Back to the Future

USF Returns to its Downtown Roots

Written by Monica Villavicencio
B2F cover

Illustration by Daniel Chang. Photo of Folger Coffee Building by Phil Schermeister.

In the century and a half since its founding, the University of San Francisco has established itself as an educational institution of and for the city—through times of bounty, transformation, and disaster. The recent purchase of the Folger Coffee Building, which will house graduate management programs and comprise USF’s Downtown Campus, is just a short walk from the site of USF’s first schoolhouse and marks a new chapter for the university and the city. Moving into an area with neighbors like Twitter, Google, and places USF at the center of downtown’s high-tech renaissance and deepens ties between the city of San Francisco and its oldest university.

There’s an old Latin saying about the saints who founded four of the Catholic Church’s long-standing orders: “Bernard loved the valleys, and Benedict loved the hills, Francis the towns, Ignatius the great cities."

It’s no accident that St. Bernard and the Cistercians and St. Benedict and the Benedictine monks elected to live in the valleys and hills, the ideal backdrop for their lives of contemplation. The Franciscans traveled from town to town, serving the poor from the peripheries. But for St. Ignatius, the Jesuit mission of social and pastoral outreach was best carried out in the heart of 16th-century Rome. Close to the center of power, as well as the disempowered, the ministry extended to hospitals, prisons, orphanages, and schools throughout the flourishing metropolis.

That distinct brand of engagement brought St. Ignatius’ followers to the boomtown of San Francisco during the Gold Rush. The academy they established, the city’s first, bore his name and embodied his ideals. St. Ignatius Academy has had a handful of homes in the city with which it would eventually share a name. In that time, San Francisco transformed from a fledgling port of arrival for fortune seekers to one of the world’s most dynamic, entrepreneurial urban centers. USF has contributed to and been shaped by the city’s metamorphosis, enabling the two to form a symbiotic bond that continues to evolve.

Downtown Roots in the Heart of a Great City

When gold was discovered near Sacramento in 1848, thousands left their homes throughout the U.S., and from as far away as Europe, Asia, and Latin America, in hopes of striking it rich. Many docked in San Francisco, fueling an unprecedented population boom that saw the city’s ranks swell from fewer than 1,000 people to almost 35,000 in just five years. The frenzied growth brought chaos, with the city’s streets and saloons rife with gambling, brawling, prostitution, murder, and thievery.

“The Jesuits said early on, ‘We want to be where the action is. We want to be where the cities are,’ and San Francisco—that was where the action was,” said Alan Ziajka, author of “Legacy & Promise: 150 Years of Jesuit Education at the University of San Francisco” and director of institutional research at USF. “So the Jesuits came to San Francisco because that was their mission; that was their philosophy.”

The Jesuits believed there was a place for education in the midst of the disorder and sent Anthony Maraschi, S.J., to build a school. When he selected a patch of sand dunes on Market and Fourth streets, he proclaimed, “Here, in time, will be the heart of a great city.

St. Ignatius Academy opened in 1855. The small wooden schoolhouse provided more than enough space for the three students who enrolled. It was the city’s first institution of higher education.

In little more than five years, the college outgrew the space, as student enrollment approached 150. The recently renamed St. Ignatius College built a three-story, state-of-the-art brick structure adjacent to its original site. Equipped with large classrooms and a theater, the college was one of the city’s largest when it opened in 1862. Its scientific labs, added later, were renowned throughout the city, and in 1874, Joseph Neri, S.J., a professor of natural philosophy, staged the city’s first demonstration of electric light before an amazed audience. The college’s student body, largely Irish and Italian Catholic immigrants, was very much a reflection of the city it educated.

The “Golden Age of Old St. Ignatius”

Rising property taxes and enrollment pushed the Jesuits to search  for their third home in less than three decades, and, in 1880, the college reopened at the corner of Hayes and Van Ness, the current site of Davies Symphony Hall. One block from the present-day City Hall, the building was a major civic landmark, serving as a center for community outreach. The move marked the beginning of the “Golden Age of Old St. Ignatius.”  

“St. Ignatius College produced many of the people who occupied key positions—the movers and shakers of the city,” Ziajka said. “They were the group that wanted to build parks around the city, end corruption, bring more social services, and increase outreach to the community.”

Strong ties between the city and the college were further cemented throughout the early 20th century, first when the great earthquake of 1906 decimated much of the city, including St. Ignatius College. Speaking at the dedication of the college’s new site at Shrader and Hayes less than three months later, College President John Frieden, S.J., said, “Three months ago, no one would have thought that we would be ready to build a new St. Ignatius upon this site, but, undaunted by disaster, we are ready for the new work. We have never lost courage, for we know that it is God’s work and He has provided. If San Francisco is to live, we live with it; if it passes, we pass with it—but not before.”

Six years later, St. Ignatius’ first law school opened in the Grant Building at Market and Seventh—an elevator ride away from the courts, where many alumni would have successful careers.

Expanding Westward

In 1927, the entire college moved to present-day Kalmanovitz Hall and within a few years became the University of San Francisco. Being near Golden Gate Park boosted its athletics programs and broadened its student base, then entirely commuters, to include residents of the suburban western neighborhoods.

Over the following decades, USF expanded throughout the area. The School of Law got a new home with the construction of Kendrick Hall in 1962. The 1978 purchase of the former all-women’s Lone Mountain College, with its picture-perfect views of the city and the bay, almost doubled the size of the campus. In 1991, the School of Education took over the Presentation High School complex.

Nine years later, the 49,000-square-foot, three-story Dorraine Zief Law Library was built. That same year, USF leased 281 Masonic Ave., formerly Lincoln University, where some university offices and the Fine and Performing Arts Program are housed. In 2011, USF relocated several graduate programs to the Presidio.

Concentrating much of its academic and extracurricular programming and residence halls on a 55-acre site enabled USF to nurture a rich campus life—but some of the urban immediacy conferred by a downtown address was lost.

101 Howard building small

“It wasn’t like you could walk across the street to City Hall or walk two blocks to a major business,” Ziajka said. “With the Folger Building, for internships, job interviews, for getting a sense of what’s going on, you can cross the street. Despite the rapid communication of our age, there’s something to be said for being right across the street.”

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