Monday, November 14, 2016

A Pre-History of the San Francisco Community Music Center

On November 20, 2016, the San Francisco Community Music Center will hold a "Field Day" to celebrate its 95th Anniversary.  This event features an afternoon full of musical performance by Community Music School students and faculty. 

This anniversary commemorates the arrival of the San Francisco Community Music School (the Community Music Center's name until the 1950s) at its present location at 544 Capp Street.  The Community Music Center, however, has earlier roots that originated in a larger movement that sought to provide free or low cost music instruction as a way to ameliorate social conditions in American cities.

The settlement movement was a social reform movement in the late 19th century aiming to provide cultural and educational uplift to the urban poor.  According to Boyer, the goal of the settlement movement was "consciousness raising" to make the urban poor, often immigrants, aware of a "larger world beyond the tenement or factory, the richness of their cultural heritage, and the possibilities of community organization and cooperative effort."

In San Francisco this movement was set in motion in 1894 when Chicago-based activist and social worker Jane Addams came to lecture.  Motivated by her example, local social reformers soon set to work in the immigrant communities in the South of Market neighborhood establishing the South Park Settlement.

The South Park Settlement at 15 South Park (source: The Commons June 1897)

The South Park Settlement, which eventually became the San Francisco Boys' Club, did not focus on girls leaving an opening for the efforts of the Rachael and Eva Wolfsohn who started the Girls' Club of San Francisco in a small flat on Clara Street, also in South of Market, in 1900.  Devoting their energies on young women who came from modest means, Rachael Wolfsohn wrote that "the club had a "...two-fold purpose at that time ... to assist girls in delinquency prevention and to prepare these young ladies for the responsibility of womanhood."  The club became an important part of their social life with its activities directed toward education and recreation.

A few years later the Girls' Club moved to 262 Seventh Street, a site that was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. A 1904 article in the San Francisco Chronicle mentioned music instruction and music instruction as part of the club's wider offerings which also included "domestic economy," cooking, and various crafts. The workers at the club were described as "university people" (faculty and students from institutions like the University of California and Stanford University).

The club's members at that time were between the ages of 8 and 14 who lived in the surrounding neighborhood. In an oral history, a club member for the Girls' Club's earliest days recalled that the teachers and many of the students were Jewish, but that religion was never discussed at the club.

Girls' Club at 362 Capp from 1911, W.E. Dassonville, photographer
Source: The Girls' Club of San Francisco: Its Music School at 362 Capp Street (San Francisco History Center collection)

With financial support from Jewish businessmen and philanthropists like the Hellman, Fleishacker, Sloss, Lilienthal and Stern families, a new building was constructed for the Girls' Club in 1911, designed by the architectural firm Ward and Blohme.

At the outset, it was apparent that music would play an important part of the club's activities. This new emphasis is demonstrated in the brochure The Girls' Club of San Francisco: Its Music School at 362 Capp Street.  Below are photographs of a chorus and an orchestra from that 1912 publication.

 Friday Night Choral directed by Wallace Sabin (source: same as above)
Senior Orchestra directed by Hother Wismer (source: same as above)

The pamphlet lists prices for instruction:
Individual half hour lessons with a student teacher ... 25 cents
Individual full hour lessons with a student teacher ... 50 cents
Individual half hour lessons with an experienced teacher ... 50 cents
Individual full hour lessons with an experienced teacher ... $1.00
Orchestra classes, with weekly rehearsals ... 50 cents a month
Class lessons in chorus, theory, ear-training and sight-reading open free of charge to all members of the Girls' Club and music school students.
Twenty-five cents would be equivalent to six dollars today.  They also provided scholarships for which they depended upon sponsorship from donors within the community.

