55 Laguna was always destined to help those in need.
The two-block area that’s currently the UC Berkeley extension campus was once the San Francisco Orphan Asylum.
The original orphanage opened in 1851 with a small cottage in Happy Valley (an area of SOMA that’s near Rincon Hill). Several women from the 1st Presbyterian Church became the Board of Managers (along with some men due to legal reasons) and opened its doors to nine children.
Within a year, the small cottage was home to 26 kids and they needed new digs.
That’s where we come in.
According to the history of the institution, the team behind the orphanage learned about some available land “far beyond the city limits and basically in the middle of nowhere.”
They bought a two block lot surrounded by Laguna, Hermann, Buchanan and Haight for $100.
(Last time we checked, that’s how much Comcast charges for cable and wireless)
How did a group of people in the 1850s raise enough money to build a two-story dormitory building? By going door-to-door asking for donations.
While still having to borrow $5000 to complete the project, they opened on March 22, 1854. Along with the children, the orphanage was home to a matron, teacher and nurse.
And how did they keep up with their initial operating costs? With donations from churches, “subscription” donations, and the holding of a charity concert.
But as the clientele of the orphanage grew larger and increasingly not from San Francisco, the SFOA felt bad asking for locals’ money and began using government funding instead. They received grants from the State of California and changed their name to the San Francisco Protestant Orphan Asylum (SFPOA) to stand out from other agencies.
The Managers oversaw the whole process like a boarding school: they decided who to accept, they inspected many aspects of the children’s lives (health, education and cleanliness) and took the kids on lots of field trips.
As the years progressed, the SFOA became home to over 300 children. And in the 1890s, the kids began attending local public schools. According to the report, “Hayes Valley neighbors enjoyed having the children in the area, and the orphans socialized with the local children.”
Fast forward to 1906.
(You probably know where this is going)
When the earthquake struck on April 18, the building (located in the slightly sturdier “west of Van Ness” area) was damaged but didn’t collapse. And apparently all children were accounted for and unharmed. Until it reopened in November, the children lived at the State Normal School which eventually became San Francisco State University.
Fast forward to 1919.
A combination of natural aging and the earthquake made the orphanage hard to live in and maintain. The Managers were faced with a tough decision: do we stay or do we go now?
They decided going was the best option. They temporarily moved into the Maria Kip Orphanage (7th Ave & Lake) for five years until they built a new cottage-style residence on Vicente Street near Stern Grove. Meanwhile, the old asylum was razed and the UC Berkeley extension buildings were constructed in the 1930s.
So what happened to the San Francisco Orphan Asylum? After 150 years of name changes and new locations, they still exist.
Now known as Edgewood, the center has a mission of helping “children and families take back their future… to overcome severe challenges like abuse, neglect, mental illness and crisis.”
The language is different, but the sentiments are the same.
Some things never change.