S.F. residence club was one classy joint, historian says

Run by the leading matrons of Jewish society, the elegant club on Page Street in San Francisco sheltered generations of young Jewish women embarking on life in a strange new town.

The old Emanuel Residence Club also knew how to throw one whale of a party.

Equipped with a basement-level ballroom complete with a full stage and dressing room, the center hosted popular dances and amateur theatrical productions.

"This was in the era before television, when people actually entertained themselves," said historian Mary Ann Irwin of Hercules. "They had a complete wardrobe down there so they could put on skits and enact plays."

Upstairs, a grand dining room in the Julia Morgan-designed facility was the scene of annual Passover feasts, which drew some 250 guests. "The seders were the highlight of their season," Irwin said. "It was a big deal to get invited."

The history of the club, which stretches all the way back to 1894, is "a great story and little known," according to Irwin.

She plans to remedy that information gap.

An independent scholar who teaches history at several local colleges, including Diablo Valley in Pleasant Hill and Chabot in Hayward, Irwin is writing a book about the center, which originally opened as a settlement house for Russian Jewish immigrants.

Earlier this month, Irwin was awarded a fellowship to write a chapter of the club's history for a separate book on the role of Jewish women in building communities throughout the United States. The $2,500 grant for the compilation came from the Jewish Women's Archive based in Brookline, Mass.

Irwin became intrigued by the history of the club and the Emanu-El Sisterhood for Personal Service that operated it while researching another subject a few years ago.

Distinct from the sisterhood at the synagogue, this organization "was started by members of all the leading families," said Irwin, rattling off such names as Lilienthal, Sloss, Gerstle, Dinkelspiel, Stern and Heller.

"They knew how to stretch a dollar like you wouldn't believe," she said. Socially progressive and expertly run, the club was a model for other operations nationwide and outlived most of its counterparts.

Irwin described the club as "a dream house."

The living conditions were top-notch and the food was good. "They always had Chinese cooks who learned to make great challah bread and matzah balls," Irwin said.

The club was part sorority, part social-action center.

For her research, Irwin interviewed some 20 women who lived in the club in the 1940s and 1950s as well as former board members who ran the institution. One woman had lived at the house back in the 1930s.

"What I learned from these women was that they gained sisters, women that remained their friends throughout their life; 50, 60 years of friendship," Irwin said.

First located south of Market Street, the center bounced from location to location in its early years. During that time, the house helped settle some 6,000 Jewish immigrants, providing English and citizenship classes along with housing and job placement services.

In 1921, the center's trustees raised the sum of $160,000 to bankroll construction of a brick-faced mansion at the corner of Page and Laguna streets.

Completed in 1923, the club was a residence that ultimately housed "hundreds and hundreds" of young Jewish women.

The center closed in 1969 on the brink of the celebrated Summer of Love. "Girls didn't want to be protected anymore," Irwin said. Located just blocks from the Haight-Ashbury district, the building was sold to the Zen Center.

The club had previously shown a remarkable ability to adapt to new social needs and trends.

"For example, during World War I and the influenza epidemic, girls who lived in the house became Red Cross nurses," Irwin said.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the club opened its doors to "women of every race and ethnic group," she said. Its proximity to the old San Francisco State University campus made it popular with many students.

Irwin said the club's records — everything from annual reports to the minutes of board meetings — were meticulously preserved.

In fact, during the 1906 earthquake and fire that ultimately destroyed the center, then located on Ninth Street, the house's caretakers "saved a chair and the records, bless 'em," said Irwin.

The boxes of documents and photos are now part of the collection at Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum.

Uncovering new treasures is "like a weekly event," according to Irwin.