by Frank Dunnigan
As local students head back to their classrooms, it’s time to remember that many San Francisco schools have transitioned to new uses over the years. Let’s take a took at just some of the many re-purposed educational buildings around town.
Cabrillo School at 24th Avenue & Balboa once served a large population of children who lived at the Presidio of San Francisco during its long tenure as a military base, so the 1994 base closure was a significant factor that diminished enrollment. Early in the new millennium, the property was converted to additional administrative offices for the San Francisco Unified School District. Read more about the history of the Cabrillo School.
COMMERCE HIGH SCHOOL
The High School of Commerce, one of the oldest and largest in San Francisco, graduated generations of students destined for business careers, going back to 1884. In 1926, a new Commerce High School was built, incorporating the then-popular Churrigueresque style of exterior ornamentation (similar to the style of Mission Dolores Church—now Basilica—that had similar ornamentation added that same year). Commerce High’s football team (the Bulldogs) was a multi-year City-wide champion, including during the school’s final years. As more families with children moved to the western side of the City, enrollment fell, leading to the school’s closure after its final class of 300 graduated in 1952. Read more about Commerce High’s building taking a slow journey once.
CRESPI HOME SCHOOL
Crespi was built at 24th Avenue and Quintara in 1951 to accommodate the large number of baby-boomers who were filling overflowing schools. It was later turned over to Lincoln High School which used it for classroom space into the 1980s, and it has since been a health facility for SFUSD. Read more about the Juan Crespi Home School.
EMANU-EL SISTERHOOD GIRLS’ SCHOOL/RESIDENCE
Commissioned by a Jewish women’s group from Temple Emanu-el in 1921, this imposing brick-clad building at 300 Page Street provided housing for single working women, plus recreational and classroom facilities. Designed by noted architect Julia Morgan, the iron balcony on the building’s street side incorporates the Star of David as part of its design—an architectural element that has remained in place for more than 100 years. The building was purchased by San Francisco Zen Center in 1969, but no major exterior alterations have been made, and it now serves as a meditation and training center. Read more about the Emanu-El Sisterhood School for Girls.
Opened in 1924 at 1801 Vicente Street in the Sunset District as the Protestant Orphan Asylum, many of the older residents were enrolled at nearby Parkside School, where they fondly referred to themselves as the “P.O. Kids”—Protestant Orphanage—as late as the 1950s-60s while younger residents had on-site classes. The organization long ago transitioned into a new non-profit agency, offering a variety of programs and services to families and children. Read more about Edgewood.
GOOD SHEPHERD CONVENT/UNIVERSITY MOUND SCHOOL FOR GIRLS
Opened in 1932 by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, the residential school at 601 Cambridge Street in the Portola District operated to serve girls and young women placed there by the juvenile justice system or social service agencies. After 1977, the Sisters began to focus on services to homeless women, offering a variety of recovery programs at the site, while selling off the school building. In 1999, Cornerstone Academy, a private, Baptist-founded school, acquired the space where it now operates its 6th through 8th Grades. In an interesting historical note, the old coat of arms of the San Francisco Archdiocese remains an architectural feature on one exterior wall of the school.
LONE MOUNTAIN/SAN FRANCISCO COLLEGE FOR WOMEN
Founded as the all-girls Sacred Heart Academy in Menlo Park in 1898, the institution was renamed College of the Sacred Heart in 1921 and moved to San Francisco in 1930, when it was renamed San Francisco College for Woman and located atop Lone Mountain. In 1969, it converted to co-educational status and was renamed Lone Mountain College and remained so until 1978 when the school was acquired by the adjacent University of San Francisco, which renamed it as USF’s Lone Mountain campus.
MCATEER HIGH SCHOOL
Once earmarked as a replacement for Polytechnic, McAteer was named for a California State Senator from San Francisco who died unexpectedly during a campaign for Mayor in 1967. Operating from a new campus on Portola Drive from 1973-2002, it closed after a brief 30-year history. Earlier, in 1982, School of the Arts was created and housed at the McAteer campus, though it later relocated to a school space in Parkmerced from 1992-2002. Upon the dissolution of McAteer in 2002, School of the Arts moved back to Portola Drive and in 2005, a new Academy of Arts and Sciences was created as a separate entity, though both now share the campus. School of the Arts was re-named for artist Ruth Asawa in 2010.
MERCY HIGH SCHOOL
Opened in 1952 by the Sisters of Mercy to serve the growing population West of Twin Peaks, the school began with a single first-year class of 200 girls, adding new groups of 200 students each fall until reaching its capacity of 800. That level of enrollment continued until the late 1980s when two local Catholic boys’ high schools went co-ed (Sacred Heart in 1987 and St. Ignatius in 1989), resulting in a decline in Mercy enrollments. The school closed in June of 2020, with nearby Archbishop Riordan High School soon becoming co-ed and offering enrollment/financial aid to former Mercy students. In early 2021, it was announced that the Mercy campus had been sold to the Chinese-American International School which plans to consolidate its multiple sites to the 19th Avenue location near Stonestown.
NOTRE DAME DE NAMUR HIGH SCHOOL
In 1866, a group of nuns established a boarding/day school for girls on Dolores Street, opposite the original Mission. It built a larger school in 1898, but that building was dynamited by troops in order to stop the spread of the 1906 Fire. Rebuilt on the 1898 foundations, the new building opened in August 1907. Declining enrollment brought about the school’s closure in 1981. Afterwards, the 1907 building, still atop its 1898 foundations, was refurbished and is now home to Notre Dame Senior Plaza, a low-income senior apartment complex.
