Easter Cross a tale of two cities

The Easter Cross in the Emerald Lake Hills area of Redwood City.

The Easter Cross in the Emerald Lake Hills area of Redwood City and the more famous one on San Francisco’s Mount Davidson have a lot in common: Both were targeted by vandals as well as lawyers who claimed the crosses violated separation of church and state. The similar history ends, however, when it counts most — on Easter morning.

San Francisco’s Easter sunrise services have been a tradition for generations, but there has been no such service in Redwood City for nearly two decades, according to Bob Fansler, president of the Easter Cross Association. At least not the kind that once drew scores of believers to the city’s highest peak. In addition, the cross lights are on from 5 p.m. to midnight, meaning they won’t greet the faithful on Easter.

“In a way, the cross still shines brightly all the time,” Fansler said. That’s because the association distributes money to worthy groups, money gained through rents paid by communications companies that have towers on the association property. “The Redwood City Easter Cross still resonates with all things good: faith, hope, love, peace, unity, victory and new beginnings.”

The site has been home to three crosses, the first a wooden one erected by a Methodist group in 1926. That cross lasted three years and was replaced by developers of the Emerald Lake area who put up an 82-foot illuminated steel cross. Vandalism and the weather combined to destroy the cross which was demolished in 1960. The association was organized to build a replacement, a 72-foot concrete structure that was dedicated on Palm Sunday in 1962.

Size isn’t everything but there are reports on the Internet that place the height at 94 feet, which, when the elevation is added, would make the Peninsula cross higher than the one on Mount Davidson. None of the stories that cite the nearly 100-foot measurement list a source for that statistic. Old newspaper clips say 72 feet, just short of needing a red light on the top to aid aviation. One person who should know is Mike Garl who will soon start painting the Redwood City cross. He said the job will take about 70 feet in scaffolding to reach the top. Garl, 75, once lived near the cross.

“When I was a kid, we would climb inside the cross,” he said. “We’d also toss acorns at cars parked in the nearby lover’s lane. Guys would get out of the cars and chase us but we’d get in cardboard boxes and [slide] down the hill.”

The terrain has changed since Garl lived in the area. There once was a natural amphitheater near the cross where people sat in rows of seats cut out of the earth. The land has returned to its natural state with trees growing wild, which reduced the area available to hold services. The increased vegetation means some sections of the city no longer see the lighted cross at night. In addition, there is absolutely no parking available. There are water tanks and fences as well.

Darkness is nothing new to the cross. Vandalism was the main reason the cross was unplugged in 1974. The flood lamps were tempting targets and were broken time after time. The lights came on again and are maintained by Steve Pellizzari, who said the work has “been a pleasure.”

The aforementioned amphitheater near the cross was once filled for Easter Sunrise Services but the area is now overseen by the city so there were concerns about church-state matters, which surfaced in the past over the land the cross is on. Eventually, the cross land was purchased from the city and became private property. The same scenario about vandalism and law played out in San Francisco. There’s another Mount Davidson link. Joseph Leonard, developer of Ingleside Terrace in San Francisco and Emerald Lake was the driving force behind both the Mount Davidson cross and the cross put up in 1929 in Redwood City.

The Rear View Mirror by history columnist Jim Clifford appears in the Daily Journal every other Monday. Objects in The Mirror are closer than they appear.

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