Streetwise: Celebrating San Francisco State

by Frank Dunnigan
September 2018


Frank Dunnigan, WNP member and columnist. -

As a new academic year is underway, an important western neighborhoods institution is quietly marking a 65th birthday. San Francisco State University opened its Lake Merced campus just in time for the 1953-54 school year. Although the formal dedication ceremonies did not take place until October of 1954, classes were first held in the then-new Creative Arts building, located on Holloway Avenue between Serrano Drive and Tapia Drive in the fall of 1953.

The school, established as the “State Normal School” in 1899 on Powell Street between Clay and Sacramento Streets on Nob Hill, specialized in the training of teachers. Its first graduation exercises were held in 1901. Five years later, the earthquake and fire destroyed the original campus. The school then relocated to Buchanan and Haight Streets where it remained for many years. In 1921, the institution was renamed San Francisco State Teachers College, with the first Bachelor’s Degrees awarded two years later. It then became known as San Francisco State College in 1935 (university status was conferred much later, in 1972).

View across campus quad to Science Building of San Francisco State University., circa 1955 - San Francisco State College In Its Second Half-Century

As more and more people began attending four-year colleges, enrollment at the Buchanan and Haight campus grew. By the 1930s, overcrowding became a problem, with 3,000 students crowding into facilities designed for only 1,500. Hundreds of qualified applicants were being turned away each year until college president Alexander Roberts was able to persuade state authorities in Sacramento that the school needed additional space for expansion.

An opportunity presented itself once the Hetch Hetchy water project was completed in 1934. The State of California was able to acquire a new site for the college on city-owned watershed property (once earmarked for reservoirs) near Lake Merced. Even then, there were skirmishes among several competing parties for this land—including the Stoneson Brothers who were then planning their Lakeside development in the area.

By 1939, land had been acquired and plans were underway for an entirely new college campus in the wide-open spaces adjacent to Lake Merced near the county line. Those plans were quickly put on hold, however, with the onset of World War II. The “old campus” continued to operate, though enrollment declined because many of its students became involved in the conflict.

View west across campus quad past old library building., circa 1955 - San Francisco State College In Its Second Half-Century

The return of GIs beginning in 1945 resulted in new overcrowding at the old campus. One of the first construction projects at the Lake Merced site was “Vets Village,” a hastily-built, short-lived barracks-type housing complex for married veterans and families that opened in 1947, and it was from there that some students commuted to classes at Buchanan and Haight. The school, again bustling with activity, was authorized to begin issuing Master’s Degrees in 1949.

Full-scale campus construction at the new site soon commenced, and the gymnasium—an amenity that never existed at Buchanan and Haight—was the first major building completed in 1951, followed by the Creative Arts building in which classes were first held in the fall of 1953. The school’s population had soared since the 1930s to nearly 5,000 students at the time the Lake Merced facility opened. Formal dedication of the modernistic, low-rise campus took place in October 1954, less than two years after the opening of the adjacent Stonestown Mall.

In 1956, as part of its ongoing commitment to teacher training, San Francisco State opened the popular Frederic Burk School adjacent to the Parkmerced community. Named for the college’s first president, Frederic Lister Burk, who served from 1899-1924, the elementary school functioned as a demonstration lab, successfully introducing many new and innovative teaching methods over the next 15 years before it was closed down by the State of California at the end of the 1971 academic year.

Within a few years, changes in the curriculum began to appear. There were fewer courses in Home Economics (which became Consumer and Family Studies in 1984), and there was also a significant increase in offerings by Broadcast/Cinema (originally established as the Radio Department) and other majors. Throughout the years, though, there continued to be a heavy emphasis on courses related to the field of Education.

For the next decade, San Francisco State’s overall enrollment continued to grow by hundreds of additional students each year and, in 1958, the school opened its Downtown Center a few blocks north of Union Square, providing college access to working adults. By the 1960s, the first of a tidal wave of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) began to enter college, and once again, it was a time of expansion. By 1965, campus facilities had more than doubled from a decade earlier through additions to original buildings and construction of the Psychology building. Enrollment soon reached 10,000 students.

View south across quad past old Student Union building on right and Parkmerced apartment towers in distance., circa 1955 - San Francisco State College In Its Second Half-Century

Exactly 50 years ago, a student-faculty strike took place on campus—the longest in United States collegiate history. The confrontation began in November 1968 and quickly escalated (some would argue it began even earlier, with a May 1967 sit-in at the office of SFSU President John Summerskill). While the months-long event is filled with complex threads that cannot be adequately covered in detail here, SFSU’s own website summarizes the strike in these words:

“The five-month event defined the University’s core values of equity and social justice, laid the groundwork for establishment of the College of Ethnic Studies, and inspired the establishment of ethnic studies classes and programs at other universities throughout the country. The Black Student Union and a coalition of other student groups known as the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) led the strike, which began Nov. 6, 1968 and ended March 20, 1969. Clashes between the strikers and San Francisco Police tactical squads made national news. [Author’s note: At the same time, campus demonstrations also included protests against the ongoing war in Southeast Asia.] Students, faculty and community activists demanded equal access to public higher education, more senior faculty of color and a new curriculum that would embrace the history and culture of all people including ethnic minorities. As a result, the College of Ethnic Studies was instituted in 1969 and hundreds of other higher education institutions across the country followed SF State’s lead.”