The pamphlet also names a very accomplished faculty:
Department heads:

Singing (vocal music) - Mrs. M. E. Blanchard
Voice and ear training - Miss Elizabeth Putnam
Choral classes - Mr. Wallace Sabin
Orchestral classes - Mr. Hother Wismer
Pianoforte - Mr. Julius Rehn Weber
Violin - Mr. Hother Wismer
Violoncello - Mr. Arthur Weiss
Theory of music and harmony - Mr. E. G. Stricklen
Mrs. Blanchard was a voice teacher a Mills College. Wallace Sabin was a composer and organist at Temple Emanu-El and St. Luke's Episcopal Church. At that time Arthur Weiss was the principal 'cellist of the San Francisco Symphony.  Hother Wismer, a Danish-American was a concert violinist who was later a member of the San Francisco Symphony.  Julius Rehn Weber, who later changed his last name to Waybur, was a pianist who became a major benefactor of the Music Department of the San Francisco Public Library.

At that time San Francisco had many music schools and private music instructors.  In the brochure, the Girls' Club emphasized that they did not want their efforts to undercut the livings of professional music teachers:
It is to be distinctly understood that the school does not wish to encroach upon the domain of the professional teacher. Its aim is to start modestly and to accept only such pupils who, after the strictest investigation, are found to be unable to pay the regular professional prices. To accomplish this object many loyal, devoted teachers of good standing have volunteered their services.
The San Francisco Community Music School of the Girls' Club of San Francisco was part of a wider groundswell to provide wholesome recreation within the City. One organization spearheading this was the Recreation League of San Francisco of San Francisco which advocated building parks and playgrounds, and also supported amateur athletics, theater and music for all ages. It was led by Jesse W. Lilienthal, then the president of the United Railways and the San Francisco Bar Association.  He and his wife were donors to the Girls' Club of San Francisco and later to the Community Music School.  She was also the organization's president during that time.

The Recreation League encouraged community singing to draw them away from listening to ragtime music by converting to become "patrons of [musical] art in its exalted expression."  A San Francisco Examiner article mentions the Girls' Club as one of the organizations where the Recreation League planned to teach "singing based on systematic study and practice under teachers who are masters of their craft."

The popularity of the music classes is evidenced by the fact that by 1918 the Girls' Club spun off a separate Community Music School at 914 Dolores Street (the site of the present-day Edison Elementary School).

The Community Music School at 914 Dolores Street (from Musical America November 15, 1919).

Harriet Selma Rosenthal, a violin student of Leopold Auer, came from New York in 1918 to direct the school's activities, at the behest of Mrs. Jesse Lilienthal, the president of the Girls' Club of San Francisco at that time. There she already had 8 years experience at the New York Music School Settlement.

Mrs Jesse Lilienthal in 1937 (image source: San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection)

She evidently was a tireless worker.  An article in Musical America reported on Harriet Rosenthal and the school:
The institution is composed of a board of far-seeing and large-hearted women; a building at 914 Dolores Street, reconstructed and completely equipped for the purpose at considerable expense; instruments--not only pianos, but violins, celli, wood-wind and brass, lent by the leading music houses of the city;--a faculty of thirty from among the many splendid instructors of San Francisco; pupils from department stores, irons works, factories and the like, to the number of 176 receiving private instruction besides class work and orchestral or choral experience; and--Miss Rosenthal.
Community Music School of The Girls' Club letterhead 
(source: Alfred Hertz Papers, Art, Music and Recreation Center, San Francisco Public Library)

In October 1919 Harriet Rosenthal wrote to Alfred Hertz, the conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, asking whether he would agree to be the Honorary Director of the school.  "We know of your interest in the school and would appreciate it we could look to you for your advice and guidance."  Hertz replied that he would "be very happy indeed to accept this position" and that he was "looking forward with pleasure to see you Monday evening at the school." 

In 1920 the school had 250 students taught by 30 faculty members which included such luminaries as Alfred Hertz, the San Francisco Symphony's concert master, Louis Persinger, and Elias Hecht, a flutist and organizer of the San Francisco Chamber Music Society.  Students also benefited from donations of tickets that enabled them to attend concert and stage performances.

