San Francisco’s Tiled Stairway Streets Come Alive in October
It’s a showstopper if you happen upon it in San Francisco: a stairway street that’s a riot of color, a mosaic tile mural that depicts flowers, hummingbirds, dragonflies, bumblebees, fish, sun, and crescent moon in lots of cobalt blue and swirls of white. A splendid example of a community-driven project to beautify the neighborhood, the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps feature over 75,000 pieces of ceramic tile, stained glass, and mirrors, way up in the hills of Golden Gate Heights in Inner Sunset. The steep stairway leads up to the aptly-named Grand View Park, whose panoramic view of the city, Pacific Ocean, and the Marin mountains (on a clear day) is a wonder to behold.
On October 15, you can tour five stairway streets across San Francisco, including this one, with a guide on a free walking tour from SF City Guides. The Golden Gate Heights Stairways walk is offered only twice a year, in October and May, but many different walks each day are offered by the San Francisco Public Library-sponsored nonprofit.
The arty 163-step stairway, designed by Aileen Barr, an Ireland-born ceramicist, and Colette Crutcher, a local mosaic artist, was built with hundreds of neighborhood volunteers who helped make the tiles from wet clay (it was inspired by a Rio de Janeiro tiled stairway street, Escadaria Selarón).
“Wouldn’t it be nice if our old gray concrete staircase was colorful, like that one?” said Barr of the neighbor who co-spearheaded the tiled steps project to stop littering and graffiti and make the stairway a delightful and safe spot to enjoy. (Barr once lived in Rio and admired the stairway that led to the Santa Teresa district.) “My original idea was a sea-to-sky design, and Colette’s was a waterfall: we combined both for our design,” Barr adds. In her native Donegal, she co-founded Artlink, a community-based organization that created public tile installations for parks and cities. The artists were recommended by the San Francisco Arts Commission to the neighborhood association, and locals and businesses sponsored many tiles.
In contrast, the nearby Hidden Garden Steps at Kirkham Street and 16th Avenue depict California flora and fauna, like passion flower, Indian paintbrush, California poppies, the Mission blue butterfly (a subspecies native to the Bay Area), sand dollars, blue-and-brown spotted moths, snails, and a salamander that sprawls across 26 steps.
In this 148-step stairway, also designed by the same artists, many tiles have a backstory, and show text naming family members, friends, beloved pets (like Gracie, a poodle, and Vladimir, an iguana) as well as frequent visitors– like a Paris couple who have vacationed in San Francisco every summer for over a decade. Native California plants, like succulents, line the steps and serve as habitat for the nickel-sized Green Hairstreak butterfly, which is found only in Golden Gate Heights and the coastal bluffs and dunes of the Presidio.
The city’s newest tiled stairway, Lincoln Park Steps, is located at the edge of the park that houses the Legion of Honor Museum (as seen in the film Vertigo; it’s where Kim Novak stared at a portrait), but isn’t on the walking tour since it’s in a different neighborhood, Outer Richmond. The 30-foot wide, century-old grand concrete staircase re-opened in 2015 after a seven-year project, newly adorned with stylized Art Deco-style plants, mostly in green, orange, yellow and blue. It was designed by Barr alone. A local group, the Friends of Lincoln Park, decided to fix the broken steps, remove graffiti, and beautify the stairway. The first funds were raised by Katherine Delmar Burke School, a private girls’ school nearby, that the children of the group’s founders attended.