During the strike, SFPD’s Tactical Squad was called out on multiple occasions to restore peace. Many long-time residents of the neighborhoods surrounding the school (as well as on-campus dorm residents) still have vivid memories of officers in riot gear, horse-mounted reinforcements, and the lingering smell of tear gas in the air.

The school had already seen two campus presidents come and go in 1967-68. Three weeks after the start of the strike, Canadian-born faculty member, Dr. S. I. Hayakawa of the English Department was named Acting President—an appointment that was confirmed the following year after he helped negotiate an end to the strike. It was during his tenure that the school was elevated to the status of a university and renamed “California State University-San Francisco” in 1972. Two years later in 1974, the name was changed to “San Francisco State University” with the popular abbreviation “SFSU”. Dr. Hayakawa remained campus president until his 1973 retirement and, in 1976, he ran for US Senator from California—a position he won, serving one term, though he did not seek re-election in 1982.

As the school’s student population increased by thousands each year, more new buildings were needed. In 1969, the 15-story Verducci Hall dormitory (named for a long-time coach) opened on the west side of campus near Lake Merced Boulevard. As one of the tallest building in the western neighborhoods (nearby Parkmerced’s towers are only 13 stories), it was home to tens of thousands of students over the years. Residents of the nearby nine-story Stonestown Apartments reported that they were sometimes unwilling spectators of various “social activities” taking place in the hundreds of rooms at Verducci Hall due to the dorm’s large windows. The October 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake caused significant structural damage, and Verducci was permanently closed. Nearly a decade later, it was demolished by implosion in March 1999 and replaced with recreation fields and tennis courts. New student housing—the Village at Centennial Square—was built nearby and named to commemorate the school’s 100th anniversary.

View east to Student Union building., May 20, 2017 - WNP photo

Six more buildings were added in the early 1970s, including several on the east side of campus near 19th Avenue, and by 1974, the number of enrolled students surpassed 20,000 for the first time. The Cesar Chavez Student Center, opened in 1975, is an architecturally dominant five-level building located in the center of the campus. With towering concrete wings soaring above a rooftop terrace, it houses dining facilities, the college bookstore, offices for student organizations, and an art gallery.

The 1980s/90s saw major seismic retrofits throughout the campus, new Humanities and Associated Students Children’s Center buildings, corporation yard/central plant, an addition to the Arts and Industry building, and renovation of the Chavez student center, including universal access.

Student housing and parking remained serious issues for the campus as the new millennium approached. As the school continued growing (27,000 students and 3,000+ faculty/staff by the year 2000), streets in the adjacent Parkmerced neighborhood became a virtual parking lot for many hours each day. In response, massive parking facilities were built near the west side of campus.

In 2005, the school again expanded its housing with the purchase of four high-rise apartment towers and dozens more low-rise units along Buckingham Way (Stonestown Apartments), renaming them University Park-North. In addition, 66 garden apartments along Holloway Avenue, opposite the school’s library, were purchased from Parkmerced and became known as University Park-South.

In 2008, the J. Paul Leonard Library, originally built in 1953 (with major expansions in 1959 and 1971), underwent a massive remodel/retrofit. Completed in 2012, the library now holds more than 1.5 million titles, has a user-count of over 45,000 persons per week, and houses a ground-floor research center that is open 24 hours a day. When work was completed, the Sutro Library—a branch of the California State Library—relocated here from a stand-alone building on nearby Winston Drive behind Stonestown, where it had been operating since the 1980s. In addition to the Sutro holdings, SFSU’s library also houses the university’s archives and other special collections, including the Bay Area Television Archive and also the Labor Archives and Research Center.

In 2015, construction began on the massive (120,000 square feet) Mashouf Wellness Center, located at the corner of Lake Merced and Font Boulevards, across from the Harding Park Golf Course, on playing-field property purchased from Parkmerced. The center opened in 2017 with gym facilities, an elevated indoor jogging track, outdoor fields, weight and fitness space, lap and recreation pools, climbing wall, racquetball courts, multi-purpose/group fitness studios, plus locker rooms and storage/support space.

As housing in San Francisco continues to increase in cost, SFSU has future plans for construction of new student living spaces along Holloway Avenue to replace the apartments purchased from Parkmerced. In addition, rebuilding plans at Parkmerced itself are certain to help SFSU by introducing additional housing opportunities (including below-market-rate units) for students, faculty, and staff, plus improved MUNI operations on the M-Oceanview line.

Today, San Francisco State is one of the largest local employers and one of the city’s busiest destinations, attracting more than 30,000 students from virtually every state and 100+ different countries. Admission is considered “moderately difficult” with only 68% of applicants accepted. Today’s student body is 56% female and 44% male, and more than 75% self-identify as an ethnicity other than Caucasian. Costs for full-time students living on campus (including tuition, room, meals, books, supplies, and personal expenses) is $26,720. Out-of-state and International students pay $372.00 per unit in addition to tuition and living expenses.

Now conferring more than 7,000 degrees annually—including Bachelor’s Degrees in 124 areas, Master’s Degrees in 105, Doctorates in three (some in conjunction with UC-Berkeley and University of California-San Francisco) plus 11 credential programs and 36 certificate programs—the school has come a long way from its 1899 roots, while still living up to its traditional motto: Experientia Docet—Experience Teaches.


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