by Nikki Collister
Silver Avenue view: 1925 northeastward towards the new St Mary's Residential Tract southwest of Bernal Heights
Private Collection, San Francisco, CA
In 1855, Joseph Alemany, first archbishop of San Francisco, acquired a tract of land near Hayes and Polk streets for the site of a new college. However, the increased congestion in the rapidly expanding city forced Alemany to abandon this original location and look instead to the "country" of San Francisco. Roughly four miles south, he bought 60 acres of Rancho Rincon de la Salinas y Potrero Viejo from Jesus Bernal (son of José Bernal) for $1,600. There, among the rolling hills and pastures, Alemany laid the cornerstone for his college.
From 1863 to 1889, the newly established community was home to St. Mary's College, a diocesan college for boys. Alemany successfully petitioned for the support of the De La Salle Christian Brothers, who took over the institute and eventually moved it to a new location in Oakland (it would relocate one more time, in 1928, to its current location in Moraga).
For a time, the former college site found new life as St. John's Parish, established by Alemany's successor, Archbishop Riordan. In the early 1900s, it also housed a truck farm, providing fruits and vegetables to the growing city.
View of Mission Street looking southwest from St. Mary's College site, Aug 13, 1910.
Photo: OpenSFHistory.org, wnp32.0262
In 1924, the land was surveyed and opened for subdivision. The architect Mark Daniels, known for his work developing the residential parks of Sea Cliff and Forest Hill, was brought on to design the future neighborhood.
To honor the history of St. Mary’s College, Daniels laid out the streets of the neighborhood in the shape of a bell. Justin, Agnon, and Genebern streets were named after teaching brothers at the college, and the neighborhood was known henceforth as St. Mary’s Park.
The St. Mary's Park bell, represented as part of a scale wooden model of San Francisco built in 1940 from 1938 aerial photos. The San Francisco Public Library and SFMOMA’s Public Knowledge project showcased portions of the model in library branches in 2019.
Photo: LisaRuth Elliott
Not long after the neighborhood’s first residents moved in, the city of San Francisco set aside 13 acres for a recreation area to the east, 10 of which it bought for $87,500, while the Archdiocese donated the remainder.
In the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) employed job-seeking San Franciscans to shape the land in preparation for what would become St. Mary's Recreation Center. The park would sit atop three tiers along a steeply sloped hill: the first tier housing a gymnasium, auditorium, and baseball diamond, the second tier including a playground, tennis courts, and basketball court.
The third tier is now the site of St. Mary’s Dog Park, which can be accessed by the footbridge over Highway 280.
Aerial photo from 1938 mentioned above, showing the east edge of the St. Mary's Bell.
Longer view of the St. Mary's Recreation Center Construction, December 26, 1933
photo: OpenSFHistory.org, wnp14.2793
According to Clyde Healy, Assistant City Engineer and City of SF Coordinator of WPA projects, the WPA constructed St. Mary’s Playground first, broadening the neighborhood's appeal to San Franciscan families.
Manual laborers graded the land, installing fencing, landscaping, and building concrete walls. The rest of the park was completed in the 1940s and 1950s, and the Recreation Center was formally established in 1952.
St. Mary's Recreation Center Construction, looking southwesterly from near Crescent and Justin, January 4, 1934.
Photo: OpenSFHistory.org, wnp14.2795
Today, St. Mary's Park is home to a diverse set of residents, many of whom have lived in the neighborhood for generations. The St. Mary’s Park Improvement Club, founded in 1941, has been dedicated to preserving the neighborhood's heritage for over eight decades. Its members played a large role in the addition of St. Mary's Dog Park, and the renovation of the gymnasium and playground in the 2000s and 2010s.
Within the small bell-shaped community, traces of the former diocesan college campus remain. The most prominent is a historical marker on College Avenue, honoring the neighborhood's academic beginnings with a plaque, bell, and cross.
Along the short stretch of Mission Street that runs through the area, local establishments St. Mary’s Pub and New College Hill Market have served neighbors for nearly a century, their names a nod to the former "college hill" in this quiet southeastern pocket of San Francisco.
The historical marker at the western end of College Ave. was placed in 1962 by The California State Park Commission in cooperation with St. Mary’s College and the California Historical Society.
Photo: Nikki Collister
Thanks to David Otero's website on the history of St. Mary's Park.