Alfred Metzger, the editor of the Pacific Coast Musical Review, extolled the work of Harriet Selma Rosenthal and the Community Music School.  He posited that:
If it is possible to inculcate the idea in a child's mind that music exercises a certain beneficial influence upon everyone, even outside actual artistic performance, a most important step toward future realization of what constitutes fine citizenship has been taken.
By the time the Community Music School opened its doors at 544 Capp Street in 1921, its mission had been shaped by more than 25 years of community activism. The efforts at reform by the settlement movement, the Girls' Club of San Francisco and the Recreation League all shared the belief that participating in music and receiving music instruction by accomplished musicians were a means of ameliorating social problems and of providing social and cultural uplift.  It is impressive to see how some of San Francisco's most esteemed community leaders and musicians supported the provision of musical instruction to all.  These early ideals have continued and remain expressed in the Community Music Center's mission statement - "to make high quality music accessible to all people, regardless of their financial means."


Alfred Hertz Papers, Art, Music and Recreation Center, San Francisco Public Library.

Amy Steinhart Braden: Child Welfare and Community Service / an interview conducted by Edna Tartaul Daniel (Regional Cultural History Project, The Bancroft Library,1965).

Beals, Elena M., "Sumptuous Musical Feast to Regale San Franciscans," Musical America vol. 3, no. 3 (November 15, 1919), 185-187.

Boyer, Paul, Urban Masses and Moral Order in America 1820-1920 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978).

"'Bright Eyes' Will Sparkle in Aid of New Girls' Club," San Francisco Chronicle (October 29, 1911), 37.

Brown, Ray C., "Music Claims Obeisance Due in New World," San Francisco Chronicle (October 19, 1919), 29.

Character Building Resources; A Study of the Recreational Opportunities and Facilities Provided by Agencies Affiliated with the Community Chest of San Francisco: Made for the Special Committee on Recreation of the Council of Social and Health Agencies of San Francisco, November, 1924-March,1925 by Josephine D. Randall, E. P. Von Allmen, Esther De Turbeville (San Francisco: Press of the Margaret Mary Morgan Co., 1926.

Edwards, George Boosinger, "A Music School and the Community Spirit," Pacific Coast Musical Review vol. 36 no. 7 (May 17, 1919), 6.

Ethington, Philip J., The Public City: The Political Construction of Urban Life in San Francisco 1850-1900 (University of California Press, 2001).

"Girls' Club Has Housewarming," San Francisco Chronicle (February 28, 1904), 41.

"Girls' Club One of City's Monuments," San Francisco Chronicle (December 20, 1929), 9.

"Girls' Club To Dedicate New Home; Gift Marks 20th Anniversary," San Francisco Chronicle (February 22, 1920), 23.

The Girls' Club of San Francisco: Its Music School at 362 Capp Street ([San Francisco]: [Girls' Club of San Francisco], 1912). 

The Girls' Club, San Francisco [oral history transcript]: Recollections of Members and Associates / interviews conducted by Leah Selix and Adrienne Bonn in 1972-73 (Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, 2005).

Metzger, Alfred, "Re-organization of Girls Club to Result in a Community School," Pacific Coast Musical Review vol. 34, no. 23 (September 7, 1918), 1.

M'Lean, Fannie W., "South Park Settlement," The Commons (June 1897), 1.

Mason, Redfern, "List of Songs Selected for Community Singing," San Francisco Examiner (June 25, 1914), ??.  In San Francisco programs. Music (San Francisco Public Library, 1915-196.

"National Register of Historic Places Inventory -- Nomination Form: Girls Club." National Park Service [website].

"Nobody Lives There Now; South Park Settlement Deserted," San Francisco Chronicle (August 5, 1895), 12.

"Planning Concert in Aid of the Girls' Club Settlement," San Francisco Chronicle (January 28, 1910), 3.

Rackle, Karl E., "Community Singing in San Francisco," Musician vol. 22 (January 1917), 22-23.

Rosenbaum, Fred, Cosmopolitans: A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area (University of California Press, 2009).

"Teacher in Girls' Club Gets Leave," San Francisco Chronicle (November 1, 1919), 11.

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