Argonne Elementary School Celebrates Its 100-Year Mark

By Nicole Meldahl

As the second decade of the 20th century came to a close, San Francisco was modernizing its aging schools, thanks to a 1918 bond measure, and the world was recovering from a war unlike any other. “San Francisco’s Own,” doughboys with the 363rd Infantry and the 347th Field Artillery Regiments, were returning home for good and it was in this atmosphere of anticipation mixed with sorrow that a school in the Richmond District was named for a forest in France.

Argonne school brick facade photo

The original entrance to Argonne School, 1920. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

In April 1919, the San Francisco Board of Education passed a resolution to name the first school slated for construction after the signing of the Armistice in honor of the San Franciscans who served. The thoroughly modern Argonne School was built quickly by the Board of Public Works. Designed by John Reid, Jr., the structure was fireproof, featuring a brick veneer exterior and a terra cotta Spanish-tiled roof that framed 18 classrooms, an auditorium with a “motion picture lamphouse” that could seat 300, a nurse’s room that could handle medical and dental exams, and other rooms for staff.  Particular attention was paid to a model kindergarten which had a southern exposure with clear access to sand boxes in the school’s large and well-landscaped playground.  

A dedication ceremony held on Feb. 22, 1920 (George Washington’s birthday) included speakers from the Boards of Education and Supervisors, the Park-Presidio Improvement Association and the 363rd Infantry Regiment Association. The main event was the raising of two flags gifted to Argonne by Mrs. Cynthia M. Shaw in honor of her only son. Presented by Major Edward J. Mitchell, one flag honored the 363rd Infantry while the other was a silk banner with a staff bearing a silver plaque engraved: “In Memory of Our Beloved Son, Corporal Chauncey R. Frank, Argonne Battle, October 4, 1918.” 

The flags were unfurled and raised by members of the Polytechnic and Lowell High School R.O.T.C. as the “Star Spangled Banner” played. Major Mitchell paid tribute to his fallen comrade and their shared experiences in France. 

“This school will be a memorial, at once the source of perpetuation of an achievement which will not only record the heroism of the men of the 363rd Infantry and that of Corporal Frank, but will pass the story from generation to generation,” Mitchell said. 

Room to Play, Space to Grow

A fitting tribute to San Francisco’s sons, the school was a gift to the city’s children as a welcome relief to overcrowding and its solution: unpopular half-day classes that plagued the Board of Education for decades. But by 1922, Argonne was also impacted and forced to construct five portable buildings on the playground. While necessary, this response elicited immediate criticism and calls for expansion. Things came to a head in 1925 as the school was struggling to accommodate 1,400 students and parents were fed up with half-day sessions, complaining that the alternative schedule disrupted family life and left children too tired to do homework after coming home late. 

Nearly 100 citizens came to the Board of Education’s March meeting demanding a solution. The Board was severely criticized by Acting Mayor Ralph McLeran (whose sister was Argonne’s principal) for its delay in addressing congestion, fueled by a report by Harry C. Haas that found a lack of room to play had caused “inferior sanitation” that promoted the spread of disease. In a dramatic turn, the Haas report was confirmed by a private investigator hired by new Board member Ira W. Coburn, to look into allegations of overcrowding. Coburn sponsored a resolution to build an emergency school before the end of summer 1926 that was immediately adopted, and the City Architect was ordered to expedite construction on a 15-room temporary building for Argonne overflow at 24th Avenue between Balboa and Cabrillo streets the next day.

A key facet of the overcrowding debate was adequate space to play, aligning with a larger movement that sought to turn all vacant city lots and school land into playgrounds that would stay open beyond school terms. In November 1925, the Argonne PTA secured a tract from the Board of Education for a playground that ran almost to 17th Avenue. Then, the Argonne PTA petitioned the Recreation Department to use Argonnne’s school yard as a public playground during vacation months in June 1927.

The next month the Recreation Department made funds available to hire a playground director and install additional equipment. Initially tried as an experiment, the program was incredibly popular and a permanent supervisor was engaged for the yard, which underwent various upgrades over the years. Argonne paved the way for better play, and the yard remains open on weekends for children in the neighborhood to this day.

Student Life Over Time

From the school’s founding through about the 1940s, Argonne students competed in the city-wide Children’s Pet Exhibit – a holdover from the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. 

