St. Luke's Hospital: A Closer Look

Historical Essay

by Woody LaBounty

Originally published at OpenSFHistory, March 2018

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St. Luke's old entrance, fenced off in this 2023 photo.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

St Lukes 1890s View northwest across Valencia to St. Luke's Hospital. The first building in this complex was the two-story Main Building with attached one-story wards, at left, set well back from Valencia Street opens.jpg

St. Luke's Hospital 1890s. View northwest across Valencia to St. Luke's Hospital. The first building in this complex was the two-story Main Building with attached one-story wards, at left, set well back from Valencia Street. It was built in 1874-1875. At right is the Mills Building, paid for by D. O. Mills by 1878. Between them is the Keane Building, paid for by James R. Keane, also by 1878.

Photo: wnp30.0347

The cranes and scaffolding have retreated from the new Sutter Health California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) hospital block between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin, Geary and Post streets. The site of the old Jack Tar Hotel (who remembers that midcentury modern hostelry?) is a gleaming silver ziggurat of high-tech healthcare, due to open in a year or so.

I reflected on the advances in medical science over the past century after a recent OpenSFHistory update. We added a series of interior images of the old St. Luke’s Hospital in the Mission District, photographs that no doubt were taken to publicize the hospital’s 1910s-era modern facilities and cutting-edge technology. Viewed a century later, the people-less rooms look more like horror film sets.

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The console, glass bell, crank and wheel, exam table, large window, and radiator behind all appear to be part of a Frankenstein movie. Is that an x-ray machine? We need a historian on medical technology to tell us!

Photo: wnp30.0339

St lukes 1919 Room with basin and autoclave opensfhistory wnp30.0344.jpg

While there’s an autoclave and sink, the stained tiles on the floor do not give a great assurance of sterility, do they?

Photo: wnp30.0344

St. Luke’s opened modestly in 1871 with a series of buildings around Esmeralda and Prospect Avenues on the west side of Bernal Hill. Twenty patients could be accommodated. Most hospitals at the time were administrated and operated by religious societies and/or ethnic-aligned charities, so in addition to the County Hospital, San Francisco had a French Hospital, a German Hospital, an Italian Hospital, and a Catholic hospital (St. Mary’s). St. Luke’s was formed by the Protestant Episcopal Church, but from the beginning planned to be “open to the sick of all nations and denominations… people of all creeds and color.”(1)

After canvassing the whole city for subscriptions to build a permanent hospital, St. Luke’s managers purchased a two-acre lot on Valencia Street at 27th Street and Army Street (now Cesar Chavez) in 1874. Since then, St. Luke’s has been expanded, remodeled, rebuilt, and threatened with closure as recently as 2007.

Like the new California Pacific Medical Center, St. Luke’s Hospital is owned by Sutter Health, and while the plans aren’t as posh as the new campus on Van Ness Avenue, a new St. Luke’s facility is rising on Valencia Street. We can certainly look forward to glossy photo shoots promoting the new St. Luke’s featuring bright rooms and futuristic white and silver machines: slick comforting scenes of care that our great-grandchildren may find barbaric.

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The laboratory room looks less equipped than a high school chemistry classroom, but there is one microscope!

Photo: wnp30.0338

St Lukes c 1919 Washroom with bathtub opensfhistory wnp30.0340.jpg

An austere bathtub at St. Luke's Hospital, c. 1919.

Photo: wnp30.0340

C 1919 Nursing Staff Photo at S. Lukes Hospital opensfhistory wnp30.0255.jpg

To balance the coldness of the interior photographs, we have this group of St. Luke’s nurses offering a sense of comfort and competence.

Photo: wnp30.0255

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New St. Luke's in 2023.

Photo: Chris Carlsson

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Swales and new bike lanes at corner of Valencia, 29th, and Tiffany, with St. Luke's older office building in background, 2023.

Photo: Chris Carlsson


1. “A New Hospital,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 18, 1871, pg. 3. “St. Luke’s Hospital,” San Francisco Chronicle, April 21, 1872, pg. 4.