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Mt. Davidson Cross Has Stood Tall for Decades

Welcome to Curbed's ongoing series titled Hidden Histories, where Curbed highlights a Bay Area location with a secret past. Maybe it's no longer there, maybe it's been converted into something else, but each spot holds a place in Bay Area history - even if not many people know it. Have a suggestion or know a place with a secret history? The tipline's always open or you can leave a comment after the jump.

Mt. Davidson Cross at night [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

You can see it from most vantage points in the city. It caused a rumble of controversy over the separation of church and state. But what exactly is the story behind the giant concrete cross on the top of Mt. Davidson?

Mt. Davidson, named after charter member of the Sierra Club George Davidson, was originally part of Adolph Sutro's land, and was sold to Sutro's appraiser A.S. Baldwin in 1911. He went on to plan development of nearby Forest Hill, St. Francis Wood, Westwood Park, Balboa Terrace, and Monterey Heights. The first cross on the site has its origins linked to Grace Cathedral, who erected a 40ft temporary wood cross in 1923. A few more larger wood crosses were built in the next few years, during which time 20 acres at the top of Mt. Davidson was purchased by the city of San Francisco to be used as a park.

Earlier wooden version of the cross at Easter service on Mt. Davidson, 1930 [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

By 1933, big shots like Mayor Rossi, "Sunny Jim" Rolph, and the Native Sons of the Golden West decided to build a permanent cross as a commemoration to the early California pioneers. The 103ft cross was designed by George W. Kelham, Chief of Architecture for the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition in 1915 (and of Main Library and Russ Building fame). FDR lit the cross via telegraph from the White House a few days before Easter.

First Easter service on Mt. Davidson with concrete, 1934 [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

For decades Easter services were held at the cross at sunrise and were broadcast on television. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the cross was lit year-round, but the energy crisis in 1976 reduced lighting to Easter and Christmas weeks. The cross gained additional fame when it was used in a scene from Dirty Harry.

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As years progressed, the idea of a religious symbol as city property started to irk people, and in 1991 the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Jewish Congress, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sued the city over its ownership of the cross. The San Francisco Landmarks Board recommended the cross as a local landmark, calling it a secular landmark of historic value to the city, in response to a petition of over 8,000 signatures. After a long long court battle, the city auctioned off the .38 acres of land that included the cross site in 1997. The Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California purchased the land for $26,000, and installed a bronze plaque at the base memorializing the victims of the 1915 Armenian genocide. The court order restricts lighting of the cross to two days a year.

· Chronological History of Mt. Davidson Cross [Jaslin Group]
· Mt. Davidson Cross [mtdavidson.org]
· Mt. Davidson Cross ruled illegal [SF Gate]
· Mt. Davidson [Found SF]