High schoolers dig into SF history

Jill Tucker | SF Chronicle

Kontion Wei, a student from Ida B. Wells continuation
school, moves dirt after excavating tiles from the former
conservatory in Sutro Heights Park Friday, September 28,
2012 in San Francisco, Calif.
Photo: Beck Diefenbach, Special To The Chronicle / SF
A dozen San Francisco high school students huddled in the dripping fog, where a patch of dirt was a history classroom Friday as they uncovered their city's past buried under the lawn at Sutro Heights Park.

The archaeological dig exposed the nearly forgotten blue and white tiles of the old Sutro Conservatory, which opened with great fanfare nearly 130 years ago on land that is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

The Ida B. Wells Continuation High students carefully brushed the dirt off the tiles, helping National Park Service archaeologists document the condition and size of the tiled area that bordered a large square of dirt.
For the 12 American democracy classmates, the field trip left dirt under their fingernails and a real sense of history in their hearts.

Senior Tuala Auimatagi, 17, wondered at the people, long dead, who laid the tiles so long ago.
"I just find it interesting because digging the tiles gives me an idea of what it looked like," she said as she brushed lingering dirt off the ceramic pieces, some upended by tree roots, others cracked or missing parts.
Until the late 1930s, the conservatory greenhouse stood on a small hill in the park above the Cliff House, a white wooden structure with walls of windows.

In a state of disrepair, it was torn down in 1939 along with the family home of Adolph Sutro, San Francisco's mayor from 1894 to 1898.

At some point, the tiled walkways were covered over with dirt and grass, mostly invisible to generations of picnickers and dog walkers.

Until this week.

For three days, Tuala and her classmates dug them out.

The activity was a service-learning project for the students, said their teacher Holly Friel.

It was also offering students a glimpse of career options in archaeology and in the Park Service as well a sense of civic involvement, linking the effort to the democratic principles she teaches in her class.

And perhaps more than that, it gave them a sense of pride in their work and their place in preserving San Francisco's history.

"We're a continuation high school," Friel said. "Students come here after not being successful at other high schools.

"This is a place where they can claim some responsibility. They can feel proud."

On Friday, tile border finally was fully exposed, some pieces cracked, others missing, with the layout then graphed to document the condition of the site.

With the excavation done, Park Service archaeologist Leo Barker gathered the students to ask them what they thought should be done with the tiles.

"You're going to save it now," he said, but did that mean leaving it exposed to the elements and the public or covering it up again to preserve it?

One student wanted to keep everything fully exposed, until Barker pointed out that some of it was crumbling and vulnerable to theft. Another student suggested putting a fence around it, which arguably would detract from the vast open space at the park, Barker said.

Tuala suggested covering part of it up, protecting the damaged area, but leaving some of it exposed so people could see it.

Another enthusiastic debate ensued about how much to cover up.

"Now you know what Congress has to deal with," Barker said laughing.

Finally, the students said they thought about 30 percent should remain exposed.

And that's when Barker told them they would spend the next hour or so piling the dirt back on the 70 percent.

"This is ridiculous," said Ashley Blackmon, 17. "You made us dig all that to put it back?"

Ashley and her classmates took one last look at the exposed tile and formed a bucket-line brigade to cover it up.

That was when they realized that they had seen a piece of history that few among the living would get to see.
"If I come to Ocean Beach, I'll know I uncovered the floor of the greenhouse," Tuala said. "We're part of Sutro's greenhouse."