The Fort That Created San Francisco The San Francisco Presidio

Wooden Window is a company that restores historic doors and windows, and we could hardly be in a better position than to be near the site of an 18th Century fortification, since grown to a complex of more than 800 buildings, known as The San Francisco Presidio. Its history is, literally, the history of San Francisco.

In 1776, Juan Bautista De Anza first "discovered," for Spain, the place that would, one day, become the San Francisco Bay Area. Shortly after his arrival, his second in command, Joaquin Moraga, reached the new land with a band of 200 soldiers and settlers.

Mural in the Presidio Chapel

This settlement, called the Pueblo of Yerba Buena by the Spanish, would be the seed from which the city of San Francisco would spring.

Moraga's first order of business was to provide for the mission's safety on the site, so the first structure he put in place was a fort--Presidio, in Spanish. In conjunction with the arrival of Moraga, the Spanish established The Mission of San Francisco de Assisi (today's Mission Delores).

By 1822, Mexico had gained independence from Spain, claimed The Presidio, and begun colonizing the area they dubbed "Alta California."

In 1846, with the U.S. seizure of Texas from Mexico, the Mexican-American War broke out. The war ended in a treaty that granted "Alta California" to the United States. The U.S. military moved to quickly occupy its new territories and, in 1847, the New York Volunteers, under John Fremont, seized the Presidio from Mexico during what was called the "Bear Flag Rebellion."

Fremont, in the meantime, overplayed his hand a bit, declaring himself governor of California, for which he was later convicted in court for mutiny and insubordination (although eventually pardoned by President Polk).

The town was renamed San Francisco, and Captain Erasmus Keyes was installed as the first American commandant at the Presidio.

Keyes, however, had his own problems. Within weeks of his arrival, gold was discovered in the hills of California, and most of Keyes's men immediately deserted for the gold fields.

The allure of gold was too much for the first Presidio commandant's men to resist
"One night the whole guard, including the corporal, went off," he wrote in his memoirs. An officer was sent in pursuit, overtaking the guard 15 miles away, "shot a couple, but brought back only one wounded soldier, as all his escort joined the deserters." (Hart, 2017)

Keye's remained commandant for the next 10 years with virtually no one to command.

By the late 1840's, the new "city" of San Francisco had a population of around 700 people and was rapidly becoming a west coast mining capital. By the turn of the century, the population had risen to 400,000, making San Francisco the 9th largest city in the country. In the 1850's the army undertook a major rebuilding of the Presidio. It was further enlarged during the Civil War, and the first concrete reinforced batteries were installed in 1905. Residents in the 1880's saw an ambitious beautification campaign of the area when most of the trees and other flora we're familiar with today were first imported, virtually terraforming what had been a windswept plain of sand and low scrub.

San Francisco in the 1880's was a place you'd dream to be, or desperately want to avoid, depending on your temperament and moral fortitude. Army General Busling described his visit:

"Here in narrow, noisome alleys are congregated the wretched Chinese women, that are imported by the ship-load, mainly for infamous purposes," he wrote in Across America. "They are not more immodest, than those of our own race, who ply the same vocation in Philadelphia and New York . . . San Francisco owes it to herself-to obliterate, to stamp out this plague spot." (Hart, 2017)

The San Francisco Call was even more florid:

"That sunk of moral pollution, whose reefs are strewn with human wrecks, and into whose vortex are constantly drifting barks of moral life, while swiftly down the whirlpool of death go the sinking hulks of the murderer and suicide . . . The coast where no gentle breezes blow but where rages the sirocco of sin" (Hart, 2017)

And the rest of the country thought it was disgraceful in the nineteen-sixties.

With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, The Presidio became the country's most prominent western military camp as thousands of troops shipped out to the Philippines and thousands more wounded returned the U.S. Army Hospital built in 1899 (renamed The Letterman Hospital in 1911).

Presidio camp in the 1890's

Of all the dates in San Francisco's history, few city residents are unfamiliar with the year 1906-the year of the first great Northern California earthquake in modern times. At 8.3 on the Richter Scale, the initial shock and subsequent fires destroyed 500 blocks of the city. The Presidio offered food, clothing, and shelter to the city residents and worked to re-establish law and order during the chaos that followed. Mayor Eugene Schmitz issued a shoot-to-kill order for looters as refugee camps appeared throughout the city.

The 1906 quake. The Presidio is on the lower right.

San Francisco was divided into military districts patrolled by soldiers, and The Presidio refugee camp was managed with army precision as an organized grid complete with street numbers.

Tent cities sprung up around the City

The Presidio was, however, no more prepared for the carnage than the rest of the city. Its own fire department wasn't established until 1916 when General John Pershing's family perished in a house fire while he was away in Mexico pursuing Pancho Villa. Pershing would later go on to command the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe during WWI.

