now. And it would have been covered with houses and buildings, like most of the other hills of San Francisco.”
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic canceled the Easter service for the first time since 1923. And this year will be the second time.