The University Mound Ladies Home has continually evolved since 1884 to meet the changing needs of the aging population in San Francisco, and that process continues today. Here is a look back at how far we’ve come.
The Home’s original benefactor, James Lick, was among the wealthiest men in California upon his death in 1876, with a fortune conservatively estimated at $3 million. He was persuaded to leave a substantial portion of it to a variety of social and scientific causes, including $700,000 to establish the Lick Observatory and $100,000 to establish a home in San Francisco for “the aged and needy ladies who are unable to support themselves and who have no resources of their own,” as a speaker put it when memorializing Lick in 1895.
In fact, the Ladies Home also owes its existence to a woman named Mary Staples. Her husband, David J. Staples was an insurance company president who spent several months assisting James Lick in preparing his will. According to historian Edward Robeson Taylor:
“Before signing the document, Mr. Lick asked Mrs. Staples if she had any request to make, and it was then she proposed the subject of a home for aged women. The capitalist assented and first fixed the sum for founding such a home at $50,000, but at the request of Mrs. Staples doubled the amount.”
According to Taylor, Mrs. Staples was “constant in her efforts to relieve the distress of others.” She was a key figure in founding a children’s hospital in San Francisco and in securing funding for it from the state legislature, and she also helped found the Crocker Old People’s Home. “Neither race, color, nor condition caused her to hesitate where she could be of assistance to a sufferer or one in want,” wrote the San Francisco Call upon her passing.
Five trustees–A. B. Forbes, Robert McElroy, E. W. Newhall, Ira P. Rankin, and J. B. Roberts–were charged with establishing what became known as the Lick Old Ladies Home. They purchased a large, three-story wooden building on 25 acres of land at the present location, and incorporated in November 1884. (The law firm of Taylor and Haight, 207 Sansome Street, handled the incorporation.) Presbyterians had originally constructed the building (at left) in 1863 to house University Mound College, a boarding school branch of the church’s downtown City College, but it failed to prosper. From 1869 to 1871 the building served as the University Mound Institute and Boarding School for Boys.
According to Percy Roberts’ history of the Ladies Home, in the early years the price of admission to the Home was $300. In return, the Home pledged to care for the ladies for the rest of their lives. At that time, ladies had to be in reasonably good health in order to be admitted.
The Home farmed most of its land, raising cows, pigs, and chickens; growing hay for the livestock; and nurturing a vegetable garden. Many ladies worked in the garden, helping to care for and harvest the food that would later appear on their dining table. Those who wished to go to town were transported by horse and carriage to the nearest cable car line, which took them to the city. A Matron was in charge of the Home, and her husband cared for the farm and drove the carriage.
There were also festivities, as Roberts recounts: “By 1888 the annual reception and bazaar held at the Home on May Day provided extra funds, through the sale of fancy knitting and crocheted tidies made by the ladies, and general publicity since crowds came to pick the wildflowers and enjoy a day in the country. Year after year at that season, the newspapers contained long reports of these May festivals, how carriage after carriage rolled up to the doors of the spacious building, with its parlors elaborately decorated with ivy, how money had been provided for new matting for the corridors, how the crowds picked the ‘golden eschscholtzias’ while the aged residents and the social elite were photographed in front of the old building.”
In 1896 the Home’s name was changed to the University Mound Old Ladies Home, after the then-popular name for the neighborhood. There had been plans to build a city university there. The Home itself is located on University Street, and the nearby streets are named after colleges and universities such as Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Amherst, Princeton, and Dartmouth. For decades the area remained comparatively rural and was home to more than a dozen flower nurseries, including University Mound Nursery.
In 1922 a merger with the San Francisco Ladies’ Protection and Relief Society, another venerable San Francisco institution, was proposed. The Society had been founded in 1853 during Gold Rush times to shelter young women. In more recent years, the home it operated had primarily housed children in need of support, but the rise of foster care had diminished the need for such services, so the home had found itself two-thirds empty. It had then switched its focus to providing affordable housing for older women, so a merger with the Ladies Home was appealing to many of the Society’s board members. (Interestingly, at the time of the merger proposal, George A. Newhall was president of the Society’s board of trustees, while another member of the Newhall family, Edwin W. Newhall, was a trustee of the Ladies Home.) Ultimately, however, the two institutions chose to remain independent.
In 1931 the upper half of the grounds was sold to the neighboring Convent of the Good Shepherd, according to a history compiled by the Convent. In 1932 the present red-brick Georgian Revival building, designed by San Francisco architect Martin J. Rist, was constructed. Rist also designed the Taraval Police Station, buildings for San Francisco General Hospital, and a number of churches and private homes in San Francisco and elsewhere.
In 1939 admission to the Ladies Home was about $50 a month, or $3,000 for life care and there was a waiting list for admission. The ladies living at the Home that year had held various professions including actress, teacher, nurse, department store saleswoman, stenographer, clerk, manager of a student boardinghouse, and homemaker. Eleven of the 72 residents had never married. The Ladies Home’s Matron lived on the premises, and the chief nurse and her husband, two kitchen helpers, and the chef lived in rooms on the second floor.
The San Francisco telephone directory at that time listed just two homes for the aged, the University Mound Ladies Home (JUniper-9894) and the Crocker Old People’s Home. (In the 1950s the Crocker Home voted to merge with the San Francisco Ladies’ Protection and Relief Society, which then built The Heritage in the Marina District, a life care community for senior men and women.)
Portola resident Franco Mancini, the longtime president of Friends of McLaren Park, was a paper boy in the 1950s: “I delivered newspapers to the ladies for four years, from age 9 to 13; I became one of the Home’s house pets. I got to visit and to know many of the ladies and their individual eccentricities very well. Mrs. Alexandre, the superintendent, would invite me to have lunch with them on Sundays.”
For much of its history, the Ladies Home was fully occupied and sometimes had a waiting list. But during the 2000s the endowment dwindled and the board of trustees considered closing the Ladies Home. San Franciscans responded with an outpouring of support, recognizing the Home’s irreplaceable nature and the importance of its affordable assisted living services to the city. Community members, eldercare experts, and family members of residents volunteered their time to explore ways to preserve and strengthen the Home, while residents of the Home’s Portola neighborhood and other supporters flooded Mayor Gavin Newsom’s office with emails and phone calls in a successful effort to secure city officials’ help in saving the Home.
As a result of San Franciscans’ commitment and dedication, the Ladies Home underwent a transformation. The board of trustees was reconstituted to include eldercare and nonprofit experts from respected area institutions such as San Francisco State University, UCSF, and the Institute on Aging as well as independent professionals. New senior staff were hired, including an executive director with an MBA and a degree in gerontology.
In 2009 the Ladies Home launched an innovative clinical training partnership with San Francisco State University coordinated by the School of Nursing, in which SFSU students and faculty contributed their expertise to improve the lives of residents and the operations of the Home. In November 2009, the Home welcomed more than 100 guests to a celebration of its 125th year of service to the city. Other improvements in 2009 included a hospice wing, a revitalized activities program, a remodeled library, and donated artwork placed throughout the building to brighten the everyday lives of residents. In fall 2010, the Home began welcoming residents to its new hospice and palliative care wing.