On Thursday, May 28, several of us from WDA were delighted to attend the dedication ceremony for the newly-renovated Lincoln Park Steps, which lead from California Street in San Francisco’s outer Richmond district up to Lincoln Park. The renovation project, which spanned seven years, resulted from a collaboration between the Friends of Lincoln Park neighborhood group and the San Francisco Parks Alliance. WDA’s Jim Westover provided pro-bono architecture services over the course of design and installation. Gerry Agosta of BV Builders provided pro-bono construction management services for the initial phase of the project, which started with the bench at the top of the stairs. Jerry Lombardi was contracted to provide the architectural concrete for the initial bench phase, and Cogent Construction was hired as the General Contractor for the second and final phase of the project. But the new steps wouldn’t exist in their current splendor without the unique design vision and technical expertise of ceramic tile artist Aileen Barr.
When formulating the steps’ design, Barr was struck by the serenity and mystery of their location just below the swirling fog and majestic cypress trees of Lincoln Park. She also saw the staircase as a terminus, or boundary marker, and began to explore the project as a celebration of the transition between the urban life of California Street’s end into the natural grandeur of the park. The formidable staircase, which is 52 steps high and 30 feet wide, seemed to Barr to express a natural formality and symmetry; she sought to maintain these qualities as she looked for design inspiration in the park’s flora, and studied details of line and form in both formal gardens and historical photographs of San Francisco’s Sutro Baths and San Francisco’s California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894.
The majority of the tiles for the new Lincoln Park Steps and benches were hand cut and painted by Aileen in her San Francisco studio and additional field tiles were provided by Heath Tile and Fireclay Tile. She also provided technical expertise in the installation of the art tiles on the stair risers and benches. As the San Francisco Chronicle’s architectural critic John King describes the stunning visual effect of the completed steps: “Floral patterns spill down the center with elegant breadth. Thin vines of color on either side discreetly tuck donor names into the virtual vines’ leaves, as if an Arts and Craft carpet had been locked into place.”
Aileen is originally from Ireland, where she studied ceramics at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. She was drawn to the possibilities of handmade tile while working in New York. She’s lived in San Francisco since 2002, and has designed several public art projects in the city, including three other stairway mosaics. Along with the Lincoln Park Stairs, Aileen’s amazing staircase at 16th Avenue and Moraga Street, designed in collaboration with Colette Crutcher, evoke the transformative potential of tile art made famous by one of her inspirations, Brazil’s Selaron stairs. For Aileen, working with art tiles on public architectural spaces represents a broad palette with endless potential for transformation.
Congratulations, Aileen, on the completion of the Lincoln Park Stairs, and thanks for bringing your designs to San Francisco, step by step!