Goethe and Schiller in San Francisco

German culture at the “Goldenen Thor”

NOTE: This updated version posted on 28 August 2017 (the day when Goethe was born in 1749) was first published on 20 January 2010.

During a recent visit to San Francisco I got a surprising reminder of how truly widespread and important German culture once was in the United States – before two world wars drastically changed the role it played in America.

My wife and I were standing in a very long line of people, slowly making our way towards the entrance to the California Academy of Sciences building in Golden Gate Park. (And we all already had tickets!) As the line flowed at its glacial pace, I noticed a statue of two figures standing on a stone pedestal. I remarked to my wife that it looked like a German or European statue. As we got closer, the bronze figures seemed even more familiar.

Once we were standing right in front of the statue, I was amazed to read the inscription on the reddish stone base: “Goethe. Schiller.” As I gazed up at the large bronze figures of Germany’s two greatest poets and philosophers, I realized why they looked so familiar. This statue seemed to be the same one my wife and I had seen a few years earlier in Weimar, Germany. How the heck did it get here? What was the story behind this larger-than-life symbol of German culture standing in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco? Did any of these people in line, besides my wife and me, even know who Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller were?

I took out my iPhone and snapped a picture of the statue (see photo below), thinking I would try to solve this mystery later.

Goethe Schiller statue

The Goethe-Schiller memorial statue in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park (Dec. 2009). PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Back home, as I researched the matter, it turned out that the statue in San Francisco is indeed an exact copy of the original monument that has stood on the Theaterplatz in Weimar since 1857 (photo below). Not only that, like the original, the copy was also cast in Germany. In 1899 it was cast from a plaster model of the original at a foundry located between Berlin and Dresden and shipped to San Francisco by boat and rail. Sculpted by Ernst Rietschel, the original statue was cast in bronze by the Königliche Erzgießerei in Munich. The San Francisco Goethe-Schiller monument was to be the first of at least four in the United States: Cleveland, Milwaukee and Syracuse, NY each have one. All are exact copies of Rietschel’s original 1857 sculpture. (A fifth Weimar copy now stands in a town near Shanghai, China, but that’s another story.)

Luckily, the German-Americans in San Francisco (and there were many of them!) documented the occasion of the 1901 unveiling of the Goethe-Schiller monument and the statue’s history in a book entitled Das Goethe-Schiller Denkmal in San Francisco, California. Written in German by various authors, the book describes how the German-American community (including sugar magnate Claus Spreckels) raised money for the statue and its pedestal with a Mid-Winter Festival and other events over a period of years, beginning in 1894. The final cost was over $10,000, a considerable sum of money for the time.

1901 ceremony

The unveiling ceremony in Golden Gate Park in August 1901. PHOTO from the book “Das Goethe-Schiller Denkmal in San Francisco, California” (1901)

The grand Goethe-Schiller unveiling on August 11, 1901 in Golden Gate Park was a major event with thousands in attendance. The occasion featured classical music, poetry readings, and speeches by various dignitaries (in German and English). The German-language California Demokrat newspaper published a long account of the grand day (with its “herrliches, echt californisches Wetter”) in its August 12th edition. The German-American celebration ran on into the night with a huge “Festfeier” in the Native Sons’ Hall with colorful flags and banners “in den deutschen und amerikanischen Farben” – and even more speeches!

“Dedicated to the city of San Francisco by the citizens of German descent of California in the year nineteen hundred and one” – Original inscription on the pedestal (Because of a construction fence I could not see if this inscription is still on the memorial today.)

The monument’s original location in 1901 was not where it stands in the park today. Although it was in Golden Gate Park somewhere on the road that rings the Music Concourse, around 1920 the statue was moved. When construction began on the new Academy of Sciences building in 2005, Goethe and Schiller were yet again relocated a short distance to their present spot on the left (west) side of the Academy.

Weimar statue

The original Goethe-Schiller statue in Weimar, Germany today. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

That is where I saw the memorial just over a month ago, and it is difficult to grasp how vastly different things are today. The German-American community of 1901 could not have possibly foreseen the horrible damage that two world wars would do to the way Americans view German culture. Their marvelous cultural monument survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but it couldn’t overcome the double whammy of Kaiser Wilhelm and Hitler. Although it still stands in Golden Gate Park, few if any of the people who see the Goethe-Schiller memorial statue today give it more than a passing glance, much less understand the monument’s true meaning and history.