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The Landmarks: The Ortega Infant Shelter in the Inner Sunset

Welcome to Curbed's new series, The Landmarks. Once a week Curbed will take a look at one of the many San Francisco landmarks, listed either locally or on the National Register of Historic Places. Landmarks will be chosen at random, but if there are any that you're particularly interested in, drop a line to the Curbed inbox.

Our inaugural post starts off in the Sunset at the Lycée Français La Pérouse. Formerly the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the building was listed as Local Landmark #242 in 2004. But it didn't get its start as a music school - instead serving its early years as an orphanage.

San Francisco has a long history of caring for orphaned children dating back to the Gold Rush. As early as 1851, the Protestant Orphan Asylum operated on Haight Street in the current location of 55 Laguna.

Many other orphanages soon followed, usually founded by religious denominations or to house certain ethnic groups (like the Donaldina Cameron House in Chinatown). According to the landmark nomination, the Infant Shelter was founded as a charitable day nursery in 1874 by wives of prominent businessmen. Originally located in SoMa, it moved to the Mission after the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Both buildings were pretty shabby and dangerous, so they held a fund raising campaign in the early 1920s and decided on the then-middle class Sunset as a location for a new building. The all-female board of directors had some major power players in their corner, with prominent locals such as William H. Crocker and Mayor/Senator James D. Phelan helping with the fund raising.

They selected local architect Louis Christian Mullgardt, who ran in the First Bay Tradition school with the likes of Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan. The design is pretty unique for SF, described in one survey as "Flemish Baroque," and plays with a ton of different materials. The building is especially unique for the Sunset, and still acts as a visual landmark when driving down 19th Avenue. Apparently Mullgardt went a little nutty and in the 1930s was found wandering the streets "with a carpetbag containing unfinished plays being dictated to him by William Shakespeare." Eventually he was taken to a pauper's ward at the State Hospital, where he died in 1942.

The new building opened in 1929 with separate sections for infants, toddlers, and kids aged 3-5. Most of the kids admitted were from poor families who had suffered some kind of trauma, and parents could bring them for free of charge. The stays were supposed to be temporary until the families could get back on their feet, but more often than not kids were left there for a long time. By the 1950s, the shelter instituted tighter constrictions that only allowed them to stay for a max of three months. If the families couldn't take the kids back, they were sent to a foster home. Major shifts in ideas for orphanages and the foster system led to a decline in the shelter. By 1953 only 20 kids were at the Infant Shelter and it began to lose the financial support it received from the city. It closed down in 1954 and was sold to the Conservatory of Music.

The building operated as the Conservatory from 1957 to 2004, when they moved out for the larger downtown location near the Opera House and Symphony Hall. It now operates as the Lycée Français La Pérouse. In 2004 the building was added as a local landmark as one of the last remaining orphanages left standing in San Francisco and with being an excellent example, and one of the last survivors, of the work of Mullgardt.

· Landmark Designation for 1201 Ortega Street, The Infant Shelter [SF Planning]
· San Francisco Landmark #242 Infant Shelter [Noe Hill]