School Alley & the Early History of Garfield Elementary

Yesterday I went on a tour of Garfield Elementary School located at 420 Filbert St. on Telegraph Hill. At the end of the tour I noticed a picture of President James A. Garfield on the wall with a short bio, ending with this question and answer: “Was Garfield Elementary named after President Garfield? We are not sure.”

President Garfield-Garfield School

The key to the early history of Garfield Elementary begins with a tiny alleyway up hill to the east called School Alley that opens from the west side of Montgomery Street, between Union and Alta streets. This alley used to access the rear of Garfield back when the school was known as the Union Street School, located on the north side of Union Street, mid-block between Kearny and Montgomery.

Built on a lot purchased from J. L. Folsom in 1854, the Union Street School was a two-story brick building that the Daily Alta described in 1855 as “large and commodious.”^ Likewise, in 1856 Colville’s City Directory reported it “well constructed and admirably adapted to its purposes.” At this time, the school was K-12 in today’s terms, with around 400 kids. (Daily Alta, April 6, 1856, p. 2, c. 4; Sacramento Union, Dec. 25, 1854, p. 2, c. 2; Daily Alta, April 1, 1855, p. 2, c. 3; Colville’s City Directory of 1856, p. xliv)

School Alley
School Alley today, opening from Montgomery Street, between Union and Alta. Is it possible those bricks are from the old Union Street School building?

In 1855, during the Post-Gold Rush Depression, the Chronicle reported, “we found in the Union street school much to extol. The order was perfect. The discipline excellent. We found fine intellect well directed. We found happy, attentive, and, apparently, earnest teachers, a beautiful, airy, clean house, with maps, globes, pictures, flowers, statuettes, to make it a place pleasant for teachers and pupils.” In 1857, high schoolers were removed from the school and sent elsewhere; the school became elementary and middle school, i.e. Union Grammar School. In 1858, it closed for a time so the lot could be graded, and as well, the school house was “entirely refitted.” (Sacramento Union, June 18, 1855, p. 2, c. 1; Daily Alta, March 13, 1857, p. 4, c. 2; Langley’s City Directory of 1858, p. 363; Daily Alta, Dec. 1857, p. 18, c. 3; June 12, 1858, p. 2, c. 3)

Interestingly, in 1860, with its relation to the heart of the city (Portsmouth Square) and what became known as the Barbary Coast (Pacific Street — also the word hoodlum came out of San Francisco at this time) along with steady immigration (around 60,000 people in San Francisco compared to 20,000 in 1850), the Daily Alta commented: “Yesterday, a necessarily hasty and consequently, to some extent, unsatisfactory visit was paid to the Union street School. This is one of the largest, and from the heterogenous material thrown together, the most intractable of any of the schools of the city. Very many pupils are children of persons who have, through poverty, been compelled to labor constantly for their support, and thereby forced to neglect their little ones, although perhaps disposed to bring them up properly. Others, exposed to all the temptations which beset the young in large cities, have become wayward and refractory, and totally oblivious to the signification of the word ‘obediance.'” Today of course, “heterogenous material thrown together” is something celebrated about San Francisco! That said, following examinations in December of that year with the elementary students, the same paper reported, “from the deportment of the pupils, male and female, during the examination, and the apt manner in which the most difficult questions were solved by them, we should judge the Grammar department of the Union street School is second to none in San Francisco.” (Daily Alta, Aug. 4, 1860, p. 2, c. 2; Daily Alta, Dec. 15, 1860, p. 1, c. 2)

Union Street School-1856
Detail from panorama of city sketched circa 1862 showing Union Street School in middle (#50). The then-empty lot where Garfield is today can be seen at the middle left of the photo.

In 1864, during the American Civil War, the number of pupils attending Union Grammar reached over 500; therefore, the call for a new “Primary building” was sounded: “In reference to the construction of a new Primary building, for the accommodation of pupils of the First, Second, and Third Districts, it should be remembered that the School Department owns fifty-vara lot No. 462, on the northwest corner of Filbert and Kearny streets [purchased as such by the Commissioners of the Funded Debt on Sept. 17, 1852 and ratified by the Common Council on Nov. 4, 1852], which is advantageously located in a healthful position for a large Primary School, of eight or ten classes. A suitable and substantial building would accommodate at least five or six hundred Primary pupils and afford sufficient school facilities for the children of residents on and around Telegraph Hill.” (Daily Alta, Jan. 9, 1864, p. 1, c. 1; LeCount & Strong’s City Directory of 1854, pp. 230-231)

