The new Nancy Friend Pritzker Psychiatry Building at UCSF is named in honor of John Pritzker's sister, who died by suicide at the age of 24 in 1972. (Photo/Courtesy Pritzker family)
The new Nancy Friend Pritzker Psychiatry Building at UCSF is named in honor of John Pritzker's sister, who died by suicide at the age of 24 in 1972. (Photo/Courtesy Pritzker family)

$60 million gift from Pritzkers builds UCSF family psychiatry center

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

When UCSF opens its 150,000-square-foot psychiatry building in the fall, the Bay Area philanthropists who initiated the project will realize a vision nearly two decades in the making.

Supported with a $60 million gift from John Pritzker and Lisa Stone Pritzker, the Nancy Friend Pritzker Psychiatry Building will offer physical and mental health care to patients in a bright, airy, state-of-the-art building. Located by UCSF’s Mission Bay campus, the facility will also be a center for neuroscience, education and training.

John Pritzker
John Pritzker

The building is named for John Pritzker’s sister, who died by suicide at age 24 during a depressive episode in 1972. The naming not only honors his sister — whom Pritzker describes as “glorious, brilliant and beautiful” — but brings mental illness out of the shadows as a treatable sickness. Too often, it is stigmatized and hidden, with disastrous results.

Pritzker’s parents didn’t tell him or his siblings about his older sister’s depression, he said. “Back then, you didn’t talk about mental illness.” Even today, he said, while people will freely discuss heart, lung or kidney problems, few will admit they suffer from depression.

Lisa Stone Pritzker, too, saw the effects of mental health issues within her family growing up. “When I was a very small child, an immediate family member suffered from depression. It impacted all of us,” she said. It also led to her decision to study dance therapy in college and later volunteer with a family crisis hotline and at San Francisco General Hospital’s psychiatric floor in 2003–2004.

It was the latter experience that prompted the two to see if they could find a better place for people — especially the young — seeking treatment.

At S.F. General, “I saw things from the inside,” said Lisa. Very young children “were waiting for their psychiatric care in a basement that was cramped and old and poorly lit, and often sitting next to adults who were terribly stressed.”

John still remembers Lisa’s descriptions of a place that seemed unwelcoming. Where, among other things, children would have to pass by prisoners getting psychiatric evaluations.

The Pritzkers approached UCSF about a donation, and after years of on-and-off discussions and planning, their dream of a center for children, teens and families came true — and more.

Rendering of the UCSF Nancy Friend Pritzker Psychiatry Building (Image/Courtesy ZGF Architects)
Rendering of the UCSF Nancy Friend Pritzker Psychiatry Building (Image/Courtesy ZGF Architects)

“It is precisely the vision I had some 18 years ago, a welcoming environment where children and teens feel safe and comfortable and everyone will be treated with respect,” said Lisa. The center has its own separate entrance to the building, and “feels much more comfortable and not scary for children,” she said. “It’s scaled appropriately for kids.”

With a rooftop garden, “there’s even a place for play therapy,” she said.

The new, five-story structure also features an atrium, auditorium, gymnasium, photographic art (former Contemporary Jewish Museum CEO Connie Wolf is helping curate images), a community-based youth art program and much more. The structure sits on a parcel in Dogpatch that John bought some 20 years ago. The site is accessible by Muni and the UCSF shuttle, he noted. “People around the city can access that location for services. ”

Both Lisa and John were deeply engaged in the planning process, including providing input — along with some 100 UCSF faculty and staff — to ZGF Architects. “Growing up in hospitality and designing hotels,” said John, a Hyatt Hotel heir and founder of hospitality investor Geolo Capital, “you think about practical issues.”

Lisa Stone Pritzker
Lisa Stone Pritzker

Lisa, a member of the UCSF board of overseers, said she “wanted to ensure that the physical space for the young children, teens and family would reflect the excellent care that they would be receiving.”

The couple, who divorced two years ago, expect to remain involved with the project. Both grew up in families where tikkun olam — repairing the world — was exemplified.

“I grew up in a very close family, where giving back was always very important,” said Lisa. “At the same time, my grandparents and great-uncle were very philanthropic. I learned a lot from them growing up.”

For John, “the values that my parents inculcated in us, and my involvement in Federation and with [S.F. philanthropist] Barney Osher” are “part and parcel” of his identity.

Dr. Matthew State, UCSF professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, praised the Pritzkers’ “extraordinary generosity” and “tenacity in supporting mental health” over the long term. Both State and UCSF chancellor Sam Hawgood were instrumental in developing the Pritzkers’ vision.

Bringing together clinical and physical health care and education, along with cutting-edge studies, “from psychedelics research to sleep medicine, psychiatry and brain science,” said State, is “really unusual.”

“All of that is going to make it a remarkable place for our department and neuroscience at UCSF … This will expand our capacity, clinically and broadly, to serve the community.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.