Annual Halloween festivals or patriotic pageants, a feature of the physical education program, included parades and dancing supported by the school’s orchestra or the Municipal Band. These events often commemorated our complicated past even as they utilized cutting-edge technology of the day. In January 1925, the pageant focused on historical episodes highlighting world events like The Crusades and an array of people from William the Conquerer to Eli Whitney and Betsy Ross. Students researched and wrote their scenes, created their own costumes and captured the day’s activities with 100 distributed cameras; part of the exercise was to master the new photographic art of the “snapshot.”

In 1927, students felt “they should have an extra-special celebration of Armistice Day because of their school name,” and a Pageant of All Nations came to life as each class was assigned a nationality. The “My Own United States” pageant in October 1933 also presented successive periods of American history, “from the time of Indian domination to the modern era,” and students dressed not only as World War I soldiers and Red Cross workers but also as Indians and “Dixie folks of the Old South” complete with children in black face – cultural appropriation that would never be tolerated today. 

Mounted policemen acted as crossing guards from the 1940s through the 1960s. From 1947 to 1950, Officer Emmett Hanley and his horse, Snippy, were assigned to Argonne’s intersection at 17th Avenue and Balboa Street. Snippy took students on short rides through the neighborhood, and the pair was so beloved that Snippy is the only horse to be awarded a diploma, which he received during sixth grade graduation ceremonies in 1948. 

Argonne school horse photo

Officer Emmett Hanley and “Snippy” at the horse’s retirement on March 25, 1950. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

When Snippy hit the ripe old age of 18 years old in 1950, Argonne students threw him a retirement party. They held a parade and presented him with carrots and apples, handwritten notes and crayon drawings – bringing a tear to officer Hanley’s eye. 

Beginning around 1952, officer Edward Lawson was assigned to the school with his horse, Tom. When he was critically concussed after falling from his horse while chasing a bicycle thief through Golden Gate Park in June 1965, the students raised $180 to purchase a television set, and marched more than four and a half miles from the school to the Lawson home at 2558 38th Ave. to present it to him along with a “deluge of get-well cards.” They sang “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” when they reached their destination, which caused the good officer to weep. (If you’re keeping track, the kids are two-for-two in making grown men cry from joy.) For this act of kindness, the San Francisco Giants treated all kids involved to a baseball game at Candlestick Park. 

Argonne Looks Pretty Good for 100

In February 1971, the San Fernando Earthquake in Southern California prompted the state legislature to refocus on compliance with the Field Act of 1933. This meant all schools in the state had to be brought seismically up to code by January 1975. The Board of Education met that April to discuss structural inadequacies in school buildings following a report by city architect Charles Griffith, who identified Argonne’s exterior brick veneer walls – once hailed for their fireproof properties – as hazardous. Since they couldn’t be removed without completely reconstructing the buildings, the school’s days were numbered. In total, six schools were ordered shut. 

Argonne officially closed on May 11, 1971 and was declared not worth fixing by structural engineer Henry J. Degenkolb a month later. By late July the San Francisco Examiner ran a call for bids to raze the school, and materials were sold for scrap under an advertised headline of “NOW Wrecking Argonne School” in September 1971. Students were bussed to Francis Scott Key in the afternoons, with classes going until 5 p.m., and Kindergarten classes were sent to the Sutro School Annex. Teachers were anxious about the lack of information on the school’s future and parents were concerned about the stress of double sessions, but the students weathered it well (as long as they were able to keep their teachers). Sometimes supplies were hard to come by, but everyone adjusted and Francis Scott Key even had a cake awaiting the new arrivals. 

After reopening in 1976, Argonne became a local pioneer for year-round education. The school’s modern “pod” structure classrooms enabled maximum flexibility, and it was hoped the new program would allow children to advance at their own pace. In 1994, San Francisco voters approved Proposition A, a $95 million bond package that paid for construction and renovation projects in the city’s public schools, enabling Argonne to replace portable bungalows with a new building constructed in 1997. This is the Argonne we see today. 

