Part of a series of articles about Sunnyside School.
Despite the profiteers who sold lots in Sunnyside in the early 1890s primarily as investments, families did move here, and they had children–often lots of them. But there was no school. Then they were given only a rented cottage for a one-class school. The story of how long it took before the district finally built a real schoolhouse here is a lesson in both City government corruption and the perseverance of the early residents.
After multiple requests from residents, and promises of donated land from the property company, the school board merely rented a small cottage for a one-class school in 1896, which only accommodated the youngest children. Older children had to attend Fairmount School, on Chenery Street near Randall.
It was another 13 years before the City actually built a school in Sunnyside. During those years, residents here–working-class people who mostly left little trace in the public record–persisted in the fight for a real schoolhouse through repeated disappointments.
The house that served as the first school still stands at 143 Flood Avenue.
Conditions in this house were described in the newspapers later:
“The building in use at present is not only overcrowded, but is unfit for use as a school. It is a one-story and attic structure and the children are practically herded into it like sheep into a pen. On the upper floor are two classrooms, which may be reached only by a crooked stairway. The door at the foot of this stairway opens outwardly into the lower hall, and in case of panic would effectually block all egress. The classrooms are small, poorly ventilated, and overcrowded, three pupils frequently occupying seats intended but for two.” SF Call, 2 February 1904.
The Fight Begins
The story of how this played out is well-documented in the news. The story from the beginning: requests by organized residents for a schoolhouse began in March 1893, with a petition to the Board of Education for a four-class school, saying there were already eighty children in the district. A Sunnyside Land Company representative claimed there were 150 children. (SF Call, 7 May 1893; SF Chronicle, 10 May 1893.) The school board agreed to their demand, and said an eight-class school would be appropriate.
The Sunnyside Land Company made the promise of two lots (or maybe three, the article is not clear on this). A total of five lots were said to be needed, and the land company promised these at a discount. Neither the land company nor the Board would come through on these promises, and there was no mention of a school for Sunnyside in the news for two years.
In 1895 things heated up again; in June residents submitted another petition to the school board. And by December the board said they would appoint a special committee, and begin construction as soon as the land company donated “a lot.” You cannot build a real schoolhouse on a single lot, so this was an odd statement, and didn’t bode well. And indeed, no building was begun.
No Schoolhouse, Just a Cottage
In January 1896 it looked like something would happen. There was a mass meeting of residents at Dasse’s Hall on Circular Ave, with representatives of both the Sunnyside Land Company, and Baldwin and Hammond (who sold lots in the area that would soon be called Glen Park) attending, as well as a School Director. The meeting was taken as an opportunity to form a new neighborhood association, and the Sunnyside Improvement Club. A committee was formed to work for a school, with John A. Johnson and Eugene Dasse named to it.
The board rented the cottage that was then 115 Flood Avenue (now 143), supposedly just for one year while building a schoolhouse, at a cost per month of $15 ($420 today), paid to one J.O.Fair.
Here forty children in the youngest grades began attending February 1896. [Numbering on Sunnyside’s long blocks was altered in 1909, and this house now has the number 143.]
This arrangement was to be called out as inadequate for the requirements of teaching several times in the coming years. Although the board clearly promised construction of a schoolhouse by July 1897, this did not happen (SF Chronicle, 9 Feb 1896). By the end of that year an additional class was added, and by 1900 the little house held four classes of students.
The First Schoolmistress
The school board appointed Catherine F. Riordan (1874-1933) as principal of the new school, which meant of course she also taught its only class. She was a 21-year-old woman who had been teaching at another school downtown. A woman of some ambition, she earned a credential to teach grammar school a few months later (SF Call, 22 April 1896).
Besides census and directory records for Miss Riordan—Kitty to her friends and family—there was one tidbit in the news. A month after she started her work at Sunnyside School, this classified ad appeared in the Lost and Found.
Taking the electric sreetcar home from work–as she must have–she left her purse on the car before she transferred at 30th Street, as anyone headed downtown was required to do.
She lived downtown with her widowed mother Mary Riordan and three of her grown unmarried siblings. The purse may have been a gift from her brother Cornelius, who worked at dry goods stores that sold fine leather goods. Her older brother “Honest Dan” Riordan was a turn-of the-century Tenderloin figure, whose bar at 91 Eddy was a gathering place for literary, theatrical, and newspaper people (SF Call, 5 Dec 1913).
Miss Riordan stayed seven years at Sunnyside School, and then was appointed principal of Sheridan School in Oceanview, where she served for almost thirty years until her retirement in 1932 (San Francisco Public Schools Bulletin, Vol.4, No.27).
