For decades, the Alemany Emergency Hospital and Health Center in the Outer Mission bustled with activity as doctors and nurses attended to the wounded and sick who walked through the clinic’s doors.
The hospital and the health center, both built in 1933 during the Great Depression at the corner of Alemany Boulevard and Onondaga Avenue, provided free health care for residents in the neighborhood following a citywide effort to make medical treatment accessible for low- and middle-income San Franciscans.
The former hospital and health center closed in 1978, and the buildings were used as an senior community center for another three decades, but they have remained vacant since 2010. The windows are boarded up, and scuff marks are scattered on the outside of the buildings.
Now, a group of residents are banding together to restore the two former medical buildings back to their former glory, claiming they were a testament to The City’s efforts to improve public health.
Community members behind the effort in recent months said they want to return the buildings to their intended purpose — public use — and intend to convert the space into a community center or health clinic in the coming years.
After the most recent use of the site as a senior community center ceased to exist, the property was handed over to The City’s real estate division and has remained vacant ever since.
David Hooper, president of the New Mission Terrace Improvement Association and one of the community members spearheading the restoration effort, has spent months sorting through the extensive history of the buildings.
With his wife, Lisa Dunseth, a librarian and history buff, the couple has garnered support from members in the community to revive the site. In May 2015, they filed a request with The City to designate the buildings as historic landmarks.
With roots to the neighborhood stretching back three generations, Hooper said he and his family members relied on the Alemany Emergency Hospital and Health Clinic for medical treatment from time to time before securing health insurance.
”I’d never left feeling like I wasn’t taken care of,” Hooper said. “The cost was not the item, it was the service.”
City leaders recognized a need to provide free health services in San Francisco during the late 1920s amid a growing population, according to city documents. Voters approved funding in 1928 that would go toward constructing the Alemany Emergency Hospital and Health Clinic, and other public medical centers like it throughout The City.
Design and art
The composition of the building remains significant to San Francisco’s history as well.
The emergency hospital and health center were designed by then city architect Charles Sawyer. Inside the former health center are two frescoes by Bernard Zakheim, a notable artist at the time who studied with Diego Rivera and completed additional murals in The City throughout the 1930s, including a fresco in Coit Tower and two murals at the UC San Francisco campus.
Zakheim’s Alemany Health Center murals were largely forgotten by the art community, according to fine arts conservator Anne Rosenthal, who has been in the field since 1977 and specializes in fresco paintings.
Rosenthal said she first took an interest in the murals a few months back when she was invited by a group of community members to walk through the building. Though she had heard of the pieces, Rosenthal said she thought they had been destroyed.
“It’s just very rare that a new mural by an old artist comes to light after such a long time,” Rosenthal said. “It’s just a treasure for The City to have work by this artist and to have it preserved.”
To preserve the building’s art and long legacy of providing health services for those in the neighborhood, Hooper and members of the community started the process of granting historic landmark designation for the two buildings last year, he said.
The designation would ensure that the empty buildings are not sold as excess land or demolished, Hooper said, adding that it would also keep the architecture and art work in the building intact.
A dozen letters supporting the historic landmark designation for the former hospital and health center were submitted to the Historic Preservation Committee, which approved a resolution to recommend granting the buildings landmark status Wednesday.
One of the letters was written by Anne O’Crowley, a psychologist who owns a private practice in The City and who lives a few blocks from the former hospital and health center.
She said her family has ties to the Alemany Emergency Hospital and Health Clinic, with her father-in-law working as a doctor for the hospital in the 50s and 60s. When O’Crowley heard that her neighbors were planning to restore the buildings, she said she jumped at the chance to support their efforts.
“I feel like it’s important to return the health center to community use, which was its initial use,” O’Crowley said. “Because San Francisco is changing so dramatically, it’s really important to hold onto things that are really valuable.”
Following Wednesday’s support by the Historic Preservation Commission, the item will be introduced to the Board of Supervisors and referred to the Land Use Committee.
Hooper and the organizers call the designation the first step in resurging the building to its former glory.
“This is a rare opportunity to keep an important part of our history and improve the community,” Hooper wrote in a letter to the Historic Preservation Committee.