The Evolution of Alchemy

Alchemy, located at 200 Buchanan Street, was once the campus of several educational institutions, including the San Francisco Normal School (1899 – 1921), San Francisco State Teacher’s College (1921 – 1935), San Francisco State College (1935 – 1957), University of California Berkeley Laguna Extension (1957 – 2001), and the French-American International School (1973-2003). A series of information display boards located throughout the property at 200 Buchanan Street / 55 Laguna Street describe the history of the campus, its occupants, its buildings, and the Works Progress Administration artists that adorned the buildings. (Please see the Gallery of images below)


Until the early 19th century, there were no formal educational training programs or standards for entering the teaching profession. In California, public concern regarding the lack of professionally trained teachers led to a call for the establishment of New England style normal schools to prepare teachers for the public schools. The term “Normal” school originates from the French “ecole normal” and implies the implementation of standardized teaching norms. It was the objective of the normal school movement to improve the quality of teacher training, and to establish standards and norms for elementary school education.


The leadership of the San Francisco Normal School was placed in the hands of Frederick Burk. Burk was an important educational figure in California who enjoyed a national reputation. He graduated from the University of California in 1883 with a Bachelor of Letters degree. He taught in both public and private schools to finance his postgraduate work at Stanford, receiving his MA in 1892. In 1896, he began studies for the Ph.D. under the tutelage of G. Stanley Hall in Massachusetts. When he returned to California, he served as Superintendent of Schools for Santa Barbara in 1898-1899. He then accepted an offer to become President of the San Francisco Normal School shortly after the Legislature authorized its creation. He served as President until his death in 1924.


Undeterred by the “old, barren-looking” facilities that were provided, Frederick Burk saw new opportunities in the urban location of the school. San Francisco had excellent secondary schools from which the San Francisco Normal School could draw recent graduates. Long an advocate of more stringent entry standards for normal schools, Burk instituted admissions standards equivalent to those of the University of California. In this regard he was a pioneer both in the in the state and country. Burk also introduced courses on educational philosophy and its practical application in the classroom. The San Francisco Normal School taught no general academic courses. They pioneered in introducing seminar-based classes and practice- teaching into the program.


The San Francisco Normal School quickly established itself as a center of educational debate and a progressive voice promoting higher standards for both teachers and students. Among the state’s normal school facilities San Francisco and Los Angeles took on more prominent roles as research institutions. San Francisco began publishing a series of bulletins based on faculty research and observation. In 1912, it launched a more widely circulated series of monographs on educational issues. Between 1910 and 1913, it initiated experiments regarding individual differences and the learning process. The San Francisco Normal School also introduced the concept of evaluating student achievements within a specific area without regard to age or accomplishment in other subjects. In 1914, they introduced the first post-graduate course and in 1917, they added special elementary and secondary diplomas in music, physical education, and playground athletics. In addition to training large numbers of teachers in the Bay Area, the San Francisco Normal School was a center of educational innovation and debate both within the state and in the larger professional educational world.


Many of the ideas pioneered at the San Francisco Normal School, particularly those related to professional standards and excellence, and training curriculum were embodied in a series of major education and government policy debates from 1900 to 1919. The debates centered around defining the proper role and future of the normal schools. Ultimately, a report, known as the Jones Report, recommended that the normal schools be transformed into teachers colleges with full collegiate status. This recommendation passed into legislation in May 1921. This action elevated teacher education to the post-secondary level and was the culmination of a long reform effort. It also functioned to create eight acknowledged collegiate level institutions, which eventually became the California State University system. In keeping with its change in status, the San Francisco Normal School changed its name to San Francisco State Teacher’s College in 1921 and, again, in 1935 to San Francisco State College.


When the San Francisco Normal School building along Powell Street was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake, classes reconvened temporarily in Oakland, but within a short time, the San Francisco Normal School moved to more permanent quarters in the of the Protestant Orphan Asylum.

The campus, in addition to the consisted of a row of one-story classrooms along Waller Street , a two-story building on Buchanan (demolished ca. 1930), and a U-plan, two-story Mission Revival style classroom building at the corner of Buchanan and Hermann Streets (demolished after 1957, now the Dental Clinic Building constructed ca. 1970). The school’s new status as a college and its expanded liberal arts curriculum encouraged the development of new and more adequate facilities. The school turned to the Office of the State Architect in Sacramento to prepare a master plan for the campus. With the passage of the Field Act in 1933, the Office assumed plan-check authority over local school building design. In carrying out its work, the Office drew on a wide variety of popular styles. Buildings in the 1920s were executed in period revivals style including examples of Tudor, Norman and, as in the case of the San Francisco Teacher’s College, Spanish Colonial Revival.