We Remember When 

The Richmond Review interviewed alumni when Argonne celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1995, and Robert Troppman remembered the school as a “home away from home,” particularly the playground where neighborhood kids would spend their free time long after graduating. Memories of pivotal shared moments, like the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and unforgettable staff, like the school’s janitor, Mr. Sanguinetti, who lived next door and was a father figure to students, also found space in the article. 

As the school celebrates its centennial this year, the Western Neighborhoods Project encourages the public to share memories of Argonne. Share stories and send photographs by emailing the Western Neighborhoods Project at the address below. The things you remember might feel trivial, maybe even unimportant, but each story is a thread in the woven tapestry of our community’s history. 

Nicole Meldahl is the executive director of the Western Neighborhoods Project. For more information, email nicole@outsidelands.org.

2 replies »

  1. My name is Sterling Sakai. All three of my sisters and I attended Argonne Elementary School during the 1950s thru the early 1960s. We lived right across the street from the school on 18th Avenue. I have great memories of my time there. I fondly remember Officer Ed and his horse Tom. Every morning all us kids would greet Officer Ed & Tom with a hearty “Good morning Officer Ed!” and then we were allowed to pet Tom’s neck. He was as gentle a horse as I have ever met. As you say in the article, they stood guard on 17th Avenue & Balboa, right across the street from our neighborhood grocery store named Johnny’s.

    Of special note for me at the school were kindergarten teacher Mrs. McKissick(sp?), and teachers Mrs. Scordelis, Miss Zelver, Mr. Cohen, Mrs Nolan. I can visualize the principal during my time there but can’t remember her name. It was something like Miss/Mrs. Herbert? I met with her frequently when I was elected student body president of the school in 1961. I also remember her because earlier she she selected me to be one of a special group of kids in a reading/writing project she led and because she suspended me for a time for fighting in class (I still maintain that I was only defending myself – ha ha).

    In the photo above you might make out the boy who is wearing some kind of sling/belt that is around his waist and over his shoulder. That is what we wore as school crossing guards. Guards helped children cross thru intersections by watching out for oncoming cars. I remember that 4-5-6th graders were allowed to be crossing guards. We were stationed at all the intersections surrounding the school: corners of 18th & Cabrillo, 18th & Balboa, 17th & Balboa and 17th & Cabrillo. The guards worked during lunch time when children w/ permission were allowed to have lunch at home and return to school to complete the school day. For a time I was a captain of crossing guards – a very high honor, indeed.

    I remember two janitors who played significant roles in my Argonne memories not just because they kept our school clean but because they were just good people who cared about us children. One was the head janitor who we referred to as Mr. A. We called him that because he had a long, multi syllabled last name (can’t remember his name) that most of us couldn’t pronounce. He was a short, balding, gregarious man with a thin mustache and very large nose. I also remember the assistant janitor. He was a young black man who was always chewing gum. He was a gentle, kind and well spoken man. I know he liked me very much. He was the first black adult I ever met. He made an impression on me that has stayed with me to this day. I wish I could remember his name.

    I virtually grew up in the school’s playground learning to play football, kickball, softball, basketball (a small single court with all metal backboards & stands, chain link nets). In those days after school and on Saturdays, the city had play ground recreation directors whose job it was to make playground facilities & sporting equipment (balls, bats, nets) available and oversee the safety of children. We referred to them as “direct.” One of my favorites was a man named Bob Schulenberg(sp?) who at the time was a student at San Francisco State College. I remember the rectangular school yard area just outside the kindergarten room where as a kindergartener & first-second grader we learned to run, skip, jump rope, play dodge ball & tag and many other kids games. I have many other memories that have underscored a wonderful childhood in our neighborhood with Argonne at its center.

    My youngest sister’s three children also attended the school when it was rebuilt during the 1970s.

    Note: The temporary building to house additional students in 1926 sounds like the what eventually became Cabrillo School. It was located between 24th & 25th Avenues between Balboa and Cabrillo. This is right, isn’t it?

    It was a very sad day when we learned the school would be razed because its brick facade was an earthquake danger. All in all, Argonne Elementary School was the Sakai family’s elementary school!

    Happy 100th birthday, Argonne Elementary School!


  2. Wow!! That was an amazing bit of personal information regarding the history of Argonne Elementary School especially because I attended Cabrillo Elementary School. Ster did a fantastic job despite the fact that I have been one of his best friends.


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