September 25, 2012
History of 300 Page Street

As part of the Zen Center 50 events, there will be exhibits and events at City Center in October – Designing Sacred Architecture: Julia Morgan and Zen Center. The month of October also marks statewide events honoring Julia Morgan, who designed 300 Page Street, which was completed in 1922. In conjunction with the ZC50 events, Board Chair Mary Morgan researched the history of the City Center building and the historical connections between Zen Center and Temple Emanu-el.

Photo by Shundo David Haye

A Building That Binds Us Together

by Mary C. Morgan, Chair of San Francisco Zen Center Board of Directors

The incredibly beautiful building located at 300 Page Street that gracefully houses San Francisco Zen Center’s City Center temple and sangha once housed single Jewish women who came to San Francisco seeking a better life. Conceived of and built by the Emanu-el Sisterhood for Personal Service, the original purpose of the building was to provide a physical, educational, and spiritual place of refuge for women who were finding their way in San Francisco. San Francisco Zen Center is the beneficiary of the work of the Sisterhood, whose members were true bodhisattvas in their efforts to help these women—initially poor immigrants from Eastern Europe, then German women fleeing Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and then all kinds of women, some of whom just needed a place to live and some of whom needed intensive counseling services. Although the Sisterhood and its Residence Club no longer exist, Zen Center and the San Francisco Jewish community share a bond through this magnificent building and our collective efforts to hear and respond to the cries of the world.

Even before the bond through 300 Page Street, Temple Emanu-El and Zen Center had a connection. When Suzuki Roshi came to the United States, he was the chief priest of the Soto Zen Mission of the Sokoji Buddhist Church. Sokoji was housed in a building that had originally been a synagogue. In 1864 a group of members of Temple Emanu-el left the congregation and established Congregation Ohabai Shalome, which means “lovers of peace.” In 1895 the congregation commissioned the building of what came to be known as the Bush Street Synagogue at 1881 Bush Street. As membership of Ohabai Shalome declined, this California State Landmark building was sold to Sokoji. It was here that Western students first sat zazen with Suzuki Roshi, and it was the first home of San Francisco Zen Center until 300 Page Street was purchased in 1969, establishing the second bond with Temple Emanu-El.

Courtyard – Photo by Shundo David Haye

The Emanu-El Sisterhood for Personal Service was founded in 1894 by women primarily from the Temple Emanu-El congregation who were interested in doing philanthropic work, rather than charity work. That meant that they did not give money to people, except in unusual circumstances. Instead, they provided food, education, training, and job placement. The recipients were typically Eastern European Jewish immigrants looking for a new life in California. When the Federation of Jewish Charities was founded in 1910, the Emanu-El Sisterhood was one of the founding constituent societies.

By 1912 the Sisterhood recognized a need beyond services and education. Many of the Jewish working women who were receiving their services were women without family or single women who came to San Francisco looking for work. A house on Steiner Street and soon a second house were rented to provide rooms to let for women in need of refuge. After World War I the Sisterhood focused on the need for a residence home for single women in the city. Sponsored by the Federation of Jewish Charities, Julia Morgan and Dorothy Wormser were commissioned to design the building at 300 Page Street. Construction was completed in 1922 and the building provided accommodations for up to 60 residents.

During the early years of the Great Depression, occupancy plummeted. But with the financial assistance of the Federation of Jewish Charities, costs were offset and more women moved in. By the mid-1930s all the rooms were full and there was a waiting list. Significant numbers of young German woman came to live in the building, and special programs were developed to teach them about American culture. A cookbook was published to create additional revenue and the auditorium was converted into four kitchen units. The Institute for Practical Arts was established to teach women “scientific home making.”1 Childcare was provided for working women. A policy was adopted of promoting independence by encouraging residence of only a few years and creating recreational and educational activities based on the desires of the women rather than the directors of the Sisterhood. By the late 1930s the progressive and thoughtful leadership of the Sisterhood turned to questions of how to provide appropriate services to youth.

Archival image of recreation room, now the zendo

By the 1940s the Residence was no longer considered an institution for women in need but rather one of the leading residence clubs for women in the city. During World War II almost every resident was a war worker. They worked long hours and meals had to be served at odd hours. Dining and recreational opportunities were offered to military men. In the President’s 1942-43 annual report, the Sisterhood’s contribution toward “the goal of unity” was stressed. “In an agency such as Sisterhood one has an active and concrete example of just such a unity, one which is an integral part of our own particular brand of American Democracy, Jew living with non-Jew, German, French, Italian, Polish, Russian and American girls, side by side, enjoying the Club, enjoying each other and so living … as American citizens.”2

In the 1950s the Residence Club regarded itself as more than just a physical shelter. The Board felt an obligation to address the difficulties and needs of the residents, which were analyzed as (1) economic insecurity, (2) family responsibilities, (3) problems needing short- or long-term therapy, (4) lonely and uncertain people in need of pleasant associates and the security of group identification, and (5) opportunities for personal growth and self-expression in a non-authoritarian and non-possessive atmosphere. Most applicants for housing at this time came from within California, but there were also some from the Northwest and East Coast, as well as outside the country. Deferred maintenance—modernization of electrical wiring, interior and exterior painting, bathroom repairs, roof repair, flooring, etc.—was addressed by the Board.

