San Francisco’s hilly topography, eclectic architecture and old wealth have made it one of the most popular tourist attractions on the West Coast. Over time, the city has become the cultural epicenter of Northern California, supplying an abundance of commercial, financial and artistic opportunities.

A little over a decade ago in 2003, a local art initiative began in the city which was fueled by two local artists. Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher, freelance artists who are longtime residents of The City by the Bay, sought to uplift certain neighborhoods by transforming degraded staircases into personalized works of art using handmade mosaic tiles. Their first project near Moraga Street, known as the “16th Ave. Tiled Steps,” was inspired by the well-known colorful Lapa Steps (Selarón’s Staircase) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. After such a positive response — approximately $80,000 in private donations was collected to help bring the project to fruition — Barr and Crutcher went on to complete three similar projects throughout the city thereafter.

About seven years ago, the Katherine Delmar Burke School was looking for a way to give back to the surrounding community in celebration of its 100th anniversary. Anna Yatroussis, an alumnae and parent of the school, noticed the steps in front of the all-girls school’s entrance were in dire need of repair and restoration. Subsequently, she and another parent, Meg Autry, helped found Friends of Lincoln Park, a collaborative of parents and community members whose goal was to repair and maintain the neglected staircase, now known as the “Lincoln Park Steps.”

Nestled on the edge of San Francisco’s Lincoln Park at the intersection of California Street and 32nd Avenue, the steps date back to the early 1900s. Providing panoramic views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the city’s downtown skyline and the East Bay hills, the stairs were a popular place for residents and tourists alike. As a result, they endured decades of significant damage, including cracked steps, damaged concrete and unwanted graffiti.

Creating a work of art

Because of her established reputation as the “go-to” creative tile designer for local public spaces, Barr was enlisted to beautify the 52-step staircase and accompanying benches. “The stairway was originally built in approximately 1918 and was in quite bad condition with a lot of graffiti,” she said. “I had been involved in a few other tiled stairways in San Francisco, but none quite as large or grand as this one. The community raised funds through the sale of donor tiles and was also awarded a Community Challenge Grant from San Francisco. The donor tiles are worked into the design of the riser tiles and are also located on the pillars and seats.

“As the stairway is located at the end of California Street and is one of the portals to Lincoln Park, I wanted to create a design that celebrated the transition between the urban life of California Street’s end into the natural grandeur of the park,” Barr went on to explain. “The formidable staircase, which is 52 steps high and 30 feet wide, expresses a natural formality and symmetry. I sought to maintain these qualities and looked for inspiration in the park’s flora, studying details of line and form in both formal gardens and historical photographs of San Francisco’s Sutro Baths and Arts and Crafts design.”

The central tile that was used to clad the staircase was handmade by Barr in her personal studio in San Francisco. “I make the tile by rolling slabs of clay, cutting the tile shapes to the design and then hand-carving each tile,” she explained. “Once bisque-fired, the tiles are then glazed and re-fired. The clay and glazes are high-fired to ensure durability for outdoors.

“It took approximately 10 months to create all of the handmade tiles for this project,” Barr went on to say. “The field tile surrounding the design was special ordered from Fireclay Tile, who generously supplied the tile at a steep discount as this was a community-led project. They created a specialized size, 5 by 8 inches, to fit the height of the risers. The 10 pillars, which are located on either side of the staircase, are also clad in tile with handmade tile as the central motif. The field tile on the pillars and seats was supplied by Heath Ceramics. I spent quite a few days picking through their seconds at the store to find the colors I wanted for the project.”

A little less than 400 square feet of handmade tile was used to clad the 780-square-foot staircase, with an additional 200 square feet of tile used on the 10 pillars, two seats and one seating wall. “Creating handmade tile for such a large project was a challenge as my art studio is less than 300 square feet,” said Barr. “I was able to work on sections and then store them until it was all completed. The tile was then laid out in their specific risers and taped together to form one long strip. All of this was done at my studio and then transported to the site for installation.”

Executing a vision

To complete the arduous installation, Barr worked with two local individuals, Riley Doty and Phylece Snyder. “Aileen had face-mounted the tile with contact paper. She had every tile labeled and marked, and she had designated sections,” explained Snyder, owner of Snyder Tile in Oakland, CA. “We would do it row by row and section by section. She had to get all of the tiles to this storage unit we had there, and then we would put them on something and bring them down to the step [they were created for]. Then, we would lay them where they went.

“First, we came up with a center line,” she went on to say. “We would lean the tiles up against the risers or steps then stand back and see if they looked fairly even. The whole area was fenced in so on certain sections, what would happen in order to get a real visual, is Aileen would have to get in her car at the top of the steps and drive down to bottom. She would stand behind the fence and dictate to me how to move this tile a little bit to the left or right and so forth. I took a Sharpie and marked where they needed to be moved. I would mark on each end the start and finish so it got installed as a unit. We repeated that process for the entire project to ensure everything was even.”

Doty, owner of Doty Tile in Oakland, CA, said he and Snyder spent nearly four months setting the tiles. The couple utilized Schluter®-Ditra, a crack suppression membrane from Schluter Systems; Bostik’s Ditra-Set, an unmodified thinset; and Custom Building Products’ Polyblend® Sanded Grout in the color “Quarry Red,” which has since been discontinued. “We had one helper for about one to two months,” said Doty. “Aileen spent more than half the total working hours onsite helping to organize.”

Overcoming challenges

The installation took roughly double the amount of time it would’ve normally taken to complete because of some unforeseen circumstances, according to Snyder. “It was a lot of hard work,” she explained. “It was unfortunate that it was in the winter; we would lose the light really early so our days were cut short by hours. Grouting was another long process. Since there were so many curves and indentations in the tiles, we would grout and then have to go in each crevice with a toothpick or toothbrush and get the grout out of all of the little indentations so it would reveal the detail of the tile.”

The rainy weather they encountered at the beginning of the install in December 2014 also contributed to the extension, according to Doty.

“The concrete staircase is approximately 100 years old and also needed some repair before the install,” added Barr. “There was 3-inch nosing that had to be removed and then each riser was made even to receive the tile. The pillars and benches also needed to be rebuilt before they could receive tile.”

Although the project took 14 months to complete, all of the collaborative hard work invested has paid off, with local and national recognition. “The project has been really well-received by the local community and has become a tourist attraction,” said Barr. “In addition to winning the Grand Prize [for tile] at the Coverings Installation & Design (CID) Awards this year, we were also awarded for ‘Best Community Art Project’ by the San Francisco Parks Alliance 2016.”

“Every day we were working on the staircase, people were ‘oohing’ and ‘ahing’ and taking photos,” said Snyder. “The reaction was just amazing. People love it. If you go there any day now, you’ll see people taking pictures. Except for sculptures, I don’t know of a larger art installation in San Francisco. This really was an once-in-a-lifetime type of thing.”

Lincoln Park Steps

San Francisco, CA

Artist/Tile Creator: Aileen Barr, San Francisco, CA (handmade mosaic tile on steps, pillars, benches and wall)

Tile Suppliers: Fireclay Tile, San Jose, CA (custom-sized tiles for risers); Heath Ceramics, Sausalito, CA (field tile on pillars and benches); Daltile, Dallas, TX (tread tile)

Tile Installers: Snyder Tile, Oakland, CA; Doty Tile, Oakland, CA

Installation Products: Bostik, Wauwatosa, WI (Ditra-Set); Custom Building Products, Seal Beach, CA (Polyblend); Schluter Systems, Plattsburg, NY (Schluter®-Ditra)