Conservatory’s new Garden Railway exhibition celebrates Playland

Last week I got a sneak peek of the new Playland at the Conservatory of Flowers exhibition, their fourth annual garden railway show that runs until April 15, 2012.

Lau Hodges and her Conservatory team has outdone themselves this year with not only an interesting natural exhibition, but also one that is rich with history, icons and entertainment from the era of San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach, an amusement park that sat along the Great Highway below the Cliff House from 1921 until 1972.

Dominating the room are larger-than-life Playland letters that hang over the railway section – a genuine sign from the original Playland that was hanging in the hallway of the Conservatory’s marketing consultant; she picked it up at a Bay Area antique store years ago.

The garden railway winds its way through the landmarks of Playland, as well as the Cliff House, Sutro Baths and the Golden Gate Bridge. As with past years, the items in the exhibition are created in miniature from recycled and repurposed materials by San Francisco artist James Sellier.

The Playland carousel spins on an old 33rpm record player, the cages of Playland’s Rock-O-Plane ferris wheel are made from old pencil sharpeners, and the Cliff House turrets are accented with material from an old Louis Vuitton purse. The Dutch windmill from last year’s exhibit is back with rulers for blades, as are the Golden Gate Park bison which are covered with actual fur from the paddock.

The exhibition team did a great job of blowing out the Playland theme. In addition to recreating the infamous Playland landmarks like the Fun House, The Big Dipper Rollercoaster and The Diving Bell, they have also filled the show with interactive toys and games that recall a bygone era. Grab some giggles in front of the fun-house mirrors, test your skills shooting Indians in the politically incorrect “Texas Ranger Gatling Gun” game, or stop by to consult Zoltar for your fortune.

Another Playland relic that was resurrected for the exhibition is a 1930’s dodger bumper car that was being used as a rusty planter in a Sunset District backyard. The Conservatory staff tracked it down, unearthed the large tree that had taken root in it, and restored it to its former glory. While you’re there, be sure to sit in the car and hit the accelerator for a special surprise.

Also back this year are the talents of sound designer and SF native Andrew Roth of Earwax Productions, who helps bring the Playland exhibit and railway to life with nostalgic sounds. Press the button to hear Playland’s Laffing Sal, or listen for the sounds of the B Geary streetcar, which used to carry passengers to Ocean Beach to visit Playland, the Cliff House and Sutro Baths. Pay closer attention and you’ll hear the sounds of carnival barkers, beckoning you inside to see their sideshows.

Roth went to great lengths to capture the sounds of the original Playland band organs, traveling to Nevada to record the sounds of one, and to Santa Cruz for another. While in Santa Cruz, Roth recorded the sound of the Conservatory staff screaming on the boardwalk’s coaster, which he incorporated into the show for The Big Dipper Rollercoaster sound effects.

The show also features two toothpick constructions that used to be on display at the Musee Mecanique of Sutro Baths. Created by San Quentin inmate Jack Harrington in the 1930’s, the cases feature a dine and dance scene and a Funhouse which both move when a coin is inserted.

The Conservatory also acquired a new vending machine for the exhibition – a penny squisher where you can insert two quarters and a penny, and have one of four Conservatory designs stamped to turn your penny into a souvenir. Or stop in the 1960’s Carnival photo booth and pose with friends or family to take home a fun memory from the visit.

The exhibition also has some nice memorabilia on display including originals signs and woolen bathing suits from Sutro Baths. You’ll also find the 2010 documentary “Remembering Playland at the Beach” playing in a corner (or better yet, go see it AND the new Sutro Baths documentary in a double feature this week at the Balboa).

The Playland at the Conservatory garden railway exhibition is open Tuesdays through­ Sundays from 10am until 4pm, and is included with the price of admission to the Conservatory of Flowers. The show runs through April 15, 2012.

Don’t miss this one – it’s a great romp through a fun part of the Richmond District’s past!

Sarah B.


  1. Ah! Playland at the beach brings back old memories. Loved those tamales in a cup from the Hot House and the skating rink at the foot of Balboa.

  2. Thanks for the terrific review. This has become a family must for us at Christmas time.

  3. Wow, this brings back so many memories. I’m in my early 60’s and I can’t wait to take my grand kids.

  4. I live in Vancouver, WA (across the Columbia River from Portland, OR). I am a San Francisco native. I am 59 and have fond memories of Playland at the Beach. My grandmother used to live on 30th and Fulton. So, once in a while we would go to visit Grandma and also go to Playland. I loved the laughing fat lady on the corner. When I was a kid in the 1960’s, Playland was in decline. There were hardly any people ever there (at least when I was there) and it was always so cold and foggy — not conducive to outdoor fun. Nevertheless, I enjoyed all the rides and had a good time. I was home in S.F. for Christmas and New Years 2011. I am sad that I can’t make a quick trip back to see this fabulous exhibit before April 15, 2012. I will be there in spirit. Thanks for all the wonderful pictures, descriptions, etc. I thoroughly enjoyed them all.

  5. I was born & raised right by Playland, and I agree with Les R. it was in a decline while I was growing up I am also 59 and have many memories of Playland. It was literally my back yard, and I loved it. The cold & fog were just part of good ole S. F. As a child that did not matter. all that mattered was going there seeing laughin” Sal and all the funny mirrors and being crazy on the rides as a kid should be able to do. Love playland and the good ole S.F.

  6. I particularly remember The Caterpillar ride. The gondolas had metal mesh floors so you could see the ground while you were undulating round and round. When the canvas cover came over you it was very exciting indeed! I ended up on the floor hanging on for dear life and loving every second of it.

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