Hidden Garden Steps



The Hidden Garden Steps project has created and installed a public art space, a 148-step mosaic tile staircase which is the extension of 16th Avenue between Kirkham and Lawton streets. Our artists, Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher, are responsible for the first ceramic-tiled stairway, the Moraga Steps, also in the Inner Sunset of San Francisco.


The catalyst for the project was a desire by our community to stop the graffiti, tagging, and littering on the 16th Avenue staircase. We felt that the way to reestablish the stairs as a safe place to use and enjoy was to re-envision them as a public art space.  Inspired by the Moraga Steps, we engaged Barr and Crutcher to create a tiled stairs that would take into account the native flora and fauna, challenging steep hillside topography, and the secluded nature of the site. The result is the “Hidden Garden Steps.”


Barr and Crutcher’s mosaic design is their most ambitious, consisting of large-scale elements that encompass multiple stair steps. The project’s largest element—a salamander—extends up 26 steps and exploits the curved structure of the staircase. The artists have included texts in the tiles they have made. The donor-chosen texts honor families, friends, wives, husbands, parents, children, pets, causes, births, deaths … whatever was dear to the donor’s heart.  


San Francisco Department of Public Works (DPW) staff members have worked on-site for months, replacing the second flight and retaining wall which a tree root had damaged, terracing the easement at the eastern top of the steps and building walls to stop erosion on the easement section on the hill to the west. In all, the SFDPW has spent $250,000 on these steps. Native plants, donated by the DPW’s Street Park Partners Program and by cuttings from neighborhood gardens, complement the mosaic design of local flora and fauna, and provide a much-needed habitat for the endangered Green Hairstreak butterfly. Two co-chairs of the project, Paul Signorelli and Licia Wells, have recently been named as stewards of the steps’ native gardens by DPW’s Street Parks Program. 


The project has achieved success in all three goals of the project: 1) graffiti, tagging, and littering have reduced to almost zero since the installation of the tiles; 2) the community has come together in new ways, by enjoying climbing the steps, reading the texts, and volunteering during clean-up; 3) the use of the stairs has increased substantially after installation, since the dense shrubbery and overhanging trees were trimmed back, opening up the space to more light and creating a greater sense of safety.


From the outset, the project has received considerable support from diverse parts of the community. Once the organizing committee was established (in February 2010), volunteers spent many hours gathering more than 100 signatures on petitions prepared to document support. Volunteers associated with the Moraga Steps project were among those joining the organizing committee, and contacts with a variety of community groups including the Inner Sunset Park Neighbors and the Golden Gate Heights Neighborhood Association (GGHNA) further strengthened the collaborative efforts which are benefitting all organizations involved in this process. Working with the San Francisco Parks Alliance and being adopted as a San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Partner further extended the collaborative opportunities.


The project has forged numerous relationships with schools, businesses, and nature and community groups.  Our Mural Project and Public Bench Project have been part of the arts curriculum of Woodside International School. The mural arts teacher and students created a mural at the foot of the stairs to promote the project and students learned about the permit process required by the San Francisco Arts Commission. The Public Bench Project, which created a trompe l’oeil painted seating for visitors to staircase, was done in cooperation with the Inner Sunset Neighbors Association, Woodside International School, and the Hidden Garden Steps. In addition, a Hidden Garden Steps volunteer was invited to discuss the project with two local high school classes, and the project presented a joint presentation with Nature in the City at the Randall Museum on preservation efforts for the endangered Green Hairstreak butterfly.


Local merchants have not only provided refreshments for project events, but have also provided a venue for outreach efforts which, in turn, attract additional volunteers, donors, and resources. Our project also combines face-to-face efforts, a website and the use of social media tools (online newsletter; Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts; and blog postings) to reach an extended community of support and partnerships including outreach to colleagues fostering other Street Parks Program projects.


Come and see what has been accomplished in the Inner Sunset!