There is only one item to hint at her possibly stern character: she fires the janitress of Sunnyside School, Mrs Edwards, for insubordination and impertinence in 1900 (SF Chronicle, 3 Nov 1900).
Kitty Riordan never married, devoting herself instead to public education. In her later years she bought an apartment building on Jones Street, which apparently provided her with rental income, and which she gave to her spinster niece (SF Assessor-Recorder, sales records), who had lived with her in her later years (US Census, 1920 and 1930).
The Fight Continues for Sunnyside
Back to Sunnyside. The families in the neighborhood had a school, but it was cramped, and only for the youngest children. Now it was 1897, and the school board was supposed to have finished a new schoolhouse. It became obvious to the residents that this promise wouldn’t be kept, so they held another mass meeting.
John A. Johnson again led the way, and another petition was submitted to the school board. Over the course of the preceding year, the number of students attending had increased, and there were many children in the district who were compelled to go to schools outside the neighborhood. The group also took the meeting as an opportunity to express their appreciation to the two teachers, Miss Riordan and Miss Brown.
Within a month, they had procured another promise from the school board for a schoolhouse. Of course, money must be found to build it. That summer J.B. Hill of the Sunnyside Improvement Club went before the Board of Supervisors to argue that it should be built. In August 1897 the headline ran “Sunnyside Hopeful” (SF Call, 18 August 1897).
“The school directors have given them hopes that if the Supervisors make anything like a reasonable appropriation a schoolhouse will be provided in that locality within a short period after the money has been provided for the purpose” (ibid).
Another Round of Nothing
But the following month, instead of a schoolhouse, Sunnyside was allotted a mere $8000, for “permanent improvements.” There were no specifics discussed, but this amount would have been insufficient to construct a school building. Perhaps work was done on the cottage, for soon there would be multiple classes in the house. There was no mention of the money beyond this, in any case.
Next summer, June 1898, the residents were in for another merry-go-round with the school board. The board stated its intention to apportion $20,000 for a new Sunnyside school, for the lot and building. But that went south, along with money for other neighborhoods that needed schools.
That did not deter Sunnysiders, who showed up at the September school board meeting with yet another petition, asking for a new building and saying that “a lot” has been donated by the land company. The request was “placed on file.” In October they returned again, asking again for a building, and informing the board that “the present rented shack is an eyesore and unfit for the purposes of a school.”
This time our heroic committee of neighbors was referred to Mayor Phelan himself, who said something might be done, by raiding the firemen’s fund. This doesn’t sound like a promising offer, and indeed within a couple weeks, his empty promise was shown up for what it is, a swindle and a fraud.
More Children; More Empty Talk
The cottage school, cramped as conditions were, continued to grow. In the following month the school board appointed another teacher, Miss M. O’Brien, who was the third to be assigned to Sunnyside (SF Call, 15 Dec 1898).
Hardly a month passed before another neighborhood contingent returned to City Hall and presented the school board with another petition. This time the newly formed Sunnyside Progressive Improvement Club wanted a twelve-room schoolhouse (SF Call, 8 and 26 Jan, 1899). But their timing couldn’t have been less propitious: the school district was in a tumult, with mass firings and reclassifications of teachers (which looks a bit like the annual pink-slip madness of SFUSD a century later).
Work by Sunnyside residents for a schoolhouse continued through 1899, now led by Gustave Schnee and the re-formed Sunnyside Improvement Club. In late January 1899 the school board again asked for $20,000 for a Sunnyside school, just as they had the previous summer. Sunnysiders by this time had joined with the Mission Federation of Improvement Clubs, a consortium of like-minded residents spanning several neighborhoods, to press harder for schools for all the neighborhoods around the Mission.
By October the Board of Supervisors was considering putting a bond issue before the voters, asking for $27 million, of which the school board was asking $1.4 million. That included money for an eight-room schoolhouse for Sunnyside, as well as needed schools and additions for other districts.
Meanwhile the little cottage school got a change of teachers. Miss Brown, who took a leave of absence, was replaced by Miss D.A. Dowd. By the time of the 1900 SF directory, the school was listed as having four classes.
In January 1900 the Progressive Improvement Club was back at the school board again. Resident Gustave Schnee spoke for all, telling the board that the children there “are menaced by fire in the present school and the seating is inadequate” (SF Call, 25 Jan 1900).
During the previous year this active group of neighbors had built a new meeting hall at 10 Flood Ave (near Circular, building now gone). They asked the board to remove the school to the meeting hall where there was more room for the children. I did not find any reason to believe that this actually happened, or that the Hall was in anyway used as a school facility.