McDougall initiated a Master Plan for the San Francisco campus, which was to be developed in phases as funding became available. Designs reflected collaboration between McDougall and San Francisco State Teacher’s College President, Frederic Burk, who “helped McDougall plan the organization of the campus and classrooms within individual buildings.”2 The proposed new campus of the State Teachers’ College was described as being “beautiful, imposing, healthful, and efficient.”

In keeping with the traditions of Spanish architecture and in response to the notion of a self- enclosed educational environment, the buildings were oriented inward on a central courtyard plan. In addition, each of the buildings had smaller courtyard areas designed to provide places of outdoor study, repose, and student interaction. Although each is individual in its design and detailing, the first building to be completed was the gymnasium, known as Middle Hall. In 1924, the Administrative Wing of Richardson Hall was initiated to house a kindergarten training facility. In 1926, plans were underway to construct a science building, Woods Hall.

Despite this aggressive building program, enrollment constantly exceeded the capacity of the campus. The 800-student limit of the campus was exceeded before construction of the complex could be completed. As a result, the older Victorian and post-earthquake buildings, which were to have been removed under the campus plan, remained and continued to be used for classrooms until the 1950s. Over the years, the buildings became increasingly dilapidated and viewed as fire hazards. One of San Francisco State’s earliest protests came in 1938 of crowded conditions, when students demanded that something be done about the inadequate facilities.

By the late 1930s, school administrators had begun a campaign to acquire one of the last large parcels of land in San Francisco near Lake Merced at the western edge of the city. Development of the western campus began in the 1940s. For nineteen years, the school maintained both a “downtown” campus at 55 Laguna Street and the larger campus at Lake Merced. In 1957, all operations were consolidated at the Lake Merced campus. The downtown campus was transferred to the University of California, which used it as an extension program site, known as the UC Berkeley Laguna Extension, until 2001.


George B. McDougall (1868-1957) was born in San Francisco, and along with his brothers, Charles and Benjamin, trained under the tutelage of their father, Barnett McDougall. Initially, the family members worked together as B. McDougall & Sons, but in 1897, the brothers formed their own architectural firm, the McDougall Brothers. In 1913, George B. McDougall was appointed State Architect for the California Department of Public Works. In 1921, he advanced to become the Chief of the Department of Architecture with responsibilities for the construction of public buildings in San Francisco and Sacramento.4 Some of his notable works included the California State Normal Schools in San Diego, San Francisco, Fresno, and Santa Barbara, as well as the Inyo Fish Hatchery and Oakland Federal Building.


 The Protestant Orphan Asylum was founded in 1851 originally occupied a small cottage and it stood on the site of what would later become the San Francisco State Teacher’s College campus. According to the 1893 Sanborn fire insurance map, the two-story masonry orphanage was located on the western half of the block bounded by Buchanan, Waller, Haight, and Laguna Streets near what is today Woods Hall. To the south of the orphanage was a Victorian, wood-frame schoolhouse, which was also operated by the Protestant Orphan Asylum.

The 1906 earthquake heavily damaged the Protestant Orphan Asylum. More serious, however, were the fires that broke out following the tremors. The flames were stopped only a block away from the orphanage at Octavia Street, while to the south across Market Street the fire was halted along the east side of Dolores Street. Following the disaster, the undeveloped area surrounding the Protestant Orphan Asylum became the site of an earthquake refugee camp. Within a few years, the orphanage building was demolished and its adjacent schoolhouse was converted for use as classroom space by the San Francisco Normal School—which later became San Francisco State Teacher’s College. None of the Protestant Orphan Asylum buildings remains today.

The Gymnasium for San Francisco State Teacher’s College once stood near this area. Also known as Middle Hall, the building was the first to be completed in 1924. It featured a Spanish Colonial Revival style with stucco finished concrete walls, small recessed fenestration, and a gabled terracotta tile roof. The building was both smaller and less elaborate in design and plan than the other campus buildings McDougall designed, such as Woods Hall. As the only building within the Teacher’s College complex that did not abut the street, it formed an L with Woods Hall that created a sheltered courtyard space between the two buildings. As the photographs show, the Gymnasium was a center for student activity beyond the typical gym classes. Sadie Hawkins Day, basketball games, and intramural sports created an audience along the Gymnasium’s terrace and main entry.

