Swedish Society Continues Proud Stewardship of its Historic Home
Reprinted with permission from Heritage News, May/June 2000, Vol. XXVII No.3
Published by San Francisco Architectural Heritage
The San Francisco Swedish Society marks its 125th anniversary this year. Its roots go back a bit further, to 1873, and the formation of an organization called the Original Orpheus Singing Club. After that group changed its name to the Singing Society Svea, it held its first recorded monthly meeting, April 12, 1875. According to the 1925 official history, “from this date it might be truthfully stated dates our present Swedish Society.”
At the same time, the Svea Society, like so many ethnic associations in San Francisco, took steps to provide its members sick benefits. Bylaws adopted June 14, 1875, stated: “It shall be the purpose and object of this society to assist the sick and bury its deceased members, to work for the maintenance of a choir, and to give literary and social entertainments.” For a time, it appears there were two classes of members: the singers and ordinary members, who probably joined fir the social activities and to take advantage of the benefits.
The name “Svea Society” did not survive long. One attempt to change it, to “The Swedish Union” failed, but at the meeting of September 6, 1875, the membership abandoned Svea in favor of the “The Swedish Society of San Francisco”. Membership at that time may have been between 40 and 60.
The Society lost virtually all its records in 1906, and only a minute book covering meetings through February 14, 1876, survived to tell the group’s early history. Interviews with older members, in 1911, aided the reconstruction of the succeeding 30 years of history up to the earthquake and fire.
The Society’s first meetings took place in a building on Montgomery Street, on the present site of the Mills Building. In the years that followed, City Directories show the organization at a variety of downtown locations. In April 1906, their meeting place, Skandia Hall, on City Hall Avenue, fell to the flames on the first day of the fire that followed the great earthquake. With it, the conflagration consumed all the Society’s papers and other property, including its cherished library, begun in 1877 with a handsome $500 appropriation to purchase books.
The Swedish Lutheran Church, at 15th and Dolores, which itself had barely escaped the fire, generously offered a temporary home to the Society. The disaster focused the members’ attention on having a permanent home. The Society’s official history states’ “For many years it had been a latent wish, an unrealized ambition; but catastrophe and adversity had brought the question to the fore; it was to be now or never.”
With generous assistance of a member of the Swedish community who did not even belong to the society, and insurance money, paid in full by a Swedish company, the Society began its recovery. It purchased a 50 x 100 foot parcel on the north side of Market Street near Sanchez. An existing structure occupied the lot, but the building committee found it was not adaptable to their needs. They sold it, and the new owner moved it to another location.
The Society engaged the Swedish born San Francisco architect, August Nordin, who developed plans and specifications for the new building. Laying of the cornerstone took place in “an impressive ceremony” amid “gala festivities” and dedication of the completed structure, designated “The Swedish American Hall,” occurred on December 22, 1907.
During the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, in 1915, the Hall received many Swedish visitors. “Banquets and festivities of all kinds were frequent,” according to the golden jubilee history, “and it might not be too boastful to say that all citizens of San Francisco of Swedish birth or descent, whether members of the Swedish Society or not, pointed with a great amount of pride to the beautiful building at 2174 Market Street…”
That pride has remained strong, as is evident in the care the Swedish Society of San Francisco has taken of its historic home for all its 92 years. Except for altered ground floor storefronts and the addition of a fire escape, the exterior retains a high level of architectural integrity. Recent exterior painting and replacement of cedar shingles have renewed its appearance. Long range plans include remodeling the storefronts to an appearance more compatible with the historic facade. Inside, although some alterations and modernization have occurred, the hall’s principal ceremonial and public spaces remain in original condition.
August Nordin, Architect
There is some inconsistency in the biographical information on the architect of the Swedish American Hall, August Nordin, who was born in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1869. A search of city directories between 1892 and 189 shows an August Nordin (variants include Norden, Nordan, Nicolaus A. Nordin and N. August Nordin) listed as “carpenter” or “contractor”. On the other hand, the entry in the Biographical Dictionary of American Architects (Deceased), whose source of information is given as Robert Nordin, says he did not leave for the United States until 1895, by which time he had received “a thorough training in architecture.”
The 1900 city directory lists August Nordin as an architect, with offices at 1926 Market Street. That corresponds closely with the biographical entry, which says he opened an office in the city in 1899. By 1908, Nordin had set up practice in the Mills Building, where he remained until his death in 1936.
August Nordin’s obituary in the Architect and Engineer (January 1936) attributes to him an output of more than 300 structures. These include single family residences, flats and apartment houses. Among notable examples are houses at 100 Carl Street (1900) and 435 Cabrillo (1912), flats at 1080-82 and 1086-88 Fulton (1902), the Whiteside Apartments (1912) at 150 Franklin, the Windeler Apartments (1915) at 424 Ellis, the Cristobol Apartments (1913) at 750 O’Farrell, and the Altamont Hotel (1912) at 3048 16th Street. He also designed the building at Hyde and Beach that houses the famed Buena Vista Cafe (1911).
Nordin was also architect for the Ebenezer Swedish Lutheran Church (193) at 15th and Dolores (later the Dolores Street Baptist Church, destroyed by fire in 1993), which gave refuge to the Swedish Society after the 1906 disaster.