Have you heard of the Mechanics’ Institute Library and Chess Room in San Francisco? This historic club can be found in a beautiful building in the Financial District. Its origins date back all the way back to 1854, when the city of San Francisco was still just beginning to take shape. Now it is a thriving educational space where members can get expert instruction in chess, engage in cultural programming and classes, browse a vibrant general-interest library, and much more.
Mechanics’ Institutes began in Scotland in the 1820s as a result of the Industrial Revolution, with a goal of providing a technical education for those who could not pursue a university degree. In Gold Rush-era San Francisco, the need for technical “hands on” classes and other educational resources was such that a group of mechanics decided to form one themselves. Founders John Sime, Roderick Matheson, Benjamin Heywood, George Gluyas and more wrote up bylaws for an affordable institution with an accessible library, a game room, and interesting classes for everyone regardless of race or gender.
By 1855, the Institute had about 400 books and a collection of scientific curiosities. For several decades it hosted various fundraising pursuits and expositions, and worked closely with UC Berkeley, which opened in 1868. By the begining of the 1900s, the Institute had 4,150 members and 135,000 volumes, but nearly their entire collection was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire, along with the rest of the building.
About 4 months afterwards, they reopened in their current location at 57 Post Street with a collection of books provided by other libraries. The new 5,000-volume collection mostly contained books about building construction, architecture, and engineering so as to provide aid and instruction in rebuilding the city. The Chess Club continued to operate throughout, and it’s now the oldest such club in the United States. It’s hosted world champions including Jose Raul Capablanca, Emanuel Lasker, Alexander Alekhine, and Max Euwe.
168 years later, the Institute now boasts over 165,000 volumes in a wide variety of topics, and members continue to pay a fee to use the historic building’s resources. The Chess Club hosts classes, weekly chess marathons, and tournaments for youth and adults. The Institute also has writing groups, book groups, author presentations, and a variety of interesting cultural events.
If you want to become a member at the Mechanics’ Institute Library and Chess Room, the annual fee is $120 per year for 1 adult, $180 per year for families of up to 2 adults and their children under the age of 22, and $65 per year for students under 35 enrolled at a full-time institution.
Members of the public can take a peek inside the historic institute and building via a 45-minute tour, which happens every other Wednesday at 12 noon. Visitors can also grab a 15-minute visitor’s pass from the security desk and take a look around.
Find the Mechanics’ Institute Library and Chess Room at 57 Post Street in San Francisco. Hours are the following:
- Building: Monday-Friday 8am-6pm
- Library: Monday-Friday 12pm-6pm, Saturday 10am-3pm
- Chess Room: Monday-Friday 11am-5pm
Featured image: @concretelibraries via Instagram