This marks the inaugural piece in a series about the stairway streets and various hidden steps of San Francisco.
Though they're familiar to some tourists with guidebooks in hand, and those who watched The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill and come to town seeking them out, The Filbert Steps are unknown to many San Franciscans who don't venture to that part of town. And this is a terrible shame. One of the more unique and charming quirks of our city's geography are our streets that turn into stairways and streets that are not streets at all but are entirely made of stairs and The Filbert Steps are easily the most picturesque of all them all. The Steps connect the piece of Filbert Street where it dead-ends and runs into a steep slope at Kearny, down the hill to Montgomery Street, and then further down to Sansome, and finally to Battery, in a section of town that was once a slum deemed too difficult to build on.
The Filbert Steps come with a beautiful public garden alongside one section dubbed Grace Marchant Garden after the woman responsible for cleaning up the area around the steps and planting the garden in the 1950s. Marchant moved to the corner of Filbert and Napier Lane itself not a street, exactly, but a wood-planked lane off the wooden section of the steps between Montgomery and Sansome in 1948, and as Found SF tells it, the area had become "an informal garbage dump" with trash piled several feet deep all along the hillside. Marchant sought permission from the city to burn the trash, and she spent the next two decades beautifying the area along the stairs for the public good.
As Mark Bittner writes in a deleted chapter of his book The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, Marchant was "a bathing beauty and stunt woman" whose Hollywood career never quite flourished, and she moved with her daughter and son-in-law to San Francisco during the Great Depression, in the 1930s. They settled on Telegraph Hill, building a "compound" of sorts along the Greenwich steps, and after World War II Grace moved to the apartment on the Filbert Steps and began her clean-up and gardening project that would last through the 1970s.
There is now an organization called Friends of the Garden that helps maintain Marchant's work, formed in part because one neighbor tried to reclaim a piece of the garden that he said was part of his property. As Gianni Longo writes in A Guide to Great American Public Places:
In creating her garden Grace Marchant was very casual about property lines. One large section extended into the yard of a cottage whose owner wanted the land back in 1989 to build a larger house. When a permit for construction was granted, neighbors founded Friends of the Garden and took the issue of its preservation to City Hall and the Trust for Public Land. The Trust developed a plan to buy the cottage property and resell it with deed restrictions protecting the garden. To cover the different between the purchase price and the much lower resale value of the restricted property, donations came in from garden lovers. With additional gifts from local corporations, foundations, and benefit events, the Trust exceeded its fundraising goal, enabling it to buy the cottage and create an endowment to support the garden.
A plaque that you can see in our gallery of images of the steps shot for SFist by photographer Declan McKerr further dedicates Grace Marchant Garden to Gary Kray, a neighbor of Grace's who "faithfully and harmoniously carried on Grace Marchant's legacy" from 1979 to 2012. Marchant died in 1982 at the age of 96, and her daughter Valetta lived on, maintaining a similar garden along the Greenwich Street Steps until her death in 1995, though that garden has not been kept up in the same way.