Sam McManis

Discoveries: Mechanics’ Institute an egalitarian oasis in fast-changing S.F.

The facility’s executive director, Ralph Lewin, looks over a library spanning two stories with nearly 200,000 volumes. “We’re kind of a cultural oasis downtown,” he said.
The facility’s executive director, Ralph Lewin, looks over a library spanning two stories with nearly 200,000 volumes. “We’re kind of a cultural oasis downtown,” he said. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

Heels, stiletto and blocky wingtip both, clack authoritatively along the cracked sidewalk of Post Street. Everyone seems in a hurry, this being the Financial District and all. Time is money, as they say, and money is these people’s raison. Not a minute to waste, must make haste, which may be why a Peet’s Coffee and a Capital One are incongruously conjoined. Care for a home loan with your no-foam latte, sir?

Forgive these strivers, these hellbent 21st-century Gold Rushers, if they fail to notice the demurely handsome Classical Revival building at 57 Post, its nine stories dwarfed by book-ended banking high-rises, its sedate setting overwhelmed by the chaotic clatter of foot traffic traveling between the Montgomery BART station and Union Square. Only a series of bare bulbs illuminate the ornately serifed, all-caps sign, easily missed, etched into glass below the granite-arched entrance:

MECHANICS’ INSTITUTE

LIBRARY

Thing is, 57 Post probably predates any building or business along this teeming stretch of The City. Yes, even older than the hulking Wells Fargo monolith three doors down and across two lanes of traffic. The Mechanics’ Institute stood at 31 Post St. starting in the mid-1800s and, following the Etch A Sketch erasure of the 1906 earthquake, rebuilt within three years in the same spot, albeit now christened 57 Post. And, over the years, through booms and busts, dot-com frenzies and high-tech meltdowns, the Mechanics’ Institute has remained a solid and stolid presence in a city that purports to cherish its history but too often dismisses it as blithely as a techie’s finger swipe on a smartphone.

Not that many denizens these days can fathom what might go on beyond the thick double-glass doors. They are just as liable to see the signage and wonder, Who are these grease monkeys? Why is their trade school in such a monied milieu? Are the library’s shelves stocked only with begrimed manuals?

In reality, the Mechanics’ Institute ranks as one of San Francisco’s most dedicated cultural centers, certainly its most venerable. Its influence and reach may have ebbed and flowed over the decades, due to demographic shifts and the social whims of the populace, but it endures like a well-constructed, finely honed piece of machinery. A U-joint, say.

Created in 1855 by and for mechanics in the broadest sense of the word – artisans, fabricators, technological creators – its original mission was nothing less than to bring culture, creative learning and, yes, even a measure of civility to a wild, post-Gold Rush San Francisco. (Back in the day, yearly dues for this “members only” club was $6, and stayed at that price until 1975; now, it’s $95 a year, still well within economic reach of most Bay Areans.)

These days, the organization’s goal may be even more ambitious: to engage an overstimulated, easily distracted, tech-overloaded citizenry in thoughts and ideas beyond the ephemeral pixels scrolling across their screens, to show these high-tech “mechanics” that their most valuable tool may be their intellects.

At present, the institute seems to be making a modest impression. Its membership rests at 4,500, healthy compared to dips in the past decade, and in the past six months, 38 percent of new members are in the coveted under-40 demographic.

Now, as then, the institute houses a handsome library spanning two stories with nearly 200,000 volumes, catering to brows high and low, its works spanning “The Brothers Karamazov” and the oeuvre of the sisters Kardashian. Its fourth-floor chess room, home to the oldest continuous chess club in the United States, has welcomed such famous personages as Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky and Anatoly Karpov, but is more widely known for its Tuesday night soirees in which a 7-year-old from Bangalore might square off against 70-year-old Russian emigre. Its meeting rooms and lecture halls, once haunted by the likes of Mark Twain and Gertrude Stein, Jack London and William Saroyan, now hosts Pulitzer Prize winners and best-selling authors, both homegrown and far-flung, reading from and discussing their works.