In 1865, a separate Union Primary School was finally established in a building down the block, closer to Kearny. In 1867, this school relocated to a newly-built two-story frame structure with eight “large and pleasant rooms” at the NW corner of Filbert and Kearny streets. Such was the demand for the school, that by March 1868, an “excess of pupils . . . were transferred to [a] vacant room in the Union Grammar School.” (Twenty-Second Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools, Spaulding & Barto, San Francisco, 1875, p. 132 & 134; Daily Alta, Aug. 29, 1867, p. 1, c. 2; Daily Alta, March 25, 1868, p. 1, c. 1)

Union Primary School-from Russian Hill
In this photo of Telegraph Hill taken circa 1870 from Russian Hill, the original Union Primary School building can be seen up at the NW corner of Filbert and Kearny streets. Washington Square is at right. You can also faintly see Union Grammar a block over and up to the east.

In 1880, James A. Garfield, a member of the House of Representatives from Ohio, was elected President of the United States; however, on July 2, 1881, just months after his inauguration, he was shot by an insane political rival. A few weeks later, the principal of Union Grammar recommended that the Board of Education change the name of Union Grammar on Union Street to Garfield School; the recommendation was adopted. At the same time, the principal at Union Primary at Filbert and Kearny asked that her school be renamed Telegraph Hill School. Her recommendation was “tabled.” (Daily Alta, July 19, 1881, p. 1, c. 5)

Perhaps the Alta reporter left too early, but by the time both the Board of Education and the Board of Supervisors convened that day, both boards “testified their regard for President Garfield, the Supervisors by changing the name of the Recreation Grounds [in the Mission] to Garfield Square, and the Board of Education by giving Broadway Primary the name of the Garfield Primary School.”^^ While the bureaucracy and poor-reporting makes it more confusing than it should be, it was actually Union Grammar, the old Union Street school between Montgomery and Kearny, that became Garfield Primary that day in 1881. Union Primary at the NW corner of Filbert and Kearny (where Garfield is today), remained as Union Primary until the 1906 earthquake and fires. (Sacramento Union, July 19, 1881, p. 3, c. 5; Langley’s City Directory of 1882, , p. 65)

Following the destruction throughout the eastern portion of San Francisco in 1906, the old Union Street campus of Garfield was never rebuilt. Therefore, and thereafter, Union Primary at the NW corner of Filbert and Kearny streets took on the name of Garfield Primary.

Finally, I should note that by strange coincidence, the day I’m posting this (Nov. 19th) is actually James A. Garfield’s birthday.

Garfield:Union Primary-Pre-1906?
I’m not totally sure of the date of this photo yet (will update), but given the architecture I’m fairly sure it’s pre-1906 (Union Primary-era), or taken in 1906, showing the school at Filbert and Kearny before it was remodeled or rebuilt into a Mediterranean Revival-style building.
Garfield School-20th Century
This photo shows the building at the core of the current Garfield campus built in the Mediterranean Revival-style as it was circa 1910, I believe. It’s interesting to note the architectural similarities with what was there before, leading me to believe that much of the pre-1906 frame was salvaged in its post-1906 rebuilding.



^ As for the pre-1854 roots of the Union Street School, a report to the Superintendent of Public Schools in 1875 went further: “This school was first instituted on the 17th of June, 1852, in a rough wooden building on the corner of Montgomery and Broadway, and was then called the ‘Clark’s Point School.’ It was removed in 1853 to rented building at the corner of Dupont and Broadway streets, where it remained till 1854, when it was transferred to its present location on Union Street.” (Twenty-Second Annual Report of the Superintendent of Public Schools, Spaulding & Barto, San Francisco, 1875, p. 114)

^^ Confusingly, the Sacramento Union actually reports here that the Board of Education changed to name of Broadway Primary to Garfield; however, this was erroneous reporting, as soon after it was the old Union Street School, or Union Grammar, that became officially known as Garfield.


3 thoughts on “School Alley & the Early History of Garfield Elementary

  1. thats a cool little story.what school have you been most impressed with for Ford ?

  2. Great work. I found this when looking up historical information on Garfield elementary. You’re about it. The school website has nothing. My third great grandmother attended Garfield in 1884 (and probably before and after that). Her parents lived just around the corner on Green so it makes sense. She was “heterogeneous” back then, her father was an Italian immigrant and her mother was an Irish immigrant. Though she wasn’t poor, and I hope not neglected.

    I hope you contacted them when you found the school was named after the president. I hope they embrace their namesake again.

    1. I did reach out to them, both the PTA president (who was responsive) and the current principal at that time (who was not). Much thanks.

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