Part One: San Francisco's Most Secret Garden

by Lars Russell

A San Francisco Resident from 2007 to 2010, Lars stumbled upon the greenhouses and spent months researching city archives and local libraries, talking to neighbors, civic officials and parks & garden advocates before publishing "Glass Houses" at in 2010. In this excerpt Lars describes the peculiar attraction of 770 Woolsey. 

The roses are going wild. Their blooms stick out through glittering tents. The broken greenhouse makes up one entire city block, a jagged surf of canopies ensnared with flowers and fallen glass.

In a city of recognizable trifles, San Francisco’s most undiscovered landmark is locked away next to a reservoir and between two forking highways, a tumbledown glass fortress at the centerpiece of a neighborhood most city residents have never been.

University Mound Nursery is a jumble of overgrowth and contradictions in universal ruin. Far away from downtown or familiar tourist destinations, you might mistake 770 Woolsey as somewhere outside the city limits. But the greenhouse is in San Francisco. Look it up on Google Maps! (“770 Woolsey,” you’ll be delighted).

The building is the last shattered artifact of a neighborhood that once was all greenhouses, all flowers. The only remnant of a community that gave birth to the city’s celebrated flower culture. Inside its walls, brackish weeds go up, the roof comes down. A battle between entropy and life forces. Surrounded by residential homes, two blocks from a school, the nursery presents a wonderland of contaminants and broken glass; a sanctuary to feral animals, nocturnal addicts and mischievous artists.

Some neighbors say this is a blight. One parks advocate calls it “the biggest, coolest piece of art in the city.” Now urban farm activists say the site could be key to the future of sustainable city living, or at least a model for a district looking to escape its history of waste. For now the greenhouse is a secret of orphaned beauty, a glimpse into an uninhabited future and back at an unremembered past. A mystery waiting to be unearthed and ripened to its final promise.

And this chance too will pass.

Check here next week for more on the history and future developments of university mound nursery. to view the full version of GLASS HOUSES, Please visit

Photography by Henry Dombey