The Emperor's Bridge Campaign

TO HONOR THE LIFE + ADVANCE THE LEGACY OF EMPEROR NORTON

RESEARCH • EDUCATION • ADVOCACY

Naming of Meadow in Golden Gate Park Would Set a Helpful Precedent for Emperor Norton Bridge Effort

By the time William Tang Sharon died in 1885, he was a very wealthy man.

Sharon — an attorney and businessman born in Ohio in 1821 — arrived in California in 1849, doing business in Sacramento for a brief period before moving to San Francisco, where he lived until 1864.

That year, Sharon moved to Virginia City, Nevada, as the Nevada agent for the Bank of California, which had just been founded by his friend and business partner William Ralston.

The Comstock Lode had made Ralston one of the richest and powerful people in California. But, by 1875, Ralston's fortunes had reversed. And, when his financial empire collapsed — in part, due to the vast sums he spent building the original Palace Hotel — one of the main beneficiaries was William Sharon (who got the hotel, among other things). 

In 1875, Sharon was elected a U.S. Senator from Nevada. After serving one term, he retired to San Francisco in 1881.


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When William Sharon died in 1885, he left a bequest of $50,000 for the beautification of Golden Gate Park.

The money was used to build what now is known as the Sharon Art Studio, which opened on 22 December 1888.
 

Sharon Art Studio in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Photograph © 2011 Skip Moore.

Sharon Art Studio in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Photograph © 2011 Skip Moore.


The lawn adjacent to the Sharon building long has been known as Sharon Meadow.

But the lawn was never officially named for Sharon — or for anyone else.

Husband-and-wife comedians Will Durst and Debi Durst have a plan to change that.

Debi Durst is the producer of Comedy Day, the free "comedy concert" that has been held in Golden Gate Park every year since 1981.

For the last 20 years or so, the home of Comedy Day has been the Sharon Meadow.

And, until his tragic death in 2014, the comedian and actor Robin Williams was the concert's anonymous benefactor — on more than one occasion providing the funds necessary to keep Comedy Day from going under.

The Dursts are spearheading an effort to name the lawn known as Sharon Meadow for Robin Williams.
 

View of Sharon Meadow and the Sharon Art Studio (top center right) from Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Photograph © 2010 J. Fred Decker.

View of Sharon Meadow and the Sharon Art Studio (top center right) from Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Photograph © 2010 J. Fred Decker.


Naming the Sharon Meadow for Robin Williams is a terrific idea!

The following passage from yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle piece about the Dursts' naming project [emphases mine] is of particular relevance to The Emperor's Bridge Campaign's own effort to have the Bay Bridge named for Emperor Norton:


“They came to us a little while ago with the idea,” said Sarah Madland, the [San Francisco Recreation and Parks D]epartment’s director of policy and public affairs. “We said, ‘It sounds fun. Let’s get moving on it.’”

Nor is there likely to be any complaint from the heirs of banker William Sharon, who was elected a U.S. senator from Nevada in 1874.

After all, it really isn’t named Sharon Meadow. Madland says Sharon, who lived much of his life in San Francisco, donated money to Golden Gate Park with the idea that a structure be named after him. And one was: a sandstone structure known as the Sharon Building that is still in use for art classes.

“The meadow is referred to as Sharon Meadow because it is next to the Sharon Building,” Madland said.

“So,” says Durst, “you’re not really renaming the Sharon Building, you’re naming the meadow.”

It is hard to fault the logic.

  
Indeed.

The situations in naming the Sharon Meadow for Robin Williams and naming the Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton aren't precisely the same — not least, because the Bay Bridge is a nationally and internationally known landmark, whereas the Sharon Meadow has a mostly local reputation.

But the two are similar — and the cases being made to name them are similar — in very important respects.

Like the Sharon Meadow, the great bay-spanning bridge that links Oakland to San Francisco via Yerba Buena Island has a name that it is known by — "San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge," or "Bay Bridge" for short — but the bridge was never officially named.

Rather, it's more accurate to say that the bridge — like the meadow — "acquired" a name that seems official primarily because, for decades, the name has been used in government-issued signage, printed matter and Web sites.

If the Sharon Meadow is named for Robin Williams on the strength of the fact that — for all the government signage, print and Web site references — the Sharon Meadow "really [wasn't] named Sharon Meadow," as C.W. Nevius put it in yesterday's Chronicle, then...

By rights, there should be no objection to naming the Bay Bridge for Emperor Norton simply because there are government signs, printed material and Web sites that bear witness to a name — "San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge — that also was never officially given.


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But this also points to an important distinction between the Dursts' proposal for Sharon Meadow and the proposal of The Emperor's Bridge Campaign for the Bay Bridge.

In effect, the Dursts actually do want an exclusive "renaming" of Sharon Meadow. They are raising funds — $100,000, by their own estimate — to "change all the signage in Golden Gate Park," according to Debi Durst. "And all the literature available to the public will have to be reprinted as well."

In contrast, The Emperor's Bridge Campaign has proposed something more modest for the Emperor's bridge. The Campaign has suggested that a name like "Emperor Norton Bridge" simply be added, along with a prominent sign on either end of the bridge — but that the existing names and signage for the "Bay Bridge" (unofficial) and the "Willie L. Brown, Jr., Bridge" (official) stay where they are.

None of this is to challenge the Dursts' project to name the Sharon Meadow for Robin Williams. Not at all!

It's to point out that, should the Dursts succeed in their efforts, it would help to reveal how reasonable the request to name the Emperor's bridge for the Emperor really is.

 

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