Following the development of the Lake Merced campus of the college in the 1940s, the gymnasium was converted into a library and two new computer classrooms were added on the second floor level. In 1973, the French-American International School moved into the upper half of the campus, leasing Woods Hall, Woods Hall Annex and the Gymnasium from the University of California. In 1989 the French-American International School renovated the existing Gymnasium and exterior courtyard. Ripley Associates was commissioned to convert the Gymnasium into a contemporary classroom building for the addition of a high school. During the 1990s, the Gymnasium was renamed Middle Hall and two new high-tech classrooms were renovated on the second floor. By 2003, the French-American International School vacated Woods Hall, the Annex, and Middle Hall. The site remained vacant and in 2013, Middle Hall, the Gymnasium, was demolished.


In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated a work relief program under the umbrella of the National Recovery Act (NRA) called the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Cities and towns around the nation welcomed this relief program, which updated public infrastructure and helped to jumpstart the economy. The community provided the workers and the federal government paid the wages. At its peak, the WPA employed 3.5 million workers and administered a budget of eleven billion dollars. As a strategy to employ artists and artisans, the Federal Government made the embellishment of new buildings a requirement of public works projects.×200.jpg

The funding and promotion of public art was more than make-work; the administrators of these programs intended them to help to bring art to everyday citizens and to foster the development of a distinctive American culture.

San Francisco was one of the first cities to receive funding for local projects under the WPA. At San Francisco State Teacher’s College, the WPA was responsible for the execution of the Woods Hall Annex building and produced a wide range of mural art throughout the site. The artists included Reuben Kadish, Hebe Daum Stackpole, Maxine Albro, Jack Moxom and John Emmett Gerrity. Rueben Kadish executed the mural known as “A Dissertation on Alchemy,” which is located at the top of the stairwell at the east end of the Annex building. Hebe Daum Stackpole a large wall mural located in the Richardson Hall Administration Wing, which was with the kindergarten training done at the Teacher’s College. Maxine Albro executed an elaborate mosaic mural over the entry to Woods Hall. Albro and her assistants also added a mosaic element to Hebe Daum Stackpole’s mural at the campus.

The association of the mural work with the Teacher’s College fulfilled a number of goals of the public arts program of the New Deal. It exposed an urban student population to works of art in their daily environment, and it functioned implicitly to heighten the aesthetic awareness of those who would be teaching in the public schools. San Francisco has a limited number of WPA murals, some of which have been recognized both as representations of an important historic government program and as works of art, including those at Coit Tower.


Maxine Albro (1903-1966) designed and completed an elaborate mosaic mural over the main arched entry to Woods Hall. She was one of five artists commissioned by the Federal Government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) to create murals at the San Francisco State Teachers’ College.

Maxine Albro was a Dutch artist who attended the California School of Fine Arts from 1931-33. There she studied sculpture under Robert Stackpole (no relation) and fresco painting under Roy Boynton. She later married photographer Peter Stackpole intermittently pursued her art.

Albro enrolled at the California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute) in 1923 and went on to study both at the Art Student League in New York City and the Ecole de la Grand Chumiere in Paris. After returning from Europe, Albro traveled to Mexico where she received individual instruction from Diego Rivera’s assistant Paul O’Higgins. Upon returning to the United States, Albro’s experience with fresco painting enabled her to compete for and win prestigious commissions, including, in 1933, her first WPA commission at Coit Tower in San Francisco.

Albro was then contracted by the WPA to complete a mural above the entrance of the Hall of Natural Science (now Woods Hall) at the San Francisco State Teacher’s College campus. Because mosaic was a new medium for Albro, the WPA hired Italian mosaic setter Primo Caredio to assist her. She worked with a crew of eight additional people to execute her design, a process which took the full winter of 1936 into 1937. The small marble pieces formed human figures, animals, flowers, and enlarged butterflies, all in reference to the subject matter covered in the classrooms within Woods Hall. Albro continued to pursue her work as a painter and as a muralist after the 1930s. Her work is in the collections of the University of Arizona Art Museum, the Oakland Museum and the San Diego Art Museum. The mosaic was removed, likely around the time that the Teacher’s College vacated the Hayes Valley campus, circa 1953-1955.

At the time of  the mural’s commission, the room was an open space with arches that formed the hallway. The mural was composed of a series of loosely linked vignettes across the four walls of the space, beginning approximately six feet above the floor and extending between six and seven feet to the ceiling. The composition depicted young children of differing ethnicities at play together in an optimistic statement of national unity that embodied the ideals of the kindergarten movement and the President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, which funded the WPA.

The mural was photographed and documented before being demolished due to its poor condition. There are full-size reproductions of Daum’s mural at 55 Laguna Street.

John Emmett Gerrity (1895-1980) designed and completed a large mounted canvas mural in the entry to Woods Hall. He was one of five artists commissioned by the Federal Government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) to create murals at the San Francisco State Teachers’ College. Gerrity’s canvas mural in Woods Hall was likely painted over some time after the Teacher’s College vacated the Hayes Valley campus in 1953. Conservator testing in 2012 revealed that while portions of the mural still exist, portions of the canvas on which the mural was painted have been removed.

