OUR HISTORY and MISSION
The San Francisco Senior Center (SFSC) opened in Aquatic Park in 1947 as the first non-profit senior center in the United States. Over its 70 years, the program has grown and changed to meet the needs of an ever-changing clientele; yet SFSC remains true to its first visions of reducing isolation and enriching lives as we age.
The main San Francisco Senior Center is located inside the Maritime Museum—the building was once known as the Aquatic Park Bathhouse Building—which was built in 1939 by the City of San Francisco and the New Deal Works Progress Administration in the era of Streamline Modern. The intention was to house a public bathing center with restaurants and areas to shower and sanitize. During World War II, the Aquatic Park area was handed over to the military for a World War II lookout post and USO Hospitality House.
By 1947 the space was back under San Francisco’s control. That same year, Charles Rose, sitting in Union Square after leaving his job because of his age, noticed that he was okay when the sun shone, and he could chat with his friends, but when it rained, he was isolated in his single-room-occupancy hotel room with only a radio to pass the time. In the same year, the Women’s Voluntary Service rented Native Sons Hall for Sunday concerts. Hundreds of retired people attended these musicals. It soon became apparent that there was a dire need for larger quarters.
Mr. Rose learned that the Department of Park and Recreation had a vacant building at the foot of Polk Street. Mr. Rose decided to gather his friends and seek a space where people like himself could gather. They knocked on the door of the mayor and other politicians. Many meetings were held, as others wanted the building, yet City Hall decided that this would be the Recreation Center for the Retired Person. This was Mr. Rose’s dream come true. The City put the empty Aquatic Park Bathhouse into the competent hands of Florence Vickery, a social worker interested in older adults and their needs, turning part of the building into a senior center. The decision was important because, at that time, the United States had no major organized social or recreational programs for aging adults.
Florence Vickery had innovative ideas. She believed that isolated seniors would benefit by centers that offered recreational programming and services in one place. She founded San Francisco Senior Center and served as executive director from 1947 to 1967. Ms. Vickery served on the first International Gerontological Society conferences, wrote several books on social aging, and in 1959, began the Conference and Trainings for Leadership of Programs for Older Adults.
The decision was obviously a good one, since within a year, more than 1,000 seniors from all over the city were attending the center. In 1949 the SF News featured seniors seeking yarn to knit blankets for the veterans who had returned from the war. As the leader in aging services nationally, the senior center was featured in 1959 on the cover of Life Magazine with the title, “Old Age: Personal Crisis for Many, National Problem for All”. In 1958, two SF News headings covering the center stood out as harbingers of the future, and proof of the tolerance and innovation that continues today. “No Racial Barriers at Senior Center, and “Senior Citizens Put Big OK on Interracial Recreation”.
Eventually, membership was closed for a while because there were not enough services or space in the building for the number of interested seniors. A Board of Directors enlisted the help of her architect husband and he visualized using the lower floor as classrooms, workshops, lounge and library. What was needed was an elevator. Eventually $23,500 was raised to install an elevator. The Park and Recreation Commission remodeled the lower level. The Junior League added heating and lighting. Equipment came from the Kiwanis Club, Sears-Roebuck, Metropolitan Insurance Company, and Bechtel Corporation. In 1951, a successful application was made to the Community Chest (later known as United Bay Area Crusade, and eventually United Way) for ongoing expenses.
The Older Americans Act
In 1965, Congress passed the Older Americans Act to give seniors a wide range of services and support and the first flow of Federal funds passed down to local programs. The Downtown Branch location of SFSC was the first senior center in California to receive funding from the Older American Act, opening in 1966. In November 1985, the downtown location relocated to 481 O’Farrell Street, tripling its space for programs, social services, and offices.
In 1990, the SFSC Downtown location began two innovative services: The Computer Learning Center opened, and the Chinese Outreach Program, which began in response to the changing ethnic composition of San Francisco’s Tenderloin area.
To help seniors stay fit, SFSC has always offered physical fitness classes at both locations since their inceptions. In 1947 women wore their long dresses and used blankets for mats to work out. In 1997, a unique group of twenty rowers, The Salty Sages, began cruising the bay in a whaleboat. They row every Wednesday morning.
In 1998, with funding from the Koret Foundation, SFSC began the Senior Literacy Project, which provided free help to seniors for improving basic reading and writing skills. The program also served émigré seniors who spoke English as a second language.
To assist seniors in transition from emergency hospitalization back into their homes, the staff at the SFSC Downtown location partnered with the City of San Francisco in 1999 to establish the Homecoming Services Program, which assists frail seniors returning from hospital care to their central San Francisco homes. Often, seniors face this difficult transition alone. The Homecoming Services connected seniors with temporary and ongoing supportive services to ease them back to independent and healthy living. The program expanded to be a referral-based city-wide program utilizing partnerships with The Department of Aging and Adult Services, Community-based organizations and hospitals to stabilize seniors’ post-hospitalization in a 60-day period, called Transitional Care.
Today, SFSC continues to innovate and answer the call for powerful programs and outstanding opportunities for seniors in the San Francisco Bay Area. Offerings include “Living Well, Aging Well” programs, community college art classes, support groups, exercise and fitness (including yoga, Zumba, Qigong, and Always Active classes and the Center for Lifelong Fitness), and more.
This year, the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society is giving San Francisco Senior Center an Award of Merit for its unique beginnings and its contributions to San Francisco history and culture. For more information about SFSC, contact the main office at 890 Beach Street, (415) (415) 775-1866, open every day except Saturday; or the downtown office at 481 O’Farrell Street, open every day, (415) 771-7950
Our goal is to offer the older adults we serve the ability to access programs and services available in the community. Sequoia Living works closely with many other non-profit agencies in the Bay Area. Activities and educational programs are provided to our Continuing Care Retirement Community residents by these community organizations. Affordable housing residents can choose to participate in a low-cost meal program and a health/education program that connects them with local services.
In 2005, Sequoia Living embarked on substantial capital improvement projects at its facilities, which continue today. These upgrades and renovations will preserve the buildings we own and keep them attractive for future residents.
We operate our residential communities as efficiently as possible, managing the human and financial resources available. Funds raised by Senior Services for Northern California (SSNC) are invested wisely by professional advisors who are guided by our Board of Trustees. Foundation gifts and grants support programs, services and projects designed to improve the quality of life for Northern California residents and older adults.