article picture

The Saga of Sutro Library

by Jack Leibman

Adolph Sutro is obviously one of the towering figures of San Francisco history, and his legacy is indelibly enshrined in our landscape and several important institutions. The Sutro Library, located at San Francisco State University since 1982, houses approximately 40% (about 100,000 volumes) of the original legendary massive Sutro collection, salvaged from the fire-proofed Montgomery Block after the destruction of 1906. Stored in warehouses on Battery Street, the balance of the collection was destroyed.

Sutro had initially planned to build a library at Sutro Heights, then decided to use half the acreage subsequently given to the University of California, on Mount Parnassus (now Mount Sutro). A specific design for this building was published and the University regents actually approved the offer.

However Sutro, who died in 1898, had failed to provide the necessary legal basis for this plan in his will, unrevised since 1882, and his heirs disputed the ownership of the collection. Only after extended litigation and several unsatis-factory location changes did they finally agree to donate it to the California State Library in 1913, stipulating that it must remain permanently in San Francisco.

Over the next forty-six years, the California Legislature repeatedly failed to provide funding for maintenance of the collection or construction of a building to house it. From 1913 to 1923, the collection was stored in a cramped basement space at the Stanford Lane Medical Library. Then it was moved to a similarly inadequate space at the San Francisco Public Library.

Barely minimal staff funding narrowly escaped total elimination, and there was even a move to return the collection to the Sutro heirs. A number of other options failed, and in 1959 the legislature considered closing the Sutro, eliminating its funding, and giving it to the University of California. Considerable negative publicity ensued over the beleaguered and endangered collection. At this point, the University of San Francisco generously offered space for a nominal fee.

After additional furor over the propriety of affiliating with a Jesuit institution, opposition from the San Francisco Library Commission, and an unsuccessful lawsuit by two Sutro grand-daughters, the collection was finally moved to the Gleeson Library at the University of San Francisco in 1960. Not until 1983 did the Sutro Library finally acquire its own building, a structure moved from Sacramento where it had once temporarily housed the California legislature, located on land leased from SF State University. By 2012, SFSU plans to build a modern expanded library that will also house the Sutro Library.

Today the Sutro is a major resource for genealogy research. It continues to gather a remarkable list of historical and genealogical publications from the U.S., Latin America, and Europe. The surviving original collections of Sutro include a wide variety of pre-1900 British scientific papers, a unique collection of Mexican works, and many rare ancient Hebrew texts. A treasure trove of Sutro's voluminous correspondence is expected to provide some fascinating new insights into the history of this brilliant, inventive, and bold avatar of San Francisco.

Source: “Adolph Sutro as Book Collector” by Russ Davidson, in Bulletin of California State Library Foundation, Number 75, Spring-Summer 2003.

The writer, City Guide Jack Leibman, has recently enlisted as a volunteer at the Sutro Library, assigned to the intriguing project of reading and summarizing the aforementioned correspondence with family and business associates. These letters record the details of Sutro's daily activities, his close observations, and his involvement in his varied business transactions. There is much insightful commentary about then-current events in San Francisco and elsewhere. Excerpts and context are planned for future Guidelines. Stay tuned.

article picture

Undated photo of Adolph Sutro.

article picture

Sutro Library collection, worth millions of dollars, was stored in the basement of the Old Main Library in 1956.

Send comments and questions to
Material of San Francisco City Guides. Please give credit to the author and SF City Guides if referenced or reproduced.