Tucked away in the quiet residential neighborhood of Golden Gate Heights in San Francisco, CA, is a 148-step staircase that was recently the focus of a volunteer and community-based public art project known as the “Hidden Garden Steps.” The staircase, which is nestled in between a mass of trees on 16th Avenue between Kirkham Street and Lawton Street, was revamped with a nature-themed ceramic tile mosaic to represent the area in which it’s located.


The project, led by local artists Colette Crutcher and Aileen Barr, was an effort to stop the graffiti, tagging and littering that frequented the staircase and re-establish it as a safe place — a goal that has been successfully accomplished since the staircases’ reopening last year. Also part of the project was to create easement gardens alongside the staircase, incorporating California native plants, succulents and other drought-tolerant species (donated by the city’s Department of Public Works); accompanied by a painted mural and a painted bench at the foot of the steps to signify the collaborative effort to beautify the neighborhood, which was coordinated by art teachers and students at the nearby Woodside International School.

“[The design goal was] beauty, novelty and variety to tempt the viewer to keep climbing,” said Crutcher. “Also, a format well adapted to sponsorship by donors large and small. The clients — a committee of about 15 very dedicated volunteers who attended monthly meetings and put many volunteer hours into it — requested at least some native plants be included, but they left artistic decisions up to us.”

The Hidden Garden Steps incorporate a variety of native wildlife, including flowers, insects and amphibians, as well as some fruits and vegetables. Crutcher and Barr were tasked with creating a mural reminiscent of California that incorporated native flora and fauna, the challenging steep hillside topography and the secluded nature of the site. About 450 square feet of tile — which was a combination of handmade and store-bought — was used to create the different features of the staircase. “Most of our tile was handmade by us,” said Crutcher. “The clay is rolled out using a slab roller, designs are drawn on it, individual shapes are cut out and dried in between sheets of plaster board, bisque fired, glazed and fired again to cone 5; most of these tiles were elaborately painted with underglaze, then glazed on top.

Installation Details

Hidden Garden Steps

San Francisco, CA

Designers/Artists: Colette Crutcher and Aileen Barr, San Francisco, CA

Tile Suppliers: Heath Ceramics and Best Tile Inc., San Francisco, CA

Tile Installer: KZ Tile Company, Inc., San Francisco, CA

Installation Products: Laticrete® 317 Floor N’ Wall thin-set mortar from Laticrete International of Bethany, CT; Schluter Systems-Ditra from Schluter Systems of Plattsburgh, NY; and Mapei grout from Mapei of Deerfield Beach, FL

Installation Time: 3 weeks

Number of Installers: 5

“For the background, we used a wide variety of high-fire tile from our vast reservoirs of leftovers from other projects,” Crutcher went on to say. “The little that we bought we got at Heath Ceramics or Best Tile Inc. on Bayshore Boulevard in San Francisco. We used a lot of tile from Heath, as they were very generous with donations, and bought some Spanish tile and a few other kinds from Best Tile.”

The Hidden Garden Steps was a collaborative city project, with help from several local and non-profit organizations, including the San Francisco Parks Alliance (SFPA), San Francisco Parks Trust, the San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks program, Inner Sunset Park Neighbors, the Golden Gates Heights Neighborhood Association, Woodside International School and Nature in the City’s Green Hairstreak Ecosystem Corridor project. Each of the major contributors is engraved into the steps on both sides of the dog-leg landing as a “gratitude element,” and the more than 600 donors that assisted with the project — who were from California; 15 other states; the District of Columbia; and European countries, France, England, Belgium and Germany — are also recognized and engraved throughout each of the 148 stairs.

Challenges along the way

After nearly four years of fundraising, the Hidden Garden Steps planning committee, which was established at the onset of the project in 2010, finally raised enough money to complete the project. Crutcher and Barr spent a little more than a month on the design for the stairs and between 9 and 10 months fabricating them.

