Milpitas Camera Club Field Trip
Field Trip: Mt. Hamilton Lick Observatory
Trip Date: September 2, 2006
Report Author: Scott Hinrichs
Report Date: September 28, 2006

Beautiful flowers, chocolate and the twinkling stars above - not a romantic evening, but the combined September field trip reports for Mt. Hamilton, Lick Observatory and the San Francisco Conservatory of Flowers.

About 14 Camera Club members and associates gathered at the summit of Mt. Hamilton on the afternoon of Saturday, September 2 for the Lick Observatory field trip. Originally planned to include a night shoot of the nine observatory domes and the stars above them, the experience was cut short by the long arm of the state police. Fortunately we had enough time to finish our “field luncheon” before being unceremoniously brushed off the face of the mountain. (I must mention that the Filipino lumpia and the homemade tomato chutney were the brightest stars of our little lunch.) Thanks to those who brought food to share--it turned out to be a very nice little alfresco potluck.

Two weeks after our banishment from the mountain, on Sunday, September 17, three camera club members showed up at the Conservatory of Flowers on Kennedy Drive in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. In spite of the small turnout, we enjoyed a very pleasant day shooting the exhibits of exotic tropical plants and live butterflies as well as numerous subjects in the park within a short walk of the Conservatory.

So what do these two apparently non-related attractions have in common? The two very different nineteenth-century structures we toured share a common bond with an eccentric philanthropist named James Lick.

Lick Observatory is arguably the most visible landmark in Santa Clara County. The observatory is not just a dusty, dilapidated historic site; it is much in use as an active, world-class research station. (Many of the buildings, however, could use a coat of paint!) Lick Observatory was founded in 1888 through the philanthropy of Bay Area pioneer, James Lick, as part of a donation to the University of California at Berkeley. UC Berkeley still operates the complex, which is located on the top of the 4,200-foot summit of Mount Hamilton. (Incidentally, the nearby Copernicus Peak is actually the highest landform in the Bay Area, rising above the valley at 4,360 feet—and ranked as the 43rd tallest peak in the state.)

Mount Hamilton was named after Laurentine Hamilton, a Presbyterian minister who arrived in California in 1855. After beginning a ministry and building a church in the Gold Rush camp of Columbia, he came to the small agricultural community of San Jose. He built a church and became the superintendent of the recently established San Jose school system. None of Hamilton’s contributions to the community, however, could imbue his name with a sufficient cachet to become the namesake for a mountain—rather, he received the honor by going on a field trip to the mountain with a buddy. On September 1, 1861, Hamilton accompanied his friend, William Brewer, who was the head of a geological survey, to the top of what was to become Mount Hamilton. It was Brewer who named the 4,200-foot peak after his good friend Hamilton.

The other name indelibly attached to the mountain, of course, was James Lick of Pennsylvania. Lick came from the Pennsylvania Dutch community of Stumpstown, Pennsylvania (now called Fredericksburg). By the way, he was of German heritage—not Dutch—as is most of the so-called “Pennsylvania Dutch.” As a young man, Lick had to leave his family, friends and hometown for a new start in South America. He fled because the father of his sweetheart-to-be denied him permission to marry his daughter, even though Lick happened to be the father of her unborn son. Apparently James was too poor for his financially secure future father-in-law. The denial put Lick into a rage and he fervently swore that some day he would be wealthier than his erstwhile father-in-law would ever be. Lick proved to be a man of his word. 

In South America, Lick, a master woodworker, established a successful business building pianos. One of his neighbors there, an Italian named Domingo Ghirardelli, would also come to the San Francisco Bay Area to make a name for himself. Years later, Lick, too, decided to move to San Francisco after trying his fortune in Chile and Peru. He booked passage on the brig, Lady Adams, bringing his woodworking tools and 600 pounds of coco beans to give to his former neighbor and friend, Ghirardelli. (Whose name now appears in large block letters on candy bars and cocoa containers--and a major tourist attraction in San Francisco, Ghirardelli Square.)

Lick arrived in San Francisco in January of 1848, days before gold was found at Sutter’s Mill. Lick briefly tried his hand at gold mining but returned to San Francisco and bought property. He must have realized that the city would be an attractive place for the miners and settlers alike. He soon made a killing in real estate and then turned his attention to the sparsely settled Santa Clara Valley. James established a flourmill on the Guadalupe River near the town of San Jose. (There is now a Lick Mill Park, Boulevard and trolley station near the San Jose-Santa Clara border.) 

Lick, being the eccentric and non-conformist he was, built the best mill ever, outfitting it with mahogany wood and polished banisters and trim reminiscent of his pianos. (He deliberately over-designed his mill as a way to spite his former father-in-law in Pennsylvania, who also owned a mill.) Next to his mill, he built a granary and a large mansion, which are still standing and are designated as historic landmarks.