OLD LOWELL HIGH SCHOOL
Lowell High School, tracing its origins back to 1856, is San Francisco’s oldest public high school and considered to be the premier college prep school in the San Francisco Unified School District. Operating from an imposing city-wide block of brick structures on Hayes Street, between Ashbury and Masonic, the school maintained a reputation for academic excellence and sporting achievements. When the school moved to larger facilities near Lake Merced in 1962, the old buildings were turned over to City College of San Francisco. The John Adams Campus now offers English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) for adults, plus business courses and many certificate programs in health fields. Listen to the Outside Lands Podcast on the history of Lowell High.
OLD SAN FRANCISCO STATE COLLEGE/OLD U.C. EXTENSION
The “State Normal School” was a training school for teachers founded in 1899 on Nob Hill. After the 1906 Earthquake & Fire, it relocated to Waller and Buchanan Streets, becoming “San Francisco State Teachers College” in 1921, then “San Francisco State College” in 1935. After the school moved to its new Lake Merced Campus in 1953-54, the old buildings were taken over by the University of California Extension in 1957, operating there until a move to downtown San Francisco in 2003. After much public input, the site has been a rental housing complex with five new buildings and preserved parts of the Art Deco former collegiate science building, Woods Hall, since 2013.
POLYTECHNIC HIGH SCHOOL
With a long local history dating back to 1884, the Frederick Street campus, opened in 1914 to replace what had been destroyed in 1906. Poly was the largest high school in San Francisco for many years, with 2,000+ students and twin gymnasiums—one for boys and one for girls—constructed on either side of the main building. Poly’s last class graduated in 1972 and the classroom building was eventually torn down in the late 1980s for a new housing development, though the gyms were preserved. One of them is now used by a circus school, while the other is occupied by a health club.
PRESENTATION HIGH SCHOOL
Founded in North Beach in 1900s, the Turk Street campus was the final location of the school from 1934 until 1991. Presentation closed due to declining enrollment brought about by the late 1980s conversions of the formerly all-male Sacred Heart and St. Ignatius to co-ed status. The site was acquired by the nearby University of San Francisco for its School of Education, though the Presentation nuns maintain a convent there as a retirement center/infirmary.
SAN FRANCISCO CONSERVATORY OF MUSIC
Founded in 1917, the school operated from 1956 to 2006 in the former Infant shelter at 1201 Ortega Street in the Sunset District. After it expanded into larger quarters at 50 Oak Street near Civic Center, the site has since been occupied by Lycée Francais de San Francisco International French School’s 6th through 12th Grades, while the Pre-school through 5th Grades are located at the former St. Agnes School in the Haight-Ashbury.
STAR OF THE SEA ACADEMY
Star of the Sea Academy operated as a small, parish-supported Catholic girls’ high school in the Richmond District from the early 1900s until 1985, numbering thousands of alumnae, including comedienne Gracie Allen. Following its closure, a number of small, private schools have operated from the old high school’s premises.
ST. JOHN URSULINE HIGH SCHOOL
St. John’s operated as one of the last parish-supported Catholic girls’ high schools in San Francisco until 1990 when its relatively small enrollment became cost-prohibitive. The school buildings at 4056 Mission Street in the Bernal Heights neighborhood, constructed in 1957, are now operated as a training facility by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 6. Similar to many buildings with a former religious use (see Emanu-el Sisterhood Girls’ School and Good Shepherd Convent/University Mound School For Girls listed above), the facility retained an architectural cross above the main entryway.
ST. PAUL HIGH SCHOOL
Another of the parish-supported Catholic high schools, St. Paul’s was the largest Catholic girls’ high school in San Francisco until the development of Mercy High School in 1952. Parish finances and a declining enrollment led to the 1994 decision to maintain/rebuild the parish elementary school but to close the high school. The property was then converted to condominiums.
ST. PAULUS SCHOOL
St. Paulus, the historic Lutheran church in San Francisco with a large congregation dating back to the late 1900s, also operated an elementary school at 930 Gough Street for many years plus a junior high school at 888 Turk. Following the closure of the schools, the Gough Street property is now home to a group of religious women known as Gospel for Asia Missionary Group, while the Turk Street property has been occupied by the Chinese-American International School, now set to consolidate its multiple City-wide locations at the old Mercy High School campus on 19th Avenue near Stonestown.
ST. PETER’S ACADEMY
The old wooden building that long housed a parish-supported Catholic girls’ high school at 1245 Alabama Street in the Mission District, dates back to the late 1800s. It was closed due to declining enrollment in 1966 and is now home to the non-profit Mission Family Resource Collaborative.
SIMPSON BIBLE COLLEGE
The massive brick structure at 801 Silver Avenue in the Portola District opened in 1928 as a training facility for the Salvation Army. In 1955, it became the new home of Simpson Bible College until 1989 when that institution became Simpson University and relocated to an expanded new campus in the city of Redding, CA. Their former building was then purchased by Cornerstone Academy, but the Loma Prieta earthquake soon required extensive retrofitting by Cornerstone. The school now operates its Pre-school through 5th Grade classes here.