by Frank Dunnigan
Few motorists speeding through the Sunset District along 19th Avenue realize the presence of a San Francisco landmark that is approaching its 100th birthday.
Located at 1601 Nineteenth Avenue is the brick-fronted building that was constructed as Shriners Hospital in 1922-23. It remains architecturally significant and also represents an era when private philanthropy regularly contributed to the public good. It is also a marvelous example of adaptive reuse for a neighborhood landmark after its original purpose is history.
Founded in an era when healthcare was not often covered by insurance, a Masonic society known as The Shriners established a nationwide chain of hospital facilities for children whose families could not afford rehabilitation services. These hospitals were inclusive, accepting patients regardless of race, religion or country of origin - a practice that was not at all universal in that era.
It was at a Shriners Convention in Portland in 1920 that members voted unanimously to establish Shriners Hospitals for Children, serving those up to 14 years of age. Eventually, the system grew to 20+ locations across the country. The first was in Shreveport, Louisiana in 1922 and San Francisco soon became the third site.
With the building set well back from the street (did someone 100 years ago anticipate increased traffic in the future and the widening of 19th Avenue in the pre-World War II years?) the structure was designed by the firm of Weeks and Day, which also developed plans for San Francisco apartment houses and hotels. Hospital staff provided a wide range of treatments to their young patients, including surgery, physical therapy, and recreational activities.
North and south wings were connected to the main building and the campus occupied a full city block bounded by Lawton, Moraga, 19th, and 20th Avenues. In the late 1960s, the hospital built an extension on an additional one-half block of vacant property south of Moraga Street between 19th and 20th Avenues. Obtaining City permission to close off a portion of Moraga west of 19th Avenue at that time, the hospital added a modern annex, connected to the main structure, with the new wing known as 1701 Nineteenth Avenue. The expanded facility continued to serve patients and their families for another 25+ years. In this 1969 aerial shot, the hospital complex is shown toward the left middle of the image:
Times and technologies change, though, and by the 1990s, Shriners Hospital was the sole remaining pre-World War II hospital in active use in San Francisco, and it was in need of many structural and technological upgrades. Based on many factors - an expansion of the Bay Area population into once "remote" counties, plus increased costs associated with operating a stand-alone facility, the Shriners announced in August of 1990 that a new hospital would be built in Sacramento adjacent to other health care facilities and more accessible to patients and their families.
The initial plan called for their sale of 5-acre Sunset District parcel to a developer who would demolish all the hospital structures and cover the site with a blanket of single-family homes. Neighborhood opposition arose, with local residents citing increased congestion, severe reduction of open garden spaces, and the loss of an architecturally significant building.
Regardless of the outcome, the hospital proceeded with its closure plan and the new Shriners Hospital for Northern California opened its doors in Sacramento by April of 1997. The 19th Avenue campus then sat vacant as controversies over its future use swirled throughout the neighborhood.
Not everyone agreed on the housing plan that had been proposed, and the battle quickly heated up. Neighbors pursued landmark status for the 1920s building to prevent demolition, and that was granted by the City in 1998 when the structure was officially recognized as SF Landmark #221 - though with an admonition by City planners that the hospital, neighborhood preservationists, and developers would all have to work together on a solution that would prove beneficial to everyone.
Within a year, a new plan emerged to preserve the main hospital structure that would become the centerpiece of a new assisted-living facility. In addition, there would also be a connected 4-story building with more residential units on the 20th Avenue side of the property for the new senior living community. The final piece of the puzzle was City approval for the demolition of both the south wing and the 1969-70 addition, replacing it with single-family townhouses (as well as allowing the closed portion of Moraga Street to remain closed as part of the new housing construction).
Once this agreement was in place, demolition began, along with new construction, plus interior and exterior renovation of the remaining building. Although most of the old structure was gutted for individual living units and offices for the senior living complex, the 2nd floor nurses' library was preserved as a common area amenity, complete with the original beamed ceiling, tiled fireplace, and moldings. In addition, several interior mosaics and other architectural details from throughout the building were preserved and restored.
On the exterior, brick work was cleaned and restored, and architectural medallions depicting classical images of children being healed - part of the original construction but moved to the 1969-70 addition - were rescued and reinstalled on the 19th Avenue façade of the building. Construction also proceeded on the new 4-story building at the corner of 20th & Lawton which includes the bulk of the assisted living units. The grounds were refurbished, some onsite parking added, and most of the decades-old trees on the hospital property were incorporated into the design.
The new development welcomed its first residents to the assisted living complex early in this millennium, while the separately-built townhouses as the south end of the property were sold individually. Resales of the townhouses are relatively infrequent today, and they have steadily risen in value. In a small nod to history, the City approved a new north-south street in the area between the 19th Avenue-facing townhouses and those facing 20th Avenue. Appropriately, this new street is known as "Shriners Avenue".
What emerged from the early disagreements more than 30 years ago has been a viable solution that proved beneficial to all the interested parties.
Hear more about the history of this location in WNP Podcast #276, first broadcast on May 19, 2018:
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