Personally, Lick needed very little to survive. He preferred to eat with his workers and utilized the living space in only two rooms of his 27-room residence. People began to think of him as a “nature freak.” His odd behavior was not without logic—he would gather bones from the butcher shop and grind them to fertilize his orchards and gardens. The fertilizer, like most of his innovative schemes, worked rather well.

Some jealous neighbors claimed that Lick was a miser, but it was a known fact among his workers and friends that he never sent a person away hungry. He accumulated a fortune and many in the Bay Area benefited greatly from his generosity. He gave his illegitimate son $500,000 and bestowed $700,000 for the building of the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton. He donated $25,000 for the building of an orphanage and $100,000 for an old-age home in Oakland; and he gave money to provide for trade schools and public baths. 

Soon after he built his mansion in San Jose, Lick began to work on a large garden project, called Lick’s Gardens, on 100 acres of land near the intersection of present day Alma Avenue and Willow Street in San Jose’s Willow Glen district. He had trees and shrubs imported from around the world. As the centerpiece for his project, he ordered a large, pre-fabricated, glass conservatory from an East Coast company. His plans for the conservatory changed when a local newspaper ridiculed him in print. Lick was widely known for his eccentricity and his disregard for his own appearance and comfort, and when a local newspaper criticized his characteristically shabby dress, he once again reacted in anger. Lick abandoned the conservatory components right where they laid in their shipping crates and forgot about them. The building components sat collecting dust until after his death on October 1, 1876. He died in a back room of his hotel in San Francisco—he was the proprietor of the most opulent hotel ever built in that city. Lick had decided to vacate San Jose and claim San Francisco as his new home. 

Some months after Lick’s death, the crates containing the conservatory were discovered among his possessions and a group of San Francisco businessmen purchased the building from his estate. They, in turn, presented it as a gift to the park commission in charge of the newly created Golden Gate Park. The building was erected in 1878 and first opened to the public in 1879. It was truly a gem worthy of “The City that knows how,” and represented yet another missed opportunity for San Jose. (San Jose would have probably had it torn down in the 1970s anyway, so it was probably better that San Francisco acquired it!)

In addition to the Conservatory, the city of San Francisco also received a monument to pioneers at the Civic Center and a statue of Francis Scott Key at the Music Concourse in Golden Gate Park as gifts from James Lick. 

Most conservatory buildings of this era were patterned after the granddaddy of all conservatories, the enormous Crystal Palace in London’s Hyde Park, which was the site of the 1851 Great Exposition. That massive building, designed by architect Sir Joseph Paxton, set architectural precedents worldwide and gave rise to thousands of smaller versions in cities all around the world. The conservatory that Lick purchased for San Jose was a replica of an iron and glass conservatory in London’s Kew Gardens. 

Recently the 125-year-old Conservatory in Golden Gate Park was reopened after an extensive renovation project. Miraculously, it survived several fires, a boiler explosion and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 relatively unscathed. The facility was neglected during the mid-twentieth century and the doors were locked in 1933 and it sat abandoned. It was repaired and reopened in 1946 and remained open until a 1995 windstorm nearly destroyed it. The freak storm had wind gusts of up to 100 miles per hour, which wreaked havoc upon the structure. Various historic and concerned civic groups raised funds for the facility and it reopened on September 20, 2003, sparkling and polished like the gem it was intended to be. The Conservatory is listed on the National Trust for Historic Places and we are truly fortunate that those in charge of the public amenities of Golden Gate Park saw fit to preserve it in years past.

Although relatively small in comparison to some botanical conservatories, this exquisite building contains a collection of many rare and beautiful tropical plants, including palms, room-sized philodendrons, delicate orchids, bromeliads, carnivorous plants and a pond with water plants. The water lily exhibit continues to be my favorite, and we also got to see a wonderful live butterfly exhibit in the interpretative wing of the complex. 

If you find yourself in Golden Gate Park and have a couple of spare hours you might take your own stroll through the conservatory. (It can easily be toured in an hour, or you can sit and while away the time on one of the many benches inside or outside.) The facility opens at 9 a.m. and costs $5 per person to enter. Seniors 65 and over can enter for $3.

If you take the long, tortuous drive to Lick Observatory make sure you get there before 5 p.m. because the complex closes to the public at that time. Those in uniform will tell you that you cannot legally park anywhere on the side of the Mt. Hamilton Road—from San Jose to its end in Livermore. One good thing, however, tours of the historic observatory building containing the 36-inch refractor telescope are free and the gift shop has some wonderful little trinkets and books.

© 2006 S.R. Hinrichs