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Carl G. Larsen: The Gentle Dane

by Lorri Ungaretti

Sometimes called the “Gentle Dane,” Carl Gustav Larsen was born in 1844 in Odense, Denmark. He came to San Francisco in his late 20s and worked as a carpenter. In 1879, he started the popular Tivoli Café downtown on Eddy Street. When the Tivoli Café was destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906, Larsen was undaunted; he rebuilt and opened it as the new Hotel Larsen, where he lived.

Carl Larsen’s first venture into Sunset District real estate was in 1888, when he bought one block at an auction. The area was still dominated by sand dunes and was largely inaccessible. Larsen continued to buy land in the Sunset, and by 1910 he owned fourteen city blocks and scattered lots that totaled about nine more blocks. By the 1920s he owned substantial land in the fledgling Golden Gate Heights area.

As time passed, Larsen developed, sold, or donated parts of his holdings. Well-known structures that sit on land once owned by Larsen include St. Cecilia’s Church on Vicente Street and the (former) Shiner’s Hospital on 19th Avenue.

In 1890, Larsen began operating a chicken ranch on one square block bounded by 16th and 17th Avenues, Moraga and Noriega Streets. Each morning, a horse-drawn carriage took eggs from the chicken ranch to the Tivoli Café downtown. Tivoli Café ads boasted, “Fresh eggs from Sunset Ranch every day.”

Larsen is best remembered as the donor of Larsen Park, two square blocks between 19th and 20th Avenues, between Ulloa and Wawona Streets. In the 1950s and 1960s, Sunset residents swam in the modern Larsen Pool and climbed in and around a Navy jet that sat on the land for years, a unique life-sized toy for children.

In 1926, when Larsen donated this park to the city, Mayor James (Sunny Jim) Rolph thanked him on the steps of City Hall proclaiming that Larsen would “be remembered in company with other benefactors, who have accumulated great wealth within our boundaries and were inspired to reciprocate with gifts to the commonwealth.”

Two years before giving Larsen Park to San Francisco, Larsen donated land at the southern edge of Golden Gate Heights. Golden Gate Heights Park (also known as Larsen’s Peak) stands on 12th to 14th Avenues, Pacheco to Quintara Streets. At 725 feet above sea level, it is one of the highest hills in San Francisco.

Larsen’s Death and Disputed Will
Carl Larsen died on November 5, 1928. He was remembered as generous both to the City of San Francisco and to his employees at the Tivoli Café. Newspapers reported that although the café had been losing money for years before Larsen’s death, he worried about his employees and would not close the cafe or terminate any workers.

Larsen never married and had no known children. A handwritten will (dated July 27, 1909) found after his death, gave $45,000 and the Tivoli Café to various friends and family members. The will gave the remainder of the estate, estimated at more than $500,000, to San Francisco for a museum in Golden Gate Park.

Some of the people listed in the will never saw those funds. When the will was discovered, Larsen’s signature and the signature of a witness had been cut off. A group of family members, most living in Denmark, contested the will, and in 1931 Superior Judge Dunne declared the will invalid. Most of the estate was divided among Larsen’s relatives.

Larsen’s museum was never built in Golden Gate Park, but two Sunset parks—Golden Gate Heights Park and Carl G. Larsen Park—stand as reminders of the Gentle Dane.

A version of this article will appear in a chapter in the new history book by Lorri Ungaretti: Stories in the Sand: San Francisco’s Sunset District, 1847–1964, to be published in 2012.

Sources
*San Francisco Chronicle (various articles)
*More Parkside Pranks and Sunset Stunts, Mary Ada Williams with stories by George Stanton

Photo credits:



•Larsen’s Chicken Ranch, courtesy of a private collector.
•Larsen photo, courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.



Copyright © 2011 San Francisco City Guides





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Larsen's Chicken Ranch, looking west, around 1898. Golden Gate Park is on the right side, and the sand dunes dominated the early Sunset District.

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On October 4, 1926, Mayor James Rolph (left) formally thanked Carl Larsen for donating the land that became Larsen Park.

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