Best of all, it seems, the Mechanics’ Institute is a respite for the psyche, a place to plant one’s feet and just think. Or read. Or sleep. All three activities were taking place one recent weekday afternoon in the pin-dropping quiet of the beaux arts-columned library, all high windows and low-slung leather arm chairs.

Ralph Lewin, who in 2014 left his position as president of California Humanities, a nonprofit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities, to become the institute’s executive director, swiped his card for a visitor to gain entrance. He spoke softly, so as not to disturb a patron furiously typing a database search or a man across the way slouching in a chair, chin on chest and finger marking the spot of a closed book. Four stories below, the ambient noise of the city could just faintly be heard, though not loud enough to distract the deliberative quiet engulfing the room.

“See that?” Lewin whispered, as he passed by an oak table with titles on display. A biography of kickboxer Mark “Fightshark” Miller rubbed spines with a biography of collage art master Jean Varda. Lewin gave a quick nod, as if to underscore the institute’s egalitarian ethos.

“We’re kind of a cultural oasis downtown, and people value that,” he said, back in his fifth-floor office whose vintage pebble-glassed door evoked images of Sam Spade. “But also, as San Francisco is changing now, pretty dramatically, a lot of people in the cultural and literary world are being pushed out. One of the things we can offer is this space. We’re reaching out to work in partnership with cultural institutions. That’s important to us.”

The institute may have been founded by mechanics and artisans who literally built San Francisco from nothing, but it quickly gained the attention, and financial backing, of various city movers and shakers. The same is true today. Though Lewin says the institute is just as diverse, culturally and economically, as in previous generations, the organization has built a solid endowment and is chaired by Matthew H. Scanlan, a CEO of an investment management firm. The biggest revenue stream, which keeps the institute afloat, comes from renting out office space in the nine-story structure, which the institute owns.

That’s no small potatoes, considering the skyrocketing cost of San Francisco real estate. But Lewin said, in addition to attorneys and businessmen who populate the office space, the institute is home to a burgeoning cadre of literary and educational concerns that normally wouldn’t be able to afford such a high-rent address. In recent months, the nonprofit literary festival LitQuake moved its offices to the sixth floor, sharing space with the literary journal Zyzzyva. The Writers Studio, something of a support group/workshop for budding novelists and poets, is another new renter, holing up on the seventh floor.

Finding a permanent meeting space for classes was important, said Writers Studio director Mark Peterson, adding that other literary concerns share the building is a pleasant bonus.

“I have to admit, I was not very aware of Mechanics’ Institute before this summer, but I think that it is a very relevant mission for our times, the desire for in-person communities is great, and the electronic assault on the places that many had gone to for this type of literary communion during the past 30 years has been rapid,” Peterson said. “Most forms of electronic communities are shallow, and so any physical places that can provide greater depth to the interactions will always have a place in our social interactions.”

Lewin speaks passionately about promoting a “safe, stable place for people in the cultural field,” and literary agent Ted Weinstein, whose offices are on the fifth floor, says the place is fast becoming a hub.

No stranger to the building, Weinstein had been a member for two years and said he researched and wrote his first book in its library.

“I knew it was going to be really hard to write at the public library … and somebody said to me, ‘Do you know about the Mechanics’ Institute?’ ” Weinstein said. “She almost, literally, dragged me down there. I joined and started writing the book within 36 hours. Since then, I’ve tried to do the same with many others. I’ve gotten three new members for the library just since I’ve been here. That’s because everybody who drops by for a meeting says, ‘Wow, this is an amazing place.’ On the way out, I take them for a tour of the library, and they’re completely smitten and immediately march to the Mechanics’ Institute office to sign up.”

What attracts people such as Weinstein is the institute’s democratic sensibility. This is no good-ol-boys, exclusive Bohemian Club, nor is it a venue for Nob Hill hobnobbing or strictly the domain of effete elitists.