Occasionally, even the soldiers couldn't resist the lure of looting

In the ensuing years, The Presidio would play host to parts of the Panama-Pacific Exhibition (celebrating the completion of Teddy Rosevelt's canal), and it was put to use as a training center during WWI.

The Panama-Pacific Exhibition
The Exhibition laid over a map of the Marina-The Presidio is at the left

In 1919, the salt marsh and estuary once occupied by the indigenous Ohlone people was transformed into an airfield built to develop airplanes for military use. On the land that would become today's Chrissy Field, the Army constructed buildings on the site of the old exhibition and ran a rail line to Fort Mason. One year earlier Congress passed a law to establish eight "air coast defense stations"--one of them at The Presidio including a seaplane ramp attached to the Coast Guard Station. Completed in 1920, it was America's first of such stations. Gun emplacements and batteries from this period still dot the California coastline.

During the Depression, as FDR used government spending to provide employment with WPA projects like the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, completed in 1936 and 1937, the Presidio's officers quarters were restored and the Presidio Officer's Club, housed in the original commandant quarters built in 1776, realized another in a series of remodeling efforts.

WPA Cadets in the 1930's

With news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, The Presidio, along with all other military installations in California, went on high alert as citizens fearfully anticipated a Japanese naval attack from the sea. The Presidio, from an underground bunker at Fort Winfield Scott (located at the old Battery Dynamite), became the hub of west coast preparations with the creation of the Harbor Defense Command Post/Harbor Entrance Command Post (HDCP/HECP). Here, the army and navy organized to defend the Bay and manage ship traffic through the Golden Gate (Levy, 2017).

Rumors of Japanese landings circulated and word went around that local Japanese fisherman were mining harbors and farmers poisoning produce (Levy, 2017). When Japanese along the coast proved unwilling to voluntarily abandon their homes, lives, and possessions, Franklin Rosevelt responded with one of the darker actions in our country's history, Executive Order 9066.

The order mandated the removal and incarceration of over 110,000 Japanese-Americans on the west coast, 2/3 of whom were American citizens. Headquarters for the operation was in Presidio Bldg 35, command center for the Western Defense Command under General John L. DeWitt. DeWitt issued orders that forced the evacuation of "all persons of Japanese ancestry, including aliens and non-aliens" from "Military Area No. 1" covering Washington, California, and half of Arizona ("Presidio of San Francisco--World War II in the San Francisco Bay Area: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary", 2017).

The relocation was compulsory. Subject peoples were given less than a week to prepare for evacuation and resisters were subject to arrest. Evacuees were packed into 10 inland "relocation centers"--essentially concentration camps--leaving behind homes, businesses, land, and possessions--there to remain for the next 2 1/2 years under severe living conditions.

From: Japanese Internment Camps Documentary - Senior Project "Japanese Internment Camps Documentary - Senior Project". 2017. Youtube. Accessed May 9 2017.
From an exhibition at the Presidio Officer's Club in conjunction with the Presidio Trust

Ironically, the Presidio, center for relocation efforts, also housed one of the central Japanese-American contributions to the war effort--The Military Intelligence Service Language School, located in Presidio Bldg 640.

The language school at the Presidio (upper right), translators in the field (lower right)

"this former airmail hangar was converted into a secret Army language school to train Nisei (second generation Japanese Americans) soldiers for a unique role in the Pacific War. Graduates of the school served as translators of captured enemy documents and interrogators of prisoners, both at headquarters and on the battlefield. ("Presidio of San Francisco--World War II in the San Francisco Bay Area: A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary", 2017)"

Multiple official investigations into espionage and fifth column activity by resident Japanese have found that "these communities posed no threat to the safety and security of the United States" (Levy, 2017).

Of the ten individuals convicted of spying for Japan during the war, not one of them was a Japanese-American.

The Presidio has nearly 1,500 acres, extensive army-planted forests, miles of beaches and hiking trails. It encompasses 768 historic buildings that form a panorama of architectural styles in fashion throughout the years. There are buildings in the Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, Colonia Revival, Mission Revival, Mediterranean and Italian Renaissance styles.

Since 1998, the Presidio has been managed by the National Park Service and The Presidio

The Letterman Hospital, constructed in 1899, and whose brick foundations and pine and hemlock girders were once shipped around the Horn, provided medical care for thousands of servicemen and women over its 100-year operating history.

The Letterman Digital Arts Center

Today it houses The Letterman Digital Arts Center and headquarters of George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic and LucasArts. The facility, a $300 million development, includes 900,000 square feet of office space, a 150,000 square-foot underground parking garage, and the capacity for 2,500 employees.

