Spirits of the City

Excelsior: Ever Upward!

By Gary Kamiya and Paul Madonna

The Excelsior District is a pleasantly unpretentious residential neighborhood near the Outer Mission, best known for having the most cosmopolitan intersections (Paris and France, Naples and Italy) in San Francisco. It boasts few historically or architecturally significant buildings. But it does possess two forgotten, shuttered-up gems — an adjoining pair of Spanish-style buildings that are among the last links to a memorable piece of San Francisco history. The two buildings, at 35 and 45 Onandaga Street on the corner of Alemany, were once part of San Francisco’s renowned Emergency Hospital System — a citywide system that provided free emergency medical care to residents in their own neighborhoods, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 35 Onandaga was the Alemany Emergency Hospital. 45 Onandaga (pictured) was the Alemany Health Center. The two facilities, paid for by a bond measure, opened in 1933 and were in more or less continuous operation until 1978, when the entire system was shut down.

In the days before widespread health insurance and the 911 system, the Emergency Hospital System — which also had emergency rooms near Golden Gate Park, the Embarcadero, the zoo and elsewhere — was a remarkably progressive City program, hailed as the finest in the country. When its closure was announced, outraged Excelsior residents staged a futile sit-in in the hospital for a month and a half. (In an ironic footnote, Supervisor Dan White — who was to assassinate Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk just months later —supported the protesters.)

The Alemany Health Center is a treasure for another reason: It is home to two WPA-era murals, Community Spirit and Growth, by Bernard Zakheim, a Communist muralist whose best-known fresco is in Coit Tower. Growth, tragically, was almost entirely painted over in the 1970s (apparently because its fertility theme was deemed in poor taste), but Community Spirit, a charming depiction of the Excelsior neighborhood as an organic community, remains.

The two City-owned buildings have been closed to the public since 2011; however, last year the City chose two local organizations — Clinic By the Bay, a free, volunteer-powered health clinic, and Art Span, a nonprofit arts organization known for its Open Studio program — as new tenants to revitalize the languishing sites.

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