Mechanics' Institute, San Francisco

Coordinates: 37°47′19″N 122°24′10″W / 37.78861°N 122.40278°W / 37.78861; -122.40278
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Mechanics' Institute, San Francisco
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; -122.40278
Construction started1854 (1854)
Design and construction
Architect(s)William Patton

Mechanics' Institute is a historic membership library, cultural event center, and chess club housed 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. Today the Institute serves readers, writers, downtown employees, students, film lovers, chess players, and others in search of learning and a community for the exchange of ideas.[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 suddenly had no employment and no skills nor prospects. Mechanics' Institute began in 1854 with four books, a chess and games room, and a mission to become a vocational and cultural center. At this time, California had no colleges or universities and no public libraries. (The San Francisco Public Library did not open until 1879.)

By March 1857, Mechanics' Institute of San Francisco elected the following officers to lead the growing institute: President John Sime, Vice President Gardner Elliot, Secretary H. F. Williams, and Treasurer J. E. Kinkade.[2] Within a few years, Mechanics' Institute was offering classes in such subjects as woodworking, mechanical drawing, industrial design, electrical science, applied mathematics, and ironwork. The Institute's importance in technical education in California reached a pinnacle in 1868 when the California legislature granted a charter to the University of California to establish itself as a university. The Institute participated in the fledgling university's first years, hosting technical classes and presenting lectures on many topics. Members of Mechanics' Institute helped develop the university curriculum and have held a seat on the Board of Regents continuously until 1974.

Aside from educational endeavors, the Institute also promoted industry in the San Francisco Bay Area. Beginning in 1857, on land donated by the land baron James Lick, the Institute hosted famous 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 today, including Levi Strauss, Singer Sewing Machines, Goodyear Tire, Boudin Bakery, Heald Business College, Gump's, and Ghirardelli Chocolate.[3][4]

Mechanics' Institute purchased a building site at 36 Post Street, between Montgomery and Kearny, in 1866 where the Institute erected a three-story building designed by William Patton. The building featured retail space on the ground floor, a library with open stacks, a lecture hall for about six hundred people, a chess room, a 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] In April 1906, as with much of the surrounding community, the Institute and its collections were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire.

By 1910 a new building, designed by Albert Pissis, was built at 57 Post St. where today it remains a landmark of San Francisco architecture and home to all of Mechanics' Institute's activities and programs.


Initially a library dedicated to the mechanical arts, the Institute merged with the Mercantile Library Association and dropped its technical focus in 1906.[6] Its current collection of over 160,000 items, housed in an historic marble and wrought iron two-story library, covers all subjects, with special strengths in literature, arts, history, philosophy, business, finance, and hard-to-find periodicals. Two focal areas of the collection are its chess books and local San Francisco history. Mechanics' Institute also has substantial digital resources, such as audio-books, e-books, and a music collection as well as access to online databases of film libraries, genealogical searches, financial databases, and more.


The Mechanics' Institute events department presents over fifty author events a year covering a broad spectrum of authors and themes, including fiction and non-fiction, with topics on American and world history, civic engagement, 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, retrospective, and foreign films. The evening begins with introductions by prominent film critics, writers, reviewers, and the film series curator, who also leads discussions after each film. CinemaLit draws a diverse audience of dedicated film buffs and newcomers to this Friday night film salon.

The free or low-cost author events, Special Programs, and CinemaLit of the Institute are open to all members and the public. Free attendance at most events and CinemaLit is just one of the benefits of membership.


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, classes, gatherings, and other activities for all player levels.[citation needed]


Membership at the Mechanics' Institute is open to the public, and includes use of the library, access to digital and other collections and resources, the chess room, and free or discounted admission to special events, lectures, films, book discussion groups, classes, and other social activities.

See also[edit]

Conference and Membership Library Affiliates[edit]

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]


  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]

External links[edit]