In 1955 the Sisterhood changed its name from Emanu-El Sisterhood to Emanu-El Residence Club in recognition that its primary purpose was to provide housing rather than direct services. Its statement of purpose was

The Club houses 70 residents and is concerned with the housing and welfare of girls having no adequate home of their own. It is both a club and a home and not only offers board and lodging, but a friendly environment with opportunities for social and recreational, educational and cultural activities. The large majority of residents come from other communities and from all areas of the world. Girls and young women of the lower income groups, from 18-20 years of age are eligible, if without families or in need of substitute homes. The rates are moderate and proportioned to the resident’s earning. Many of the girls present personality problems, and the program provides individual counseling or referrals to other agencies. The length of stay is limited, since it is the aim of the Club to prepare each girl to go forth into a life of her own. She is helped and encouraged to this and by every available means.3

By the late 1950s, the United Community Fund, which had been the primary source of support, requested that the Residence Club become self-supporting. This resulted in a number of cost-saving measures such as installing cafeteria service in the dining room. It also meant that for the first time the Club was publicly forthcoming about the service it provided to young women who had physical disabilities, emotional instability, or other social maladjustment. A complete review of residents and services by the Jewish Welfare Federation and United Bay Area Crusade was conducted and it was determined that the Club served “a valid welfare purpose” and could continue receiving funds from those agencies.4

City Center Zendo – Photo by Shundo David Haye

By the 1960s times had again changed. The minutes of the April 1962 meeting of the board told the story of a wide range of residents: a mentally ill girl from Hungary, a deaf girl working at the S.F. Chronicle, a woman recently divorced from a drug addict, another mentally ill girl who refused treatment. Occupancy was declining. The minutes of the October 1962 Board meeting referred to the new students as “not as ‘beatnik’ as last year’s group. Several Navajo Indians are still at the Club and are becoming better integrated into the activities.” About one-half of the residents had “special problems” requiring counseling; the other half were young women coming to San Francisco for the first time who preferred a sheltered group living situation.5 As time went on, there was concern about the changing nature of the neighborhood with increased hold-ups, burglaries, and other disturbances. The Club directors continued the policy of reaching out to the surrounding community, and the building became a frequent meeting place for new neighborhood organizations, including the Page-Laguna Neighborhood Association. Nevertheless, the Jewish Federation which was providing a significant amount of support began to question the continued efficacy of its investment. The population the Club had once served no longer lived in the community. The Federation declined to continue its support. In 1969 the Board voted to close the Residence Club.

San Francisco Zen Center was the fortunate recipient of this wonderful legacy of physical and spiritual refuge. What a coincidence that it was only a few blocks from Sokoji on Bush Street where Suzuki Roshi and San Francisco Zen Center students were then practicing. As did the Sisterhood, Zen Center adapted the building to its own needs and purposes. The gymnasium was remodeled and became the zendo, or meditation hall. The garden on the side of the building has been planted with fruit trees. Solar panels and bee hives grace the roof. Like the Sisterhood Board, the City Center temple constantly struggles to keep up with needed maintenance.

Front of City Center – Photo by Shundo David Haye

Zen Center and the Sisterhood also share a common dedication to helping its own as well as others. The City Center temple is a place for residential Zen training where mindfulness and stillness can help one develop inner peace and balance in a volatile and chaotic world. It provides community, or sangha, for Buddhist practitioners who live outside the temple walls. Zen Center founded and nurtured Zen Hospice where the dying could be cared for. It is the physical home for such programs as Meditation and Recovery and Young Urban Zen. It reaches out to the wider community, providing services for the homeless, for women and children in need of shelter and safety, and for inmates of prisons and jails.

As one resident of City Center has said: “Our practice is one of calm and beauty.  We are so lucky to have such a beautiful building in which to practice.”


Emanu-El Residence Club of San Francisco records, 1894-1969, the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, The Bancroft Library Archives, University of California, Berkeley.

Fonfa, Lynn, “The Emanu-El Sisterhood: Agent of Assimilation,” The Californians (March/April 1986) 34.

Rosenbaum, Fred, Visions of Reform (2000) 90-93.

Taylor, Judith M., “Sydney Stein Rich—gardener and pioneer on two fronts,”

The Congregation Emanu-El, “We Worshipped Here” (2000).

Wikipedia, “Bush Street Temple,”

1. Annual Report of the President to the Board of Directors and members of Federation of Jewish Charities, 1933, Emanu-El Residence Club, The Bancroft Library, University of California (hereafter cited as Emanu-El MSS).

2. President’s Annual Report of Emanu-El Residence Club for 1942-1943, Emanu-El MSS.

3. Emanu-El Residence Club Annual Report, October 29, 1954, Emanu-El Residence Club MSS.

4. President’s Annual Report, June 3, 1959, Emanu-El Residence Club MSS.

5. Board Minutes, October 3, 1962, Emanu-El Residence Club MSS.