True, some events would be considered highbrow by anyone’s measure – a screening of Federico Fellini’s “Spirits of the Dead” in its CinemaLit series; a discussion of works by Laszlo Krasznahorka in its World Literature roundtable – but there’s also a “Brown Bag Mystery Reading Group” and, hewing to its “mechanics” initial mission, classes for people to brush up on skills such as creating PowerPoints.

Everything is applicable, Lewin said, in a fast-changing world in which fewer people need to learn how to work a lathe and more need to master a laptop. Yet, Lewin cannot help but look backward as he moves forward.

The institute’s history, after all, is nailed to the hallway walls. Framed pictures by late 19th-century photographer Carleton Watkins feature the erstwhile Mechanics Fairs, sponsored by the institute, that wowed crowds as big as 600,000 with exhibits of then-cutting-edge technology (Eadweard Muybridge’s kinetographic studies of people and horses in motion) and artisan goods (Levi Strauss’s copper-riveted pants). But what strikes Lewin most is the populist, communal aspect to the institute, especially in its early days.

“I’m intrigued with the idea that, in 1855, these carpenters and masonry workers came together and thought about the future of San Francisco,” he said. “Their idea was kind of radical: to found the first library on the West Coast. … It was like your own private club, but open to everybody. It’s astounding to me to think that it was so open – man or woman, black or white. Think about that in terms of the trajectory of American history. It really was at the forefront.”

Likewise, the chess room, more than 40 tables with rooks and knight at attention, was originally meant to be a way for San Franciscans to blow off steam without devolving into the world of saloons, brothels and dance halls, according to historian Richard Reinhardt’s history of the institute, “Four Books, 300 Dollars and a Dream.” The chess room, he wrote, “gave a man a place to get off the street, meet some friends and possibly even improve his mind.”

Three computers are tucked in a corner of the chess room so that players can use them for research or to compete online against opponents worldwide. That’s nothing new to the institute, though. Back in 1895, the institute’s chess club challenged a club in Vancouver, Canada, to a long-distance match done via a telegraph connection made possible by Canadian Pacific Railroad. (The teams each won one match.)

Several times over the institute’s history, the chess room has been threatened with closure by the institute’s board. Each time, efforts were rebuffed. Lewin says, at least during his watch, the chess room is here to stay. He lead a visitor over to a “standings board,” with nameplates of players affixed and their latest scores scrawled in chalk. It looks as if it hadn’t been touched for years, maybe decades.

“See this guy, Neil Falconer (sixth name from the top) on the board?” Lewin said. “He used to be on our board. Passed away. But he’s still remembered here.”

More than remembered, actually. Falconer embodies the spirit of the institute. He first stepped through the doors in 1938 as an Oakland high school student fond of chess. He became an institute member after serving in World War II, and, establishing himself as a prominent Bay Area attorney, was elected to the institute’s board, becoming the longest serving trustee in the organization’s history. During that time, Falconer led a contentious internal fight to amend the institute’s bylaws to ensure that it forever would have a place to play chess.

“This action was prompted by an attempt by the better-dressed members of the Institute to chase out what they perceived to be riff-raff – namely the regular users of the Chess Room,” according to a tribute to Falconer, who died in 2014, in the institute’s newsletter. “Had it not been for (Falconer and fellow trustee Charles Bagby’s) efforts to rouse the 300 or so Chess Room members to action, much of the fourth floor would now be rented out as office space.”

However one defines “riff-raff” – be they wearers of $3,000 Brioni suits or moth-eaten Goodwill print shirts – all are welcome at 57 Post St., provided they can cough up the $95 yearly dues. They’ll gladly open the doors to non-San Franciscans – 35 percent of current membership, in fact, come from outside The City. Heck, they might even harbor a Sacramentan or two on their member rolls.

The Mechanics’ Institute

Where: 57 Post St., San Francisco

Yearly dues: $95

Information: 415-393-0105; www.milibrary.org; daily and weekly passes can be obtained on-site

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