The Journey of Commerce High: A Closer Look

by Arnold Woods

Last weekend, crowds gathered to watch as a 139-year-old, two-story Victorian home was moved six blocks from Franklin Street to Fulton Street. It was a huge effort requiring the coordination of many city agencies, but the job was accomplished in one day. As impressive as this was, it pales in comparison to another building moving effort that took place in 1913.
 

The Newton J. Tharp Commercial School under construction on Grove between Polk and Larkin, 1909.The Newton J. Tharp Commercial School under construction on Grove between Polk and Larkin, 1909. (wnp32.0097; Emiliano Echeverria/Randolph Brandt Collection / Courtesy of Emiliano Echeverria)
 

What is now Commerce High School started as just an adjunct department in 1883 of the Boy’s High School.1 In July 1884, it was established as the Commercial School with its own location on Powell Street near Clay in an old Girl’s High School Building and began adding additional classes.2 By 1887, the Commercial School had 164 male and 54 female students. There was discussion then of reintegrating the school with the Boy’s and Girl’s High Schools,3 but the school remained its own entity. By 1890, the girls outnumbered the boys at the school.

As it kept growing, the Commercial School moved to a building on Bush Street near Stockton by 1892. That building was taken over by the new Polytechnic High School in late 1884,4 and it is unclear what happened to the Commercial School at that point. By 1904, however, the Commercial School was reestablished at 5th and Market Streets. As with much of that area though, 1906 happened. The school was destroyed in the earthquake and fire.5 After a bond measure for the construction of various city buildings was passed, the City, in March 1909, authorized $250,000 for the construction of a new Commercial School on Grove Street between Polk and Larkin.6
 

Students posing in front of Commercial School on Grove Street, 1912.Students posing in front of Commercial School on Grove Street, 1912. (wnp27.5944; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

City Architect Newton J. Tharp was in charge of rebuilding the City’s infrastructure, including the new Commercial School. A three-story brick and terracotta structure with a steel frame was designed. Tharp, unfortunately, died of pneumonia he contracted while in New York to research plans for a hospital. In his honor, the Board of Education voted on June 23, 1909 to rename the school, then holding classes at Mission High School, as the Newton J. Tharp Commercial School.7 The cornerstone for the new school was laid on January 16, 1910 and construction began.8 It would open on January 3, 1911 with Colonel Charles Murphy as principal.9 Before it opened though, the Board of Education reversed course and removed Newton J. Tharp’s name from the school.10
 

Commercial School on second day of relocation move, May 9, 1913.Commercial School on second day of relocation move, May 9, 1913. (wnp36.00304; DPW Horace Chaffee, photographer – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

The decision to rebuild the Commercial School on Grove Street between Polk and Larkin proved short-sighted though. A little over a year after the school on Grove Street was opened, San Francisco unveiled an ambitious City Hall and Civic Center plan that would require the removal of the school.11 The City worked out a swap of lands whereby the Commercial School would get land at Fell and Franklin–intended for a library–in return for the school’s plot on Grove. Not wanting to waste all the money spent on the recently constructed school by simply tearing it down and rebuilding, San Francisco embarked on an audacious plan to move the entire building to its new site.12 Before the move began, the Board of Education once again changed the school’s name, this time to The San Francisco High School of Commerce.13
 

Commercial School lifted off its foundation on Grove Street in relocation move, May 20, 1913.Commercial School lifted off its foundation on Grove Street in relocation move, May 20, 1913. (wnp36.00310; DPW Horace Chaffee, photographer – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Unlike last weekend’s one day move of a Victorian home, this move took a good deal longer. The contract to move the school was awarded to a Seattle firm called Sound Construction & Engineering for a price of $151,000.14 The deal required the company to completely rebuild the school if they wrecked it during the move. The subcontractor firm of Nicholas & Handley Co. did the actual work of moving the building.15 The school building was initially jacked up off of its foundation, then three steam donkeys providing 500 tons of cable strength were used to pull the building on steel pin rollers.
 

Commercial School crossing Van Ness Avenue during its relocation journey, July 11, 1913.Commercial School crossing Van Ness Avenue during its relocation journey, July 11, 1913. (wnp36.00315; DPW Horace Chaffee, photographer – SF Department of Public Works / Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

The trip began on May 8, 1913 and on the first day, they were able to move the school 20 feet.16 In late May, Van Ness Avenue was closed at Grove Street in preparation for the steam donkeys and school to turn onto it.17 The turn onto Van Ness proved to be difficult and progress slowed to as little as one foot a day,18 but picked up again thereafter. By mid-October 1913, the school arrived at its new location at Franklin and Fell Streets.19 It would still take about another month though to get the school situated onto its new foundation.20 The remarkable journey had ended after seven months.
 

Aerial of Civic Center area, School of Commerce at Fell and Franklin in lower right, circa 1935.Aerial of Civic Center area, School of Commerce at Fell and Franklin in lower right, circa 1935. (wnp27.7599; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

The School of Commerce building still stands today at the corner of Fell and Franklin streets. In the mid-1920s, architect John Reid, Jr. designed a beautiful new addition to the school, which was eventually designated San Francisco Landmark #140. Dwindling attendance led to the closing of the School of Commerce in 195221 It was used as administrative offices for the school district thereafter. So as we revel in the sight today of a beautiful Victorian home traveling city streets to a new home, keep in mind the even more amazing feat of maneuvering a huge brick school building six blocks back in 1913.
 

Notes:

1. “Commercial School,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 12, 1890, p. 6.

2. “Manufacturing Patronage,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 13, 1884, p. 3.

3. “The School Board,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 9, 1887, p. 5.

4. “The New Polytechnic High School,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 24, 1894, p. 7.

5. “Condition of Public Schools,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 25, 1906, p. 10.

6. “Hall Of Justice Appropriation,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 17, 1909, p. 8.

7. “School To Honor Dead Architect,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 24, 1909, p. 16.

8. “Corner Stone Laid of New Commercial School,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 17, 1910, p. 5.

9. “Spring Term Opens In Public Schools,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 4, 1911, p. 7.

10. “Directors Equalize Teachers’ Salaries,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 11, 1910, p. 7.

11. “Civic Center Plans Unfolded; Big Condemnation Suit Begun By Order Of The Supervisors,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 2, 1912, p. 1.

12. “To Move School On Wheels Gigantic Task Is Planned,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 10, 1912, p. 5.

13. “Local School Will Have New Name,” San Francisco Chronicle, December 13, 1912, p. 8.

14. “Want Millions In Next Few Months,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 6, 1913, p. 5.

15. “School Starts ‘Trip’ Today Is Notable Engineering Feat,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 8, 1913, p. 20.

16. “Big Brick School Building Moving,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 9, 1913, p. 22.

17. “Van Ness Avenue Closed,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 27, 1913, p. 20.

18. “Big Brick School Building Balking,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 30, 1913, p. 12.

19. “Huge School Building Nears End of Journey,” San Francisco Chronicle, October 11, 1913, p. 22.

20. “Commercial High Is ‘Home’ Ends Seven Months of Journey,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 30, 1913, p. 42.

21. “Closing of Commerce High Okayed,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 6, 1952, p. 19.