Since the staircases’ mosaic design is the most ambitious project that Crutcher and Barr have taken on as an artistic duo, it presented many challenges. “Controlling glaze colors, tiles cracking in the kiln, warping, managing donor names (by far the biggest challenge), storage of finished tile work before installation, carpal tunnel-type problems due to using nippers so much, among others,” said Crutcher.

Crutcher said that managing the donor names, which were engraved onto the tiles, was the most complex challenge because the lists of names were sometimes alphabetized according to the name of the person who contributed the money, and sometimes according to the name on the tile. “[For example], if Sally Brown buys a tile for her new grandson, John Doe, and if the person making records of all this isn’t careful, we end up making two tiles with different names on them, when only one has been paid for,” said Crutcher. “Add to this the alphabetized lists by donor name, by tile text (some tiles have sayings on them, not names), by date of when the tile was ordered, by when the tile was made, and you have a situation of paperwork overkill. One of the community volunteers was managing all this, and I think it was way too much for one person; we’re talking about over 600 names. A few of the names are of people who made in-kind donations to the project and many are not the names of the donors, but of the people the donors wanted to honor. This can become highly confusing for the artists, and we ended up making duplicate tiles or leaving things out and having to remake them.”

To help install the new tiled steps, the planning committee enlisted the help of local contractor, KZ Tile Co., Inc. in South San Francisco, CA, who also worked with Crutcher and Barr on their first public art project, the Moraga Steps — the city’s first ceramic-tiled stairway project, which is also located along 16th Avenue. Since Crutcher and Barr have a history with working with KZ Tile Co., Inc., they knew exactly who to turn to when looking for a company to install the Hidden Garden Steps. “We also worked on several other projects with them after the Moraga Steps,” said Crutcher.

Although the installation went relatively smoothly, the weather in the area which the staircase is located presented a bit of a challenge. “Every morning, the stairs were moist due to the foggy weather of the Sunset District in San Francisco,” said Project Manager Kai Zheng. “If the surface area is wet or moist, the thinset will not bond to the surface, so we had to use a heat gun to dry the area prior to our thinset application.”

Despite the minor hindrances, it only took KZ Tile Co., Inc. three weeks to complete the installation, with five installers onsite at all times. The installation team, led by Zheng, used a variety of products to install the tile, including Laticrete® 317 Floor N’ Wall thin-set mortar, Schluter Systems-Ditra and Mapei grout.

Positive outcome

Since the completion of the Hidden Garden Steps project, the artists and installers have received an abundance of positive remarks. “We have received several phone calls and emails from the San Francisco Recreation & Parks Department and private owners regarding new projects similar to the Hidden Garden Steps and the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps, which we also installed in 2005,” said Zheng.

“All commentary I’ve seen has been positive, except for neighbors who are upset when tour buses block the roadway in this rather sleepy neighborhood,” added Crutcher. “I think the Arts Commission and City supervisors have had nice things to say, and the project has received some awards.”

One of the awards the project received was the “Community Project” award at the third annual Coverings Installation & Design (CID) Awards, which were held on the first day of Coverings 2014 at the Las Vegas Convention Center in Las Vegas, NV.

The project was completed almost two years ago, and since then, the graffiti, tagging and littering has reduced to almost nothing; the community has come together in new ways and now enjoys climbing the formerly aging and deteriorating steps; and the use of the staircase has substantially increased — all of the goals the planning committee set before embarking on the project.

To help upkeep the Hidden Garden Steps, the planning committee also instituted monthly clean-ups for the second Saturday of every month. Volunteers and community members assist with weeding, removing branches and other debris, planting, removing additional graffiti, sweeping the stairs and any other necessary maintenance. Local merchants provide refreshments for the volunteers, while also informing customers of the efforts to help attract more volunteers.

For more information about the Hidden Garden Steps or to find out how to volunteer for a monthly clean-up, visit hiddengardensteps.org.