A revered past director of the Letterman Center

The San Francisco Presidio has played its role in every time period and significant event in the country's history. In the 1950's, it served as the headquarters for the Nike missile defense around the golden gate and headquarters for the Sixth U.S. Army. In 1960, it was designated a national historic landmark. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area was created in 1972, and the Presidio was turned over to the Park Service in 1994, on the condition that it be self-supporting In 1996, The Presidio Trust was founded to manage the landmark's finances.

The current Presidio Visitor's Center began its life as the camp's guardhouse, built around 1900.

$5 million and 3 years have revived the building as the gateway to Presidio visitors.

"It used to be a jail, and we were converting it into a use as opposite that as you can fundamentally get,” architect David Andreini (of the San Francisco firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson) tells Curbed SF. (Brinklow, 2017)"

The Presidio Visitors Center is one of the several buildings at the Presidio for which Wooden Window has provided restoration and replacement for historic windows and doors.

Over the years windows have warped, cracked and leaked
...and seen a coat of paint or two
After 100 years, the warranty has probably run out

Removed doors and windows from the original structure undergo a variety of restoration techniques--from simple steam stripping and sanding to spot replacements of portions of the original (called "dutchmen") to the reconstruction of small sections with epoxy.

Back to what they were meant to be

"From the get-go, we saw it was a building with great potential and a lot of integrity, a real gem. We wanted to restore some of that integrity," says Andreini. "It was very symmetrical, and we wanted to preserve how it worked spatially." (Brinklow, 2017)

When necessary, original windows are duplicated and replaced--often taking advantage of upgrades for insulation, sound and UV light control.

A replicated, perfect-to-match arched window

But sometimes, buildings are reluctant to let go of their heritage. Renovation challenges included dealing with a 5-inch slope in the building's concrete floor.

This back area, now a Presidio history room, was originally one of the cells in the guardhouse.
“Once a week they used to hose out the drunk tank here, and they wanted it to drain easily,” says [park ranger Michael] Faw. (Brinklow, 2017)

The old hoosegow now houses an enormous 3D scale map of the park, historical exhibits, and a bookstore.

The Presidio was involved in every American war from the Spanish-American War through Viet Nam, but in 218 years as a military post, and in spite of several generations of gun emplacements, no shot was ever fired in anger from the fort.

It has nearly 1,500 acres, extensive army-planted forests, miles of beaches and hiking trails. The Presidio encompasses 768 historic buildings that form a panorama of architectural styles and fashions throughout the years. There are buildings in the Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Mission Revival, Mediterranean and Italian Renaissance styles.

Since 1998, the Presidio has been managed by the National Park Service and The Presidio Trust, tasked with making the facility financially self-sufficient by 2013. Restoration work has been ongoing since the 19th century. The Presidio Officer's Club, believed by many to be the oldest standing structure in San Francisco (the front walls of the club are original to the 1776 commandant's quarters), was remodeled in 1850, 1900, 1912 and 1934.

Three of Presidio's barracks buildings, erected between 1895 and 1909, now house the Walt Disney Family Museum, created by Page and Turnbull Architects.

Wooden Window has also done extensive restoration work for the Disney Family Museum

Bldg 35, from which General John L. DeWitt issued military proclamations and which served as the headquarters of the Western Defense Command, now houses The Bay School of San Francisco, an independent science, technology, ethics and world religions high school.

The Bay School of San Francisco

But there are challenges yet to face for this resilient grandfather of the City of San Francisco.

"In the long run, the issue isn't that one barrack has lost a courtyard. It's that the high costs of restoring these icons could leave the Disney Museum in splendid isolation for years to come."

"The review bar can't be set so high that nothing gets done unless philanthropists such as the Disneys step forward. At the same time, decision-makers can't allow slipshod renovations that demean our past, or a series of tasteful but oversize additions that tip the historic landscape out of balance." (King, 2017)

During the year that a handful of dissidents gathered in Philadelphia to declare their independence from England, 200 haggard and exhausted settlers arrived at the San Francisco Bay. There they put in place a structure whose walls still stand watch over the City.

Through corsets and miniskirts, starched collars and Nehru jackets, The Presidio has stood impassive witness to the iconoclasts and adventurers that built the City of San Francisco.

Those walls have seen every war in American history and events glorious, cataclysmic and ignominious. They've watched 43 presidents come and go. They've been there as the original settlement transformed from a grubby den of vice and ambition into one of America's great cities--with a world-renowned ballet and symphony, and great museums for both historical and modern art.

And they've looked on as, one-by-one, the buildings of the Presidio have been reborn for a new age to serve a new community. The City of San Francisco has a great treasure in the Presidio. If we use it wisely, and restore it carefully, respecting the character and architecture of its time, it will be here for generations to come. As it is, thanks to the efforts of those who work to preserve it, the Presidio witnesses still.

If you'd like to see an animated timeline of events at the Presidio, click below:

Wooden Window Inc. · Oakland, CA

Created By
Steve Bragato

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