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Early History of the University Club

Several notable things happened in San Francisco in 1890: The city's first "skyscraper" was topped off at the corner of Market and Kearny Streets; construction of a seawall at the foot of Powell Street began; the police department installed its first traffic signal boxes; and King Kalakaua of Hawaii paid a visit. But by far the most momentous event (for our purposes) was the founding of the University Club.

The club had its beginning at a dinner held by the Harvard Club of San Francisco on July 17, 1890 at the Maison Doree restaurant on Kearny Street. But the foundation of the University Club was not a project of the Harvard Club. The formation of the University Club of San Francisco is credited the idea of one man, William Thomas (Harvard, Class of 1873). Although the University Club's motto came to be multarum filii matrum (sons of many mothers), Thomas's almost single handed initiative in bringing the Club to existence makes him the club's "father".

Thomas's experience as president of the San Francisco Harvard Club for a number of years led him to believe that the time had come to form a club where all college men could get together. And so, alumni of other institutions were invited to the Harvard Club's midsummer dinner. Shortly before midnight, Thomas made his pitch and his proposition was accepted with enthusiasm. On August 8, California's Secretary of State William C. Hendricks signed the necessary article of incorporation and the University Club of San Francisco became a legal entity.

Why that name? In part, it reflected the huge expansion of opportunities for higher education that followed the Civil War; and the name connoted an identifiable affinity group. San Francisco's University Club was founded in the great age of club formation; nearly every American City has at least one Club called "University Club" or might just as well be. The name was chosen to distinguish such clubs from existing commercial clubs; and, although San Francisco was not the only city to form a "University Club", it was in no sense a branch of any club anywhere else.

Modern readers may ask why the impulse to form associations was so strong. After all, then - as now - San Francisco had enough restaurants and hotel dining rooms to ensure that a man could get a good meal. Yet, such places were not the chosen venue of a gentleman unless a private room was available: in the absence of other distractions, the highlight of most organized nights was an after-dinner speech; this was the great age of after-dinner speaking.

But the greatest impetus to club formation was the demand for residential facilities which dictated club architecture and underlay the financial viability of most clubs. The conventional living expectations and needs of a man-about-town were different from todays. Well-bred young men did not set up an independent household until they got married: in the meantime, a mens club was the most congenial choice as a place to stay. A house needed servants to run and there were few apartment buildings until the twentieth century. Besides, the men only needed sleeping rooms, not kitchens; few of them had the inclination or skill to cook for themselves, having been brought up in an environment of domestic servants.

Our first clubhouse was a two story Victorian located at 722 Sutter Street, between Taylor and Jones. Even before the earthquake of 1906, a search had begun for a new clubhouse; the current location at 800 Powell was leased from Leland Stanford in 1908, and eventually purchased. In a far-sighted addition, the club leased the lot next to the Stanford's former stables, and later built our athletic facility on that site.

There is so much more to the history of the club, and the history still remains within the walls of the 800 Powell site. The club's history and continuous operation over the last 118 years has had its ups and downs, but through it all the clubs members have pulled together to ensure its long future.

Adapted from Mitchell P. Postel's University Club of San Francisco Centennial History.

The First Club House 1890                        The Club Dining Room 1890

  University Club Powel St. View