Mechanics' Institute, San Francisco

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Mechanics' Institute, San Francisco
San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute-0672.jpg
Mechanics' Institute Library and Chess Room
General information
StatusUsed as a library, cultural event center, and chess club
Address57 Post Street
Town or cityFinancial District of San Francisco
CountryUnited States
Coordinates37°47′19″N 122°24′10″W / 37.78861°N 122.40278°W / 37.78861; -122.40278Coordinates: 37°47′19″N 122°24′10″W / 37.78861°N 122.40278°W / 37.78861; -122.40278
Construction started1854 (1854)
Design and construction
ArchitectWilliam Patton

The Mechanics' Institute is a historic membership library, cultural event center, and chess club at 57 Post Street, San Francisco, California. It was founded in 1854, as a mechanics' institute, an educational and cultural institution, to serve the vocational needs of out-of-work gold miners. The institute today serves readers, writers, downtown employees, students, film lovers, chess players, and others.[1]


In 1848, the discovery of gold lured people from all over the world to California. By 1853 most surface gold was mined out, pushing the town of San Francisco into economic decline. A flood of former miners had no jobs, skills, or prospects. The Mechanics' Institute began in 1854, with four books, a chess room, and a mission to start a vocational school. At this time, California had no colleges or universities, and no public libraries. (The San Francisco Public Library did not open until 1879.)

In March 1857, Mechanics' Institute at San Francisco, elected the following officers: President, John Sime, Vice President, Gardner Elliot; Secretary, H. F. Williams, Treasurer, J. E. Kinkade.[2]

Within a few years, the Mechanics' Institute offered classes in such subjects as woodworking, mechanical drawing, industrial design, electrical science, applied mathematics, and ironwork. The institute's importance in California technical education reached a pinnacle in 1868, when the California legislature granted a charter for the establishment of the University of California. The institute participated in the fledgling university's first years, hosting technical classes and presenting lectures on many topics. It helped develop the curriculum, and had a seat on the Board of Regents until 1974.

Aside from educational endeavors, the institute also promoted industry in the San Francisco Bay Area. Beginning in 1857, on land donated by land baron James Lick, the institute hosted industrial fairs that displayed inventions, art, and products of all kinds to thousands of visitors. Awards were presented to winning exhibitors—many of whom are still in business, including Levi Strauss, Singer Sewing Machines, Goodyear Tire, Boudin Bakery, Heald Business College, Gump's, and Ghirardelli Chocolate.[3][4]

The Mechanics' Institute purchased the site on Post Street, between Montgomery and Kearny in 1866. The Institute erected a three-story building that was designed by William Patton. The new building featured retail spaces on the ground floor; library with open stacks; lecture hall for about six hundred people; chess room; furnished ladies sitting room; and other rooms for rental by committees, lodges, and related scientific organizations.[1]

President Theodore Roosevelt gave an address at the institute on 13 May 1903.[5]


Initially a library dedicated to the mechanical arts, in 1906, the institution merged with the Mercantile Library Association, and dropped its technical focus.[6] Its collection today covers all subjects, with special strengths in literature, arts, history, philosophy, business, finance, and hard-to-find periodicals. The Mechanics' Institute also has an audio-book, e-book, and music collection.


The Mechanics' Institute events department presents over fifty author events a year. These offer a broad spectrum of authors and themes, including fiction and non-fiction, with an emphasis on American and world history, arts and architecture, biography, science and technology, social trends, economy, and culinary arts. Special Programs, such as the San Francisco Noir Literary Night, World Poetry Reading, Bloomsday, and a Bastille Day celebration are popular annual events.

The CinemaLit Film Series presents 35 films a year, featuring classic American, retro and foreign films. The evening begins with introductions by prominent film critics, writers, and reviewers, with a discussion after each film. CinemaLit draws an eclectic, diverse audience with many film buffs dedicated to the Friday night film salon.

Author events, CinemaLit and Special Programs are open to members and the public. Free attendance at most events and CinemaLit are a benefit of membership.


In November 2016, the institute hosted Reinvention: Thriving in the 21st Century - Mechanics' Worldwide,[7] the fourth in a series of international conferences for "independent and subscription libraries, mechanics' institutes, athenaeums, societies, literary institutes, lyceums, mercantile libraries, schools of arts and working men's institutes".[8]


San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute.

The Mechanics' Institute building houses the oldest continuously operating chess club in the United States, the Mechanics' Institute Chess Club. Many world champions have visited the chess room, from Emanuel Lasker in 1902 to Boris Spassky in 2006. In 2009 one of the chess club's young students, 12-year-old Daniel Naroditsky, won the World Championship for his age group. The chess club offers tournaments and other activities for all player levels.[citation needed]


Membership in the Mechanics' Institute is open to the public, and offers use of the library and chess room, free admittance or discounts to special events, lectures, book discussion groups, classes, and other activities.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Mechanics' Institute by Taryn Edwards". Retrieved 2022-02-23.
  2. ^ "Mechanics' Institute". The Sacramento Bee. Sacramento, California. 7 Mar 1857. p. 2.
  3. ^ Reinhardt, Richard. Four books, 300 dollars and a dream: an illustrated history of the first 150 years of the Mechanics' Institute of San Francisco : how a pioneer reading room for the education of craftsmen became a major library, research facility and social center in the heart of a busy city, San Francisco : The Institute, c2005OCLC 76791892
  4. ^ Mechanics' Institute Library and Chess Room | Atlas Obscura
  5. ^ "Theodore Roosevelt: Address at Mechanics' Pavilion in San Francisco, California - May 13, 1903". The American Presidency Project. Archived from the original on 4 March 2016. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  6. ^ "Two Libraries Finally Merge". The San Francisco Call. San Francisco, California. 4 Jan 1906. p. 9.
  7. ^ "Mechanics' Worldwide". Mechanics' Institutes of Victoria Inc. 15 October 2021. Retrieved 1 January 2022.
  8. ^ "Reinvention: Thriving in the 21st Century". Mechanics' Institute. Retrieved 1 January 2022.

Further reading[edit]

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