Mechanics' Institute Library and Chess Room – San Francisco, California - Atlas Obscura

Mechanics' Institute Library and Chess Room

A library built during San Francisco's pioneer times is a student's retreat, bibliophile's sanctuary, and chess player's delight. 


Hidden in plain sight amidst the bustle of the San Francisco Financial District lies a quiet sanctuary. Complete with overstuffed leather chairs and rows upon rows of books, both old and new, it spans two floors of the Mechanics’ Institute building. Unlike its name suggests, the Mechanics’ Institute Library is not just for those technically inclined but houses over 175,000 volumes (with the ability to purchase roughly 3,000 circulating and reference items annually) on subjects ranging from finance and investment to the humanities and arts.

It is both the oldest library on the West Coast as well as the oldest chess club in the United States, with continuous chess play for over 150 years. The atmosphere preserved over the years is far different than one would find in the average public library: wonderfully quiet-absolutely no cell phone noise and only the murmur of hushed talking when need be, impeccably clean, books rarely missing or overdue, and bold ionic columns supporting the high ceilings.

Founded in 1854, the library collection was used to aide the technical and vocational classes being taught at the Mechanical Institute; the collection grew, expanding and eventually merging with the social sciences collection of San Francisco’s Mercantile Library Association in 1906.

The Great Earthquake destroyed most of the Library’s collection that same year, but the Institute was not to be deterred. They planned to build a larger, more expansive residence for the library and chess club, though 1907 president Lewis R. Meade originally proposed removing the chess room, favoring instead more rental space. The backlash was so harsh that original president Rudolph Taussig returned to presidency, promising enough space for all three: books, chess, and rentals.

Albert Pissis was hired as the Mechanics’ architect, and designed a steel framed, nine-story classical facade structure. The first floor would be used as profit-making rental space, the second and third for the library, the fourth as the chess room (which now screens movies as well), and the fifth through ninth floors as offices.

Staying true to its roots, the Library offers classes on Do-It-Yourself Investing, Computer Basics, Doing Business in North America, Filing Taxes in the 21st Century, and Research Strategies Seminars. They also welcome chess players of all ages and skill level, hosting competitions as well as classes. Additionally, they are host to over 50 author events annually, covering fiction and non-fiction, signings and readings.

Their ‘Special Programs’ include events such as the San Francisco Noir Literary Night, World Poetry Reading, Bloomsday, and a Bastille Day Celebration. On the same floor as the chess room is where the CinemaLit Film Series takes place, screening 35 films a year curated by film critic Michael Fox. Writing workshops are being planned to compliment the three writer’s groups that meet twice a month and provide encouragement and critic of original fiction and nonfiction.

A private library, it is open to the public for tours and viewing, but membership is required to check-out material and participate in chess events.

Know Before You Go

Between Montgomery and Kearny. Free public tour only offered Wednesday at noon, otherwise membership is required to enter.

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