More Empty Talk, More Outrage
In April 1900, the school board again made a plug for a new school, this time estimating $40,000 for the building and $7,500 for the lots. This estimate marked a change in scale—twice as much money, and no longer assuming that an adequate school could be built on a single donated lot.
Another teacher joined the Sunnyside faculty, Miss M. Kyne, who left the substitute rolls for this permanent position. The school remained in a cramped cottage.
In May 1900, Gustave Schnee went before the Supervisors’ Finance Committee, outraged at the expenditure of money he called “wasted” by improvements made to Union Square “while Mission children sit three to a seat at school.” He asked for funds to build school for Sunnyside, as well as the Excelsior and Noe Valley.
The next time there was serious discussion of a school for Sunnyside is one full year later, May 1901, when the same estimated costs are referred to. School Director James Denman says “In the Sunnyside district the population is such that a new school is needed, and $47,500 will give us a fair building and lot.” By November, the headline ran thus: “Sunnyside Gets a New School.” The location was to be between Flood and Spreckels (now Staples) Avenues on the Foerster Street end, (approximately catty-corner to the current location of the school). We’ll see.
It’s Always Something
But it was an election year, and this appeared to put everything about a school for Sunnyside back into question—the money, the location, the timing. Mayor Phelan is replaced by Eugene Schmitz, the puppet of notorious Boss Abe Ruef. This flagrantly corrupt administration was the subject of several books over the course of the twentieth century, and has recently returned to the public’s consciousness; there have been comparisons with the current SF Mayor, Ed Lee, who appears to take his marching orders from wealthy non-elected personages with the same good-natured submissiveness as Eugene Schmitz did a century before him.
In December 1901, Mayor-elect Schmitz made a personal visit to Sunnyside, surely the first-ever such visitation by so high a city official. Of course “Attorney Ruef” was present (SF Call, 17 Dec 1901). This happened on the instigation of activist Gustave Schnee, who took them around to the various potential school locations favored by different residents.
It was at this point that one future school site that had not been mentioned before comes into play: the block between Joost Ave and Bosworth Street that is the current location of Glen Park Elementary School. I will say more about this later.
To return to Sunnyside. After his visit, Mayor Schmitz had promised Sunnyside a school (SF Call, 17 December 1901). By spring of the next year, the School board was asking for more money to make it happen. In April Gustave Schnee and 103 other Sunnysiders visited the Mayor to remind him of his promise (SF Chronicle, 2 April 1902). It was at this meeting that the exact location is mentioned, the original fifteen lots that made up the property for the first purpose-built schoolhouse for Sunnyside, between Hearst and Flood Avenues, east of Foerster Street (SF Chronicle, 2 April 1902).
The school board stated it will buy this property, for $5250. It was a good pick because of being relatively flat, but at this point in Sunnyside’s history, there were very few houses nearby, as the map above shows. These lots were actually purchased from Sunnyside Land Company on 19 July 1902, according to the board’s annual reports in coming years (lots 10-23, block 19, Sunnyside).
One of these few houses on that block was located in the “notch” of the south-east corner of the current school lot, 250 Flood Ave (236 then). This house was built by a well-settled Sunnyside family, the Bassetts, in 1899, and surely they would have been unwilling to sell up just to fill out the corner of the school lot. In 1907 the map maker for the Block Book is not so sure the arrangement is permanent, and so doesn’t mark that corner with his blue wax pencil:
A month later a group calling itself the Merchants’ Association objected to the City spending public money to buy these lots, because they said the location is too far from most houses, and that the city should use property it already owned, such as the site of the former Sunnyside Powerhouse. This was the flatiron block between Monterey Blvd, Circular Ave, and Baden Street, which is very steeply sloped; no reasonable-sized playground could ever have been constructed on this site.
Caught in Middle of a Fight
Then for one full year, nothing was heard in the newspapers about a school for Sunnyside. When it came up again, in April 1903, the matter was entangled in a row between the City Auditor and the school board (SF Call, 3 April 1903). The board had raised money for its school-building projects with a 7.5-cent levy, but the Auditor challenged the legality of this maneuver. The school board was forced to ask the Board of Supervisors for money for the new schoolhouses it had planned, because the Auditor refused to allow the levy money to be used.
Thus hamstrung, the school board decided in January 1904 to reconfigure the local Sunnyside meeting hall (at 10 Flood Ave) as a three-room school. The conditions in the cottage school were described as “One room, ten by fifteen feet, contain[ing] 35 pupils.” This ad hoc solution had been suggested before, and again it did not happen.
In February 1904, School Director Boyle and a contingent of school board officials came out to Sunnyside to inspect the situation. There is a long account in the SF Call that is quite touching: seemingly everyone in Sunnyside turned out for the event, and had something to say to the visitors. “The directors got enough practical advice to last a lifetime and incidentally some exercise in hill climbing and ditch leaping.” [See post on the Creek for more about those ditches.]
