History of the Sciences: Shirt Factory Science
It was a rambling wooden building that looked more like a factory than a college. The stark, boxlike structure had been erected hurriedly on the south side of Hayes Street, between Shrader and Stanyan Streets, in the late summer of 1906 following the earthquake and fire that destroyed the magnificent St. Ignatius Church and College on Van Ness Avenue. It was supposed to be a temporary site for the institution, but it became the school’s home for 21 years, from 1906 to 1927. During this period, St. Ignatius College was known as the “shirt factory” because of its resemblance to a number of hastily built shirt factories south of Market Street. At this location, the college restored its science and other programs and initiated many other programs as well. St. Ignatius Church was also housed on this site until the church relocated in 1914 to its present location on the corner of Fulton Street and Parker Avenue.
The “temporary” St. Ignatius Church and College as it looked in 1911. The tracks in the foreground were for a trolley that ran from downtown San Francisco past the church and college. The church bell, a survivor of the 1906 earthquake and fire, hangs in the tower to the right of the church entrance. The site, on the corner of Hayes and Shrader Streets, is now occupied by a clinic and parking structure for St. Mary’s Medical Center. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES
During the 1906–1907 academic year, 271 students attended St. Ignatius College. This included students enrolled in the eighth grade of the elementary school (grammar department), the high school, and the college. The catalog of that year outlined the curriculum for the new academic year in the collegiate department: “To fit the graduates of the College to take up with greater profit the work of professional schools, elective courses for the two undergraduate years are being prepared and will be introduced in the term beginning September, 1907. These will include higher mathematics, mechanical drawing, advanced physics and chemistry, special laboratory work, physiology, biology, modern languages, Latin, Greek and English literature, constitutional and legal history and other branches suitable to prepare one for the study of Engineering, Medicine, or Law.” The leadership of St. Ignatius College was laying the foundation for a rigorous pre-medical program and two professional schools that were created in 1912: the College of Engineering and the College of Law.
St. Ignatius College chemistry students working in their lab at the “shirt factory,” as the college was known from 1906 to 1927. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES
At the commencement exercises of St. Ignatius College, held on June 24, 1912, the president of the college, Albert Trivelli, S.J., announced the establishment of a law college and an engineering college, along with a name change for St. Ignatius College, making it a university. The 1911–1912 St. Ignatius College Catalogue announced this transformation to the wider world: “Whereas St. Ignatius College has, from its inception, maintained a high standard in the studies of belles lettres and sciences, it has, of late years, introduced incipient courses of law and engineering and it is the purpose of the Faculty to introduce, in the early fall, these two courses in their fullness. Upon formal introduction of these professional branches, the institution will assume the name UNIVERSITY, to which it will then be entitled.”
The University of St. Ignatius thus began the fall 1912 semester with an undergraduate College of Letters, Science, and Philosophy; a College of Law; a College of Engineering; and a two-year pre-medical course of study. St. Ignatius High School, officially named as such in 1909, remained connected to the university as a preparatory and feeder school. The College of Engineering was short-lived and closed its program in 1918 for want of students. The School of Law, however, has thrived since its founding, as has the university’s program for the preparation of physicians and other healthcare professionals.
The “shirt factory” was located on Hayes Street, one block from Golden Gate Park. The park is pictured here on May Day, 1915. UNIVERSITY OF SAN FRANCISCO ARCHIVES
Most of the students who attended the “shirt factory” were born and raised in San Francisco and stayed in the city after graduation. Many of them worked their way through college with part-time jobs such as driving grocery wagons or delivering parcels. All of the students walked or commuted to school. The old Hayes Street trolley was one of the most popular means of transportation to and from the campus. Edmund Kelley, from the class of 1924, described St. Ignatius as “the poor boy’s college. Stanford and Berkeley had better accommodations, but our faculty and subject matter were just as good. Our people became top judges, lawyers, doctors.” He also vividly recalled the college building: “Sometimes it was like a haunted house. The most eerie time was coming in at night for a big oral test. You walked up the crickety steps into a dark room. There was one little light over the table where the professors put you through the inquisition.” Dr. Albert Shumate of the class of 1927, who later became a prominent San Francisco physician, remembered the roughly built basement library, with shelves covered in chicken wire.
When St. Ignatius Church moved two steep blocks north to its new location on the corner of Fulton Street and Parker Avenue, the abandoned church became an all-purpose room: auditorium, theater, and basketball court. Edward Strehl of the class of 1928, who played basketball for St. Ignatius College, described how “the pillars were just a few inches from the out-of-bound lines. It was an advantage to the home team, because we knew how to knock opponents into the pillars.” Preston Devine, former presiding justice of the California Courts of Appeal, who received a bachelor’s degree from the college in 1925 and a law degree in 1927, depicted the “shirt factory” as a “building unlike any before or since. Its exterior was plain and boxlike, but inside it was indeed as labyrinthine as the maze that imprisoned Theseus. It was the Winchester House built all at one time! Once someone ordered serial numbers to be placed on all the doors and passageways and, after a few thousand had been marked, there were rumors that searching parties had been sent in to find the markers.” Justice Devine also noted that “what was laughingly called a heating system consisted of a device looking like a heated pie plate, suspended from the ceiling, creating insufferable heat for those directly below and leaving only fumes and chill for those outside the superheated circle.” Another alumnus, retired judge Herman A. van der Zee, who attended St. Ignatius from high school through law school, said simply, “It was the best education available anywhere at the time.”
St. Ignatius College, when it was known as the “shirt factory” between 1906 and 1927, is described in Jesuits by the Golden Gate: The Society of Jesus in San Francisco, 1849–1969 by John McGloin, S.J., pages 89–112. Important information about the institution during this era was also obtained from primary documents housed in the USF Jesuit community and furnished by the late Edward Stackpoole, S.J., former rector of the Jesuit community and USF professor emeritus of English. Important details about the first academic year in the “shirt factory” were also found in the St. Ignatius College Catalogue of 1906–1907 and The Senior, a student publication of the era, both documents furnished by USF’s archivist, Michael Kotlanger, S.J.
Alan Ziajka, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and University Historian