The Presidio of San Francisco is a living history lesson. Upon it stands military sites and buildings representing 200 years of occupation under three nations.
Nine architectural styles can be seen in its 790 buildings, which include officers’ quarters, industrial warehouses, air hangars, medical facilities, and stables.
The Presidio is one part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which extends federal protection to more than 75,000 acres of land along the coastline near San Francisco.
Thousands of years before the Presidio was known as such, Native Americans known as the Ohlone lived peacefully where it now stands, along the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge.
In 1776 their way of life was disrupted by the arrival of Spanish soldiers and missionaries who sought to convert the Ohlone to Christianity and, as a result, drove many of them away.
The Spanish soldiers established the Presidio as military base to protect their stronghold in the Bay Area and control the Ohlone people.
When Mexico became independent from Spain in 1822, its military forces assumed occupation of the base. In 1835 the Presidio was temporarily abandoned when a Mexican general transferred military headquarters to Sonoma.
American forces stormed the Presidio in 1846 and occupied the base during the U.S.-Mexican War. Two years later, California was transferred by treaty from Mexico to the United States.
Several years after the U.S. assumed control of the Presidio, prospectors discovered gold in northern California. As many as 90,000 people would flood the area over the next decade.
According to Frederik Penn, an interpretive park ranger at the Presidio, American soldiers stationed at the Presidio had trouble fulfilling their posts during the Gold Rush. "Soldiers would go away on the weekends and never return," he said, because they wanted to search for gold.
To retain soldiers, Army commanders made agreements with soldiers that the soldiers could take official leave to mine the gold fields under the condition that they return.
"From the time the Americans took over in 1846 until shortly after the end of the Gold Rush, the Presidio wasn’t much more than horses in corrals and some adobe buildings deteriorating in the rain," Penn said.
However, in the 1850s the U.S. Army began to build Fort Point on the northernmost tip of the Presidio. Fort Point is a four-tiered brick and granite fort designed to hold a large cannon. It now sits directly under the southern end of the Golden Gate Bridge, which was built over the fort in the 1930s.
As a U.S. Army post, the Presidio protected commerce and trade, and played a logistical role in several major military conflicts such as the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), during which thousands of injured soldiers were treated at the Presidio Army General Hospital, which later became Letterman Hospital.
During the early 1900s, the United States built additional forts and established reinforced concrete walls along the San Francisco headlands.
During the 1906 earthquake and resulting inferno that engulfed much of the city, the Army personnel stationed at the Presidio provided food, clothing, and shelter to victims.
The Presidio expanded in the 1920s when the U.S. Army established Crissy Airfield to supplement the harbor defense.
During World War II soldiers at the Presidio dug foxholes up and down nearby beaches, and the Presidio became headquarters for the Western Defense Command for the West Coast and Alaska. One year during World War II, Letterman Hospital admissions peaked at 72,000 patients.
During the 1950s, the Presidio served as headquarters for Nike Missile Defense and the Sixth U.S. Army command. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1962, yet remained an active military post until 1994, when the Presidio became a part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
It is now co-managed by the Presidio Trust, a government agency working to make the Presidio financially self-sufficient in the next decade.
Penn said the many housing units once used for soldiers are now being rented to civilians at near-market rates. "If the price is right, you can come live on the Presidio," he said.
In addition, four office buildings, pedestrian paths, and an artificial lagoon are planned for the Presidio. They will be part of a complex called the Letterman Digital Arts Center, headed by none other than Marin County resident and movie mogul George Lucas.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the center will sit on the eastern side of the former military base and will cost approximately $300 million to build.
Industrial Light & Magic, one of Lucas’s special effects operations, will be part of the complex.
Visitors to the Presidio may want to first stop at the William Penn Mott Jr. Visitor Center, which is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. There is no entrance fee. It is located at the Presidio Officers’ Club Building at 50 Moraga Street.
More information about the Presidio can be obtained by visiting the Web site www.nps.gov/prsf or by calling the visitor center at (415) 561-4323. ▪