Sydney Stein (aka Sadie Friedman) was born in Brooklyn, New York to Russian immigrants Eva (Towaroski) and Jacob Friedman on March 19, 1906. The family moved to California sometime between 1907 and 1915, and Stein’s parents were divorced; her mother remarried to a man named Wasserstein, and Sadie began using the adapted version of her stepfather’s name, going by Stein.
First Woman Gardener Hired by City of San Francisco
Stein was the first woman to be hired as a gardener by the City of San Francisco, and would become chief nurseryman and eventually manager of the Conservatory of Flowers. According to Stein, she asked Superintendent of Parks John McLaren for a job after graduation. She remembered:
Didn’t get it right away, but I kept going back…Finally he asked me if I could spade. I said yes, so they put me to work spading, and I spaded for a year [in 1929]. I’ve been here five years now, and I’m still crazy about it.
An August 15, 1934, a profile of Stein in the San Francisco Chronicle outlined what it was like for a woman working in landscape gardening.
It’s hard work, but women have the artistic talent, the creative ability, the choice of color necessary to make a good landscape artist.
She was the only woman on a crew of 100 gardeners in Golden Gate Park, and also recognized as a leader in her field–in charge of the floral designs that announced events and welcomed visitors in front of the Conservatory of Flowers by 1934. She also made great copy; one reporter commented: “That a woman can do a man’s job without losing her personality is perfectly illustrated by this very small, attractive and feminine looking girl who can, and does, talk about manicures and dancing in the same breath as weeds and snails. As the only women, she seems to have mothered the laborers and helped them to prepare for gardener examinations. Asked if the men resented her, she said:
I work hard and never do anything they dislike. I’d just love to wear shorts when I’m working, but they wouldn’t like that. They treat me just like a sister…and they’re just grand to work with.
Not only was she the first woman to be a gardener, she was also the first woman to become a member of the Laborer’s Union (later named the William Hammond Hall Society).
In 1940, Stein was promoted to Head Nurseryman. That same year she purchased a three-year supply of cyclamen seeds from Switzerland realizing that World War II would shut off the supply; these were planted and matured after 18 months into 900 plants ranging in color from pinks to reds to pure whites by 1942. On December 27, 1942, Sydney is pictured in the Chronicle holding one of these prized (and her favorite) plants. At this time she was referred to as manager of the Golden Gate Park Conservatory, now known as the Conservatory of Flowers.
In October 1940, she joined the board of the Emanu-El Residence Clubs and would serve this organization in one form or another until 1955. Sydney was very much in demand. In May 1945, she gave a Kodachrome lecture showing of flowers for a group of San Francisco’s socially elite League of Women Voters at the home of Mrs. Marcus Koshland at 3800 Washington Street. In October 1947, she was honored by the California Spring Blossom and Wild Flower Association alongside Alice Eastwood and Eric Walther at a picnic luncheon and tour of the Shakespearean Garden andArboretum. In 1948, Mrs. Sydney Stein Rich held the position of Chief Gardener for the Conservatory of Flowers.
Sydney resigned from her position as head of the Conservatory of Flowers in 1949. In her retirement, she became a flower arrangement consultant for the storied Podesta Baldocchi florist firm.
She married Neville J. Rich Sr. in 1946 when she was 40 years old, and the couple lived at 3027 Webster Street. Sydney died on September 8, 1956 of malignant hypertension.
Two decades after Sydney’s death, her sister, Esther Oppenheimer, worked with Conservatory staff to create a permanent memorial. There were brainstorming sessions fueled by Chinese takeout brought by Oppenheimer, and eventually Tom Bass suggested a bench. Funds were raised by the Conservatory Auxiliary, a porcelain bench was built, and the Conservatory hosted a ceremony in honor of its dedication on September 12, 1983. (The San Francisco Public Library has an invitation from this event.) It was installed on a raised platform overlooking Conservatory Valley, but, over the years, was totally forgotten until rediscovered during construction efforts that rebuilt the Conservatory after a debilitating 1995 windstorm.
Today, Conservatory guests can find Sydney’s memorial bench in the Potted Plants Gallery. A popular spot for photographs and reflection, Sydney’s mark on the Conservatory, the collection, and Golden Gate Park, lingers for generations to come.
By Chelsea Sellin and Nicole Meldahl, Western Neighborhoods Project
The Western Neighborhoods Project is a 501(c)3 California nonprofit organization, formed in 1999, that preserves and shares the history and culture of the neighborhoods in western San Francisco. In 2015, we launched the OpenSFHistory program to conserve, digitize, and share with the public more than 100,000 historical images of San Francisco.
Adapted from the article “Sydney Stein Rich: Pioneering Professional Gardener” by Judith M. Taylor, M.D. published in Eden: Journal of the California Garden & Landscape History Society, Vol 17, No. 1, Winter 2014.
- “San Francisco Girl Wins Garden School Certificate,” San Francisco Chronicle, 25 July 1927
- “It All Started With Orchids,” San Francisco Chronicle, 23 December 1978
- “She Delves the Good Earth, for Happiness,” San Francisco Chronicle, 15 August 1934
- “Scarce Cyclamen Flowers Displayed at Conservatory,” San Francisco Chronicle, 8 February 1942
- “Prized Cyclamen,” San Francisco Chronicle, 27 December 1942
- “The Fuchsia Society Will Elect Officers,” San Francisco Chronicle, 8 November 1942
- “San Francisco Center Function,” San Francisco Chronicle, 2 May 1945
- “On the Clubs’ Agenda,” San Francisco Chronicle, 5 October 1947
- “Several Ladies Help Tend Golden Gate Park Gardens,” San Francisco Chronicle, 8 November 1948
- “Green Thumb Sisterhood,” San Francisco Chronicle, 15 July 1951
- “Rich,” San Francisco Chronicle, 10 September 1955
- “New Blooms in the Glass Palace,” San Francisco Chronicle, 15 January 1984