A kind of compromise was affected. The cottage was to remain in use with some improvements; temporary buildings were also to be erected on a “central location” in the district (likely on the site of current school), and Boyle recommended building a new school “on Joost Ave”—that is, the site of the current Glen Park School. He made this recommendation despite the fact that many Sunnyside residents told Boyle that this site was too close to the railroad and too far to one end of the district.
Over all, though, the event and the resulting plan seemed to defuse the tension and irritation felt all round the district, as headlines in both the Call and the Chronicle ran along these lines: “Both Factions Now Satisfied.”
But before either a Sunnyside or a Glen Park School was built, the City had something overwhelming to deal with: the Great Quake and Fire of 1906.
Glen Park vs Sunnyside
Apparently for a while before the “compromise” in 1904, there had been tension between those favoring building a school on a site in Sunnyside, and those wanting one built at the site of the current Glen Park School (between Joost and Bosworth, Lippard and Brompton). This latter property was purchased by the school board in March 1905.
One year later, on the day before the 1906 Quake, the Board of Education denied there was any cause for alarm on the part of Sunnyside residents; the new schoolhouse “will be built”—so we may deduce nothing had been built in the previous year (SF Call, 17 April 1906). During the week that followed, the architectural plans for the first Glen Park School were destroyed in the Great Fire (SF Call 29 Sept 1906).
Now Sunnysiders began again to petition for their schoolhouse. In September 1906, John Barrett, active again now that Gustav Schnee had left the district, led the way. He told the school board how bad the situation was: “A small cottage has been rented that is entirely inadequate to meet the needs of the residents.” The Sunnyside residents he spoke for favored the site at Hearst Ave and Foerster Street. But the reporter noted that some residents wanted a school on Berkshire (that is, the Glen Park site). New plans needed to be be drawn up and bids sought.
The Glen Park School was then built during 1907, but it was actually called “Sunnyside School” in the 1907 Directory, then changed by the 1908 issue.
Glen Park School opened in early 1908, and its first graduating class held their exercises the following June (SF Chronicle, 22 June 1908).
Finally, a Real Schoolhouse for Sunnyside
Shortly after the opening of the Glen Park School in 1908, the funds, plans, and bids for a real Sunnyside School, in its current location, were procured by the school board. It was built during 1908, and opened on Sunday 11 April 1909 with great fanfare. About time.
In 1903, after Miss Riordan left, a new principal for the cottage-school was appointed, Mrs Emma S. Code (1842 – 1915), a widow who had been teaching for many decades in SF schools. In Mrs Code’s obituary in 1915, it mentions that she was a gold rush pioneer of March 1849, arriving in one of the first waves of fortune-seekers, though she would have been a child with her family then. Still, it would have been a remarkable thing to have had a Forty-Niner for a teacher.
Mrs Code then had the privilege of opening the new schoolhouse at Hearst and Foerster in April 1909, though she transferred to head another school in the district in the following year. Miss Janette Ephraim replaced her as principal of Sunnyside School in 1910.
The cottage was still listed in the Directory as Sunnyside Annex School until 1911, but I don’t find evidence for how or why it was used. The school board appeared to stop paying rent for it the month before the new schoolhouse opened. The new building at Hearst and Foerster was at first called Sunnyside Primary School. After 1911, it was called simply Sunnyside School. The new building had its own problems–more on this in the next post.
Next post: Sunnyside School: the first real schoolhouse, 1909 to 1927
Details and credits for news montage at beginning (left to right):
The Board of Education…” SF Call, 29 Dec 1895;
“False Hopes Held Out” SF Chronicle, 1 Nov 1898;
“Sunnyside Gets a New School” SF Call, 21 Nov 1901;
“New Schoolhouse to be Erected” SF Call, 23 Oct 1906.
All from newspapers.com.
4 thoughts on “Sunnyside School: the cottage-house years, 1896 to 1911”
[…] rather than drag the process out for a decade, as the City had with the first provisional school (more here), that new building went up in just a few […]
I’m attempting to track down the school song. “We wear the yellow, green and white with pride…”
Hi Steven — I will contact my coterie of old students and ask — What would be your question for them? -Amy
We are the new-ish owners of 143 Flood Ave, and having heard a neighbor say that our house was the old school house, I went on a search to learn more. This is a fascinating account, we had no idea about the house’s history – in fact, it was surprising to learn that the structure was here prior to 1908 – in the real estate and insurance records it’s shown as built in 1908. Thanks for all the hard work in compiling this amazing account!