When it appeared as though Lone Mountain College would close in 1978, then-USF President John Lo Schiavo, S.J. saw an opportunity to help shape the university’s future. The purchase of the Lone Mountain property paved the way for a range of advancements at USF, including a larger student body and a wider variety of majors. Without Lone Mountain, USF wouldn’t be what it is today.
THE YEAR was 1978 and the University of San Francisco was hurting. Like colleges across the country, USF faced declining enrollment as the last of the Baby Boomers moved through their college years. Finances were tight. It was hardly the time to buy property.
Yet that’s precisely what then-President John Lo Schiavo, S.J. had in mind when it looked as though Lone Mountain College would close and its 23-acre property with panoramic views of the city would be for sale.
“I was bound and determined to not let this possibility pass us by,” said Fr. Lo Schiavo, now USF chancellor. “I didn’t want my successors 50 years from now to think, ‘Who was this jackass who passed up the opportunity to buy the most valuable piece of real estate in San Francisco?’”
That may be hyperbole, but it’s no exaggeration to say that the purchase of Lone Mountain was a defining moment of Fr. Lo Schiavo’s presidency and one of the most significant events in USF’s history. With the purchase, USF almost doubled its physical size and, most importantly, paved the way for other advancements.
Lone Mountain’s importance is clear from the moment prospective students set foot on USF’s campus. Admission tours begin on Lone Mountain, instantly stamping it as an integral—and postcard perfect—part of USF. “When students get up here, they say, ‘Oh my god, this is so cool. What a view you have,’” said BJ Johnson, vice provost and dean for academic and enrollment services.
But Lone Mountain’s importance extends far beyond its picturesque appearance. Since acquiring the property and the accompanying Spanish Gothic building, USF has made the campus its own, remodeling some existing dorm rooms into classrooms and offices, and transforming the building’s chapel into One Stop, the central location for key offices such as the registrar and financial aid. The university also extensively renovated the old Lone Mountain auditorium and turned it into offices for business and finance, and information technology services.
In fact, Lone Mountain is now home to many administrative offices that were previously housed on the lower campus. The offices of the president and vice president for academic affairs, for example, once occupied space in University Center. Moving those and various other administrative offices to Lone Mountain freed significant space on the lower campus for student needs, faculty offices, meeting spaces, and more.
Add in the classrooms and residence halls Lone Mountain already had when USF purchased it and it becomes clear how important the campus is to USF’s success. Simply put, Lone Mountain has allowed USF to accommodate a larger student body both in classrooms and residence halls, which helped the university employ more faculty, offer more majors, and begin building its endowment, Fr. Lo Schiavo said. Quite frankly, he said, if it weren’t for Lone Mountain, USF would be a much smaller school with many fewer amenities. Johnson estimates the university would have between 30 and 40 percent fewer undergraduate students without the property.
“There’s no way we would be able to accommodate the students we serve without Lone Mountain,” she said. Yet because Lone Mountain has become such a key part of USF it’s easy to overlook the property’s rich history, which dates back to California’s Gold Rush. At the time, Lone Mountain was home to Calvary Cemetery, where successful gold miners, silver barons, wealthy businessmen, and politicians were laid to rest. After San Francisco outlawed burials within city limits in 1900, some bodies were removed from Lone Mountain and reburied in Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, but the cemetery remained for several decades. By the late 1920s, Archbishop Edward Hanna of San Francisco saw another use for the land—a Roman Catholic women’s college.
The honor of building and running such a school went to the Religious of the Sacred Heart. The nuns contracted to have the remaining bodies removed for reburial, leveled a significant portion of the mountaintop to create a flat building area, and began construction. The San Francisco College for Women officially opened in 1932 atop Lone Mountain.
The liberal arts college quickly drew young Catholic women from San Francisco and beyond who studied a range of topics, including literature, art, music, theology, history, science, languages, and mathematics. At their beloved college on the hill, students participated in sports, held dances in the ballroom, and dated USF boys from just down the hill—all under the watchful eyes of the nuns. The young women also forged lifelong ties with each other and with the nuns in their lives, often forming close bonds.
“We were family, you could just count on it,” said Shirley Connolly, LM ’58, former president of Alumnae of the Sacred Heart-San Francisco. “There was a real love for learning and teaching that the religious shared with us.”
By 1960, nearly 800 women were enrolled at the college, many supported by the alumnae’s generosity. Yet by the middle of that decade, the popularity of women’s colleges had begun to decline, and enrollment at the San Francisco College for Women was especially hard-hit when USF became completely co-educational in 1964.
Five years later, the San Francisco College for Women followed the co-educational trend, changing its name to Lone Mountain College and replacing its traditional liberal arts focus with an experimental, more “New Age” curriculum.
The changes, however, were not enough to save the college. Enrollment continued to spiral downward, alumnae support dropped off, and the college faced insurmountable financial problems. It was against this backdrop that the president of Lone Mountain College approached Fr. Lo Schiavo at the beginning of the 1977-78 academic year about securing a $700,000 loan to help the college make it through the spring semester.
USF wasn’t in stellar financial shape itself, but Fr. Lo Schiavo knew the university had just sold land in Novato and had coincidentally received about $700,000 for it. And, he sensed, making the loan would provide an opportunity to negotiate a loan agreement that would give USF the right of first refusal if the property were to be sold.
By February 1978, Lone Mountain College had decided to close, and despite USF’s financial struggles at the time, Fr. Lo Schiavo had no hesitation about buying the property. He said USF was “managing” with the space it had, but he foresaw a day when the college would need much more room. “You’ve gotta remember, I’m Italian and Italians like land,” he said. “I was thinking ahead, ‘We will grow and we will need this land.’” With the backing of the USF Board of Trustees and pledges secured, Fr. Lo Schiavo made an offer.
To set the price, USF agreed to make Lone Mountain College whole financially, taking care of the college’s debts, separation costs, and assorted other bills. The total, including contingencies, came to $5.8 million. An appraisal later put the value at about $20 million. But, Fr. Lo Schiavo said, it wasn’t as though USF withheld money from the college; USF simply didn’t have any more to offer.
Lone Mountain’s governing board—including several nuns who had retained the right to veto any offer—approved USF’s offer, Fr. Lo Schiavo said. “They wanted to see it continue as part of a Catholic university.”
Despite that connection, many alumni were brokenhearted to see their college close. “Most were hurt and angry when they knew the college was going to close,” Connolly said. “Things like that just weren’t supposed to happen.” USF did its best to ease the transition, hiring key employees from Lone Mountain, preserving the student records of alumni, and accepting students in the middle of their studies at Lone Mountain.
Still, despite USF’s changes to the property, glimpses of Lone Mountain’s past can be found, including in a nook on the third floor. There, a statue of Mater Admirabilis, a specific representation of the Virgin Mary found in all Sacred Heart institutions, greets students—students for whom USF would not be what it is today without Lone Mountain.
There’s a reason why even now—31 years later—some still refer to the acquisition of Lone Mountain as USF’s Louisiana Purchase.
“It’s such an apt comparison,” said Alan Ziajka, director of institutional research and author of Legacy and Promise, a book about USF’s first 150 years. “In the case of the United States, the Louisiana Purchase opened up the whole Midwest, almost doubled the size of the nation, and paved the way for westward expansion. In a sense, Fr. Lo Schiavo’s purchase of Lone Mountain played a similar role in the history of USF, in that it ensured the eventual growth of the university.”