With donated land from the city and donated labor from local trade unions, the Red Cross opened a new building in the Civic Center in October 1918. Because of World War I, the organization of mercy—now so associated with relief work following disasters—had mobilized charitable work, increased fundraising, and expanded its presence in San Francisco. Red Cross nurses and volunteers tended both to the needs of soldiers fighting in Europe and their families at home. The new Civic Center building was intended primarily for administrative and office work.
But, even before the doors opened, paperwork and the war quickly became secondary concerns. One hundred years ago this month the Red Cross had to fight a deadly battle right in San Francisco. The influenza pandemic of 1918, which would eventually claim 50 million people worldwide, was raging through the city.
In late October 1918, newspapers printed hopeful talk of quick abatement, possible cures, and a decline in cases—only 103 deaths on October 30 whereas there had been 124 the day before—but adjoining columns on the pages told grimmer stories. A popular newsboy succumbed and his colleagues raised money for funeral flowers. The police sick list ran to 140 names. Hospitals filled to overflowing, with San Francisco General contending with 1,100 pneumonia cases and the city Health Department forced to commandeer other hospitals for space. Lines of cots had to be set up for ill and feverish people in schools, churches, and even streetcar storage barns.1
The Red Cross administration building, nearing completion, was quickly transformed into a 300-cot hospital ward primarily for children. Many of the young patients came from North Beach, the so-called “Latin Quarter,” which was much less prosperous and far more populated with families than the neighborhood of today. The San Francisco Chronicle noted:
“Over in the Latin quarter the struggle against the epidemic continues to be acute, and the mortality percentage alarming […] the trouble is the children. There are so many of them over that way, and ever so many of these are, by reason of their multitude, neglected. One family boasts a progeny of eleven. The mother is sick, the father is sick and some of the little folks are sick, too.”2
Red Cross nurses, along with forty sailors assigned from Mare Island, ran the temporary hospital through the height of contagion. Despite all efforts, over the next five months 45,000 San Franciscans would get sick and 3,000 would die from the flu. The city population then was just 500,000.
The site of the Red Cross building, which was set on a small rise at the time, is hard to recognize today. It stood off Hyde Street where the line of Fulton Street would continue east past the main library and Asian Art Museum. In the photo below, 100 years ago this week, are gathered nurses, sailors, city officials, and even comedian Fatty Arbuckle, in town on tour, attending a delayed dedication and flag raising ceremony for the building.
By the spring of 1919 the flu epidemic in the city had mostly passed and the war was over. The Red Cross building was used for its original administrative purposes as the agency ministered to the needs of returning soldiers and their families. Veterans could apply for disability pensions and compensation at the office. A tearoom was opened in the building for servicemen in transit as well as the general public. An Army surplus store opened. University extension lectures on topics from eugenics to Russia to the psychology of advertising were held in the auditorium. Volunteers came to sew and knit in support of those in need around the world.
Eventually the Red Cross moved to other locations and the building was used for Boy Scout meetings and even high school classes while Galileo High was under construction. In 1930, the city donated the land for a new federal government office building. The last piece of the Civic Center plan, the Beaux-Arts Style building now stands on United Nations Plaza, managed by the United States’ General Services Administration and home to its regional office.