Gerrity pursued his art education outside of a formal university environment. Travelling between San Francisco and Los Angeles through his twenties, Gerrity developed a style that was influenced by his study of old masters as well as his personal experimentation with color and spatial relationships. In the 1920s, Gerrity taught art history and color theory at the California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute).

In the late 1930s, Gerrity painted the oil-on-canvas mural in this large octagonal room to reflect the original use of the Woods Hall as the science facility for the Teacher’s College. Several assistants laid the canvas and laid out the drawings, and Gerrity executed the painting. Gerrity’s work differed stylistically from most of the other work at the site; Gerrity described his work at the time as influenced not by Diego Rivera, but rather by the brightly colored and lighter-formed work of LA-based artist S. MacDonald Wright.10 The canvas covered all eight walls of the octagonal space and was larger than any other mural project at the Teacher’s College campus. The project took him four years, although during some of that time he was not working consistently at the Teacher’s College but rather at the World’s Fair at Treasure Island. After completing the mural project at the Teacher’s College, Gerrity withdrew from public life in the 1940s but continued painting prolifically in his home studio in Berkeley.


Jack (John S.) Moxom painted the angel above, as well as several other uncovered murals throughout Richardson Hall. He was one of five artists commissioned by the Federal Government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) to create murals at the San Francisco State Teachers’ College. Moxom was born in Alberta, Canada in 1913 and attended the California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute) for several years where he initially trained as a painter.13 During this time he was heavily influenced by the work of Diego Rivera, and later in life studied under the painter Giorgio de Chirico. He became involved with WPA-funded art projects early on, and his first project was a life-sized sculpture, begun in 1934 and funded by the Public Works of Art Project, of a girl, rendered in red sandstone and surrounded by a cat and a squirrel. It is a monument to Sarah B. Cooper, who established the first kindergarten classes in San Francisco, and is extant though in deteriorated condition, located in Golden Gate Park near the Koret Children’s Playground.14

At the Teacher’s College campus, Moxom worked for over two years and completed an estimated 10-15 fresco murals, all located within Richardson Hall.15 Although many of the frescoes were small scale, located over doors and in lunettes over windows, larger murals stretched down hallways and around doorframes. Executed using traditional fresco technique, viagra online usa the angel references a subject matter associated with the Spanish Revival style of the building. However, the style in which it is painted has a robustness, especially in the round face and large feet, that draws on Mexican muralists of the time.

Moxom continued to work on other WPA-funded projects, and completed another fresco at a school in Hillsborough. He was politically active with labor organizations and participated in artist-led strikes during the WPA era.17 He later lived in Oakland, California and remained active as a painter, sculptor, lithographer and printmaker.


Born in Chicago on January 29, 1913, Kadish built a prolific career as a printmaker, muralist, painter, and sculptor. Moving to Los Angeles in 1919, he studied at the Stickney School of Art and at the Otis Art Institute. After assisting Mexican master David Alfaro Siqueiros on murals in Southern California, Kadish moved to San Francisco where he headed the Mural Division of the Federal Art Project in the mid-1930s.

Kadish originally designed a mural for the building, which illustrated the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and the first atom smasher. However, Timothy Pflueger and the Art Commission found the interpretation too radical and asked for it to be redesigned.18 The design that Kadish settled on includes a central abstract shape that may be a more palatable reworking of this original controversial subject matter. In composition and color, the mural shows the influence of David Sisquieros, as well as the influence of European Surrealism.19 It is considered one of the best examples of Kadish’s work.

Other surviving murals by Reuben Kadish include “City of Hope” in a cancer research center in Duarte, California (1936); “Struggle against Terrorism,” “Triumph of Good over Evil,” and “The Inquisition” in the University Museum in Morelia, Mexico (1934/35). With the onset of World War II, Kadish began working for Bethlehem Steel Corporation on destroyers and submarines and then as an art correspondent for LIFE magazine throughout the war. After the war, Kadish bought a dairy farm in New Jersey and withdrew from the art world until the late 1950s. By this point, he had taken up sculpture and began teaching at Cooper Union in New York City. Reuben Kadish died in New York City on September 20, 1992.20

Reuben Kadish painted the mural in the Woods Hall Annex known as “A Dissertation on Alchemy.” He was one of five artists commissioned by the Federal Government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) to create murals at the San Francisco State Teachers’ College.

“A Dissertation on Alchemy” draws its subject matter from the original use of the Woods Hall Annex as the science facility for the Teacher’s College.