Former Irving M. Scott School at 1060 Tennessee Street in 1983. (National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, 1983.)
by Woody LaBounty
A walk in San Francisco’s Central Waterfront is a tour of ambitious development. New hospitals, biotech complexes, tech start-ups, and the glitzy nearby Chase Center sports arena stand amid unceasing construction work. But thanks to preservationists, there are still pockets of historic houses, warehouses, and factories. In the Dogpatch neighborhood, tucked between the roar of elevated Highway 280 and the never-ending public works madness of 3rd Street, stands the city’s oldest surviving public school building. The former Irving M. Scott School at 1060 Tennessee Street is City Landmark #138.
This area was the industrial heart of San Francisco from the 1850s until after World War II, home at one time to the largest shipbuilding operations on the West Coast. Power stations, ironworking factories, refineries, and all their supportive light industry filled a landscape between the bay and Potrero Hill. Near their work on and in the piers, dry docks, foundries, and warehouses, laborers lived in humble cottages and lodging houses on Potrero Hill, the mostly-eradicated Irish Hill, and the enclave originally known as Dutchman’s Flat between Mariposa and 23rd Street, Minnesota and Tennessee Streets—better known now as the Dogpatch neighborhood.
View east from Potrero Hill to Union Iron Works and Irish Hill with 20th Street running along right side, circa 1890.(OpenSFHistory/wnp27.6387)
For their children, the Potrero School was established in 1865 in a rough shack on the corner of modern-day 20th and 3rd Streets. In 1877, the city replaced the shack with a larger building on a mid-block parcel between today’s Minnesota and Tennessee, 20th and 22nd Streets. This structure faced Minnesota Street and some of the humble homes of its pupils, who lived between the area’s railroad spurs, cranes, and smokestacks.
Irving M. Scott School from Minnesota Street, 1917. This 1877 structure was demolished in the early 1920s, while the 1895 addition, visible behind, is still standing. (San Francisco Department of Public Works photograph by Horace Chaffee, OpenSFHistory/wnp36.01759)
The inadequacy of the school’s facilities, with too many students, poor sewage, and little heating, was lamented almost from the start.1 The early 1880s creation of a new Union Iron Works plant, where many of the nation’s early modern warships were made and launched, brought hundreds more workers to the Central Waterfront, exacerbating the crowding at Potrero School. Finally, in 1895, a freestanding addition designed by city architect Thomas J. Welsh was built on the original school site facing Tennessee Street. The two-story Classical Revival structure connected via a breezeway to the 1877 building.
Detail of a 1900 Sanborn Fire Insurance map showing passageway connecting the 1877 school building on Minnesota Street at left with the extant 1895 addition on Tennessee Street. (1900 San Francisco Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, Sheet 557.)
The entire school was renamed Irving M. Scott School in honor of the Union Iron Works partner and superintendent who donated partial funding for its construction and improvement.2 For these children of the rope-makers, ironworkers, coopers, butchers, grocers, and saloonkeepers, a vocational curriculum was pushed, preparing boys to follow their fathers in manual trades, while the girls learned homemaking and cooking in the first school district teaching kitchen.
The Minnesota Street building was sold by the city and removed in the early 1920s3—likely just for scavenged lumber—but the addition remained and served school children for another half-century.
It’s a miracle the Tennessee Street building survived. It was set on fire numerous times—at least once intentionally by students. (A 1940 article began “With joy in their hearts, 210 primary pupils watched yesterday afternoon as flames curled over the roof of the Irving Scott School…”4 ) Ongoing sanitation and heating issues targeted it for closure and demolition throughout the twentieth century. Parents and neighborhood groups unsuccessfully pestered the city for improvements. When backers of any school bond measure wanted to inspire support they highlighted Irving M. Scott School’s woefulness, promising its replacement. Newspaper stories and reports from the Health Department frequently excoriated Irving M. Scott School for its crude latrines (in schoolyard sheds) and its antiquated and dangerous pot-bellied-stove heating system.5
Tom Irwin, “Old-Style Rural School in S.F.!” San Francisco Chronicle, January 17, 1937, pg. 12.
Bonds passed and government officials continued to make promises, but little changed and the school remained open until 1974. The itinerant laborers of the 1890s, the migrants of the Depression, and the newly arrived war workers of the mid-twentieth century were easily ignored by City Hall. The school district used it for office space and the Potrero Hill Community Development Corporation occupied it in the 1970s and 1980s.
To see the leaf-shaded streets of Minnesota and Tennessee Streets today with well-kept cottages, expensive perpendicularly parked cars, and art-gallery complexes, it’s hard to imagine that this was a rough-edged working-class neighborhood. But the Dogpatch was the home of men and woman who built and rebuilt the city of San Francisco, many of whom learned the basics of their trades and established the foundation of their lives in Irving M. Scott School.
View down Tennessee Street to the former Irving M. Scott School, May 2020.
When Mission Bay redevelopment and the forces of gentrification began creeping down 3rd Street in the late 1990s, Dogpatch neighbors and preservationists moved quickly to create a city-designated historical district—a remarkable achievement in the face of political and market pressures.6 Heritage worked closely with the Dogpatch Neighborhood Association to survey the neighborhood. Architectural historian Christopher VerPlanck did a heroic job over five years leading the effort, writing the context statement, and shepherding the district’s designation.
The former Irving M. Scott School is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated San Francisco City Landmark #138. Today it is occupied by Alive & Free/Omega Boys Club, a nonprofit focused on violence prevention with a mission not so different from the goals of the Irving M. Scott public school of the late nineteenth century: “To provide young people with opportunity and support to build positive lives for themselves and to move into contributing roles in society.”
View of the rear of 1060 Tennessee Street, the former Irving M. Scott School, from the Minnesota Street school yard, May 2020.
“Dogpatch Survey Nears Completion,” Heritage News, Jan/Feb 2000, page 8.
5. R. W. Jimerson, “Battle Opens on Firetrap Schools Here, San Francisco Examiner, October 21, 1933, Part II, pg. 1; Tom Irwin, “Old-Style Rural School in S.F.!,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 17, 1937, pg. 12; Barbara East, “Poor Sanitation Exposed at Ancient S.F. Schools,” San Francisco Examiner, October 7, 1948, pg. 14.