Corner of Bridgeway and El Portal, Sausalito CA 94965
Neighborhood: Downtown Sausalito & Ferry Pier. No rest rooms, although the public restrooms building is 1/2 block north. Open year round. Free to everyone.
Viña del Mar Park
Viña del Mar Park is the best known and most photographed park in Sausalito. Located adjacent to the parking lot and arrivals area for the Ferry pier, it is so central to the layout of Sausalito that it’s almost inevitable you’ll walk or drive by! 150 years ago it was a swampy patch of land next to a railroad cargo and passenger terminal that linked points north to San Francisco via ferries.
The park is named for Viña del Mar, Chile, one of Sausalito’s Sister Cities. Scroll down to the bottom of the page for a video about Viña del Mar.
The small;, triangle-shaped park in the heart of downtown Sausalito is famous for three features, all of them designed for the Court of the Universe at the 1915 Panama Pacific Fair and Exposition in San Francisco. The Fair was ostensibly held to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, but the political purpose was to show the world that the City had recovered from the 1906 Earthquake and Fire and was “open for business.”
The Sausalito Art Festival is staffed by volunteers, and everyday residents from San Francisco did the same for the 1915 Fair. San Francisco’s rebirth was for them a matter of pride and they wanted to take part in sharing it with the world. My grandparents were two of those volunteers.
Like the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco (the only surviving building from the Fair), the elephant statues and fountain found in Viña del Mar Park were deemed too beautiful to fall to the wrecker’s ball, and they were moved to Sausalito and installed here almost a century ago when the Fair closed and most of its buildings were torn down.
Why did we get them? The architect who designed the Court of the Universe had worked on many San Francisco landmarks, and happened to come from Sausalito. His name was William Faville. He used the twelve elephant statues (designed by McKim, Mead and White, a New York firm where Faville had worked as a draftsman early in his career) at the base of hundred-foot-tall flagpoles around the building. After the fair ended he arranged for two of the elephant statues and the fountain (which he had designed) to be ferried across the Bay to his home town, which as luck would have it meant we got them in Viña del Mar Park.
Since the Fair was built of a heavy-duty papier-mache-like plaster material that was intended to last a year, the fact that the Palace of Fine Arts survived until its 1960’s renovation is a miracle, even if we saw more chips and flakes as each year passed by.
The Viña del Mar Park elephants, unfortunately, only lasted about 20 years. During the Depression of the mid-1930’s a plaster cast was taken of one of the two elephants (which had acquired the nicknames Jumbo and PeeWee, the latter of whom was preserved). The statues were then re-cast in the more permanent concrete form of the statues we have today in Viña del Mar Park, which have lasted for almost 90 years and are still going strong. The current decorative streetlights in front of Viña del Mar Park were also part of the 1935 restoration, and the fountain was likewise renovated in concrete at the same time.
The elephant statues in Viña del Mar Park are often used as a symbol for the city of Sausalito in graphic designs, including those done by the Sausalito Chamber of Commerce. The photo below, which was taken by the Chronicle in 1915, shows the originals holding massive flagpoles.
In the late 1960s “Summer of Love” era young people loved to hang out in the park. The resulting noise (and smoke) inspired city leaders to fence off the entire area, and it wasn’t till the 1990s that access to the lawn areas was restored.
Like this kind of story? Check out the Sausalito Historical Society, and please help support their programs!