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Ruminations: The past really is prologue when it comes to the Presidio

Ruminations: The past really is prologue when it comes to the Presidio

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It is the home of San Francisco's first inhabited areas. Native Americans are known to have lived there thousands of years ago. As early as the United States, dating back to 1776 when the Spanish soldiers and Franciscan missionaries arrived. It has a view unrivaled of one of the most recognized structures on the face of the planet. It has seen men and women play their parts in many of our nation's conflicts, with many now at rest.

Any visitor to San Francisco inevitably sees the Golden Gate Bridge. Many will drive across it and pass right through this historic area without ever stopping. Today it is the keystone of one of the lesser-known gems of the National Park system. And now, it has an important role in the next chapter of the tale of an entertainment industry powerhouse.

It is the Presidio of San Francisco.

A spectacular sunset from the Presidio on December 6, 2003.
Photo from the NPS Presidio of San Francisco web site, and in the public domain.

This is a location that is as different as night and day. From the uninhabited shoreline of the Golden Gate to the hustle and bustle of any city in the world, the Presidio has seen everything in between. Situated on the far northwest corner of the San Francisco peninsula, it has places that have managed to remain unchanged over the passing of years.

Rather than give you a full lesson in California history, let me share a few highlights of the Presidio:

Researchers have found artifacts that offer proof of Native American communities in this area dating as far back as 470 A.D. -- primarily by a group known as the Ohlone or Costanoan. From the NPS web pages:

"Groups moved annually between temporary and permanent village sites in a seasonal round of hunting, fishing, and gathering. Periodic burning of the landscape was conducted to promote the growth of native grasses for seed gathering and to create forage for deer and elk. The world view and spirituality of the Ohlone/Costanoan people was expressed in a complexly woven tapestry of stories, myth, song, dance, and ritual."

The Spanish came to Neuva Espana in 1769 as an effort to thwart possible colonization by the Russians or the English. Again from the NPS web pages:

"Seven years later, Juan Bautista de Anza led a Franciscan priest, 193 colonists and soldiers, and 1,000 head of livestock from Sonora, Mexico to the San Francisco Bay. They arrived on June 27, 1776 to establish a presidio [garrison] at the bay's entrance and a religious mission a few miles inland."

Presidio de San Francisco and Mission San Francisco de Assisi became the northernmost bastion of a network of presidios, missions, and pueblos that extended from Mexico and formed the foundation of Spanish colonization strategy. Presidios were fortified military villages that secured and policed frontier areas. Pueblos were communities designed to spread Spanish culture. Missions were religious and agricultural centers where native people were gathered and indoctrinated into Catholicism and the colonial state."

The Spanish presence eventually became a Mexican one after the revolutions of the early 19th century. During the war with the United States in 1846, the Presidio was occupied by American troops. The territory that became California was surrendered under the treaty that ended that war in 1848.

The US military presence had its beginnings with the discovery of gold in California. It became a military reservation at the order of President Millard Fillmore in November of 1850. That presence continued for almost 140 years, until the Army closed the base in 1989. (For more details on various actions the garrison was involved with, check this link.)

For much of its history, a vital mission of the Presidio was the defense of the coastal areas and access to San Francisco Bay via the Golden Gate. Starting with Spanish guns and fortifications in 1776 (six of those guns remain today on display) up to the Nike missile complexes decommissioned in 1974, it was a mission "well" completed, without a shot fired in anger.

The Presidio has two rather special moments in its history. The first was definitely unplanned (even if some advanced disaster planning had been done by both the City and the Army) - the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Soldiers from the garrison were involved in many capacities from rescue to demolition (using dynamite to destroy structure creating a fire break) to policing the City to the distribution of relief supplies for month afterward.

The Presidio was also part of happier planned event, the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. Some of the area was used for facilities for the fair -- including a wooden race track for automobiles. Today, the restored Palace of Fine Arts complex sits just east of the Presidio.

The Palace of Fine Arts - from the 1915 PPIE.
Photo from the NPS Presidio of San Francisco web site, and in the public domain.

One of the missions the Presidio was involved with more during its history than any other was that of a medical nature. Letterman Hospital and its associated facilities helped treat returning service men and women from most of the US military campaigns during it's history (from 1898 to 1989). It was named for Major Jonathan Lettermen, medical director of the Army of the Potomac from 1862 to 1864, later San Francisco coroner and Surgeon General for the State of California. Many of his techniques for field medicine and organization were responsible for the survival of many wounded Civil War soldiers.

Looking over many of the memories submitted to the NPS web pages, the time spent at Letterman is one that people of all ages have to share. From those who were born there to those who were healed there, it seems to have been a part of very special place.

The Presidio is also home to The San Francisco National Cemetery.

This is the final resting place for many men and women who gave their lives in the service of their country as well as Indian, Spanish and Mexican soldiers.

The Presidio was and is a very unique place. As a military installation, it was part of one of the most vibrant cities in the country, if not the world. When its closure was recommended, there was a great deal of trepidation about what its future might hold. Some saw it as the greatest real estate redevelopment opportunity of the 20th Century. Others envisioned it as the largest urban park, complete with a wide history and culture all its own. It was to be a long and challenging road to decide on a future.

The final decision placed its future in the hands of The Presidio Trust. "The Presidio Trust's mission is to preserve and enhance the natural, cultural, scenic, and recreational resources of the Presidio for public use in perpetuity, and to achieve long-term financial sustainability." That goal of financial stability? Reached 8 years ahead of schedule and still going strong. Read this piece from the San Francisco Chronicle by Dan Levy from June of this year for more details.

Among the many re-uses of the property, there are two worthy of noting today. The first is a $15 million dollar proposal by Diane Disney Miller and the Walt Disney Family Foundation to create a museum in a 40,000 square foot red-brick barracks building at 104 Montgomery Street on the former Main Post, the Presidio's signature area.

Interestingly enough, the Walt Disney Family Foundation has been a tenant in the Presidio since 2001. The proposal for the Museum was announced on November 17, 2004. That day, the public was invited to a preview of the museum and an open house for the rehabilitation project. Diane Disney Miller was among the speakers and the guests were given the opportunity to ask more about the plans for both.

The overall project has been described as a "museum and research center, providing a permanent source of information on Disney, his accomplishments, and the period of American history that he greatly influenced. The museum would include a permanent exhibit on the life of Walt Disney, a traveling exhibit space, a learning center and an archive, as well as foundation and museum offices."

Presidio Trust project manager Cynthia East Skovlin offered the following comments about the project. "The Walt Disney Family Foundation has an extensive collection of drawings, photographs, letters, documents, and artifacts that tell the story of Walt Disney's amazing life. The collection of objects and the impressive archive of digital images, films and interviews tells the story of Walt Disney's life as it closely weaves through and mirrors many of the important stories of 20th century America."

Since then, work has been ongoing in the environmental and historic compliance reviews for the site. Once that process has been completed, construction will begin. A date for the museum opening will likely be announced at that time.

The second project of note is the creation of the Lucas campus on the former site of Letterman Hospital. That structure was doomed by the costs of earthquake and other needed retrofitting. Where once there was a pile of concrete and steel, today is a gleaming series of structure amongst a manicured landscape that seems entirely at home in the Presidio. Now known as the Letterman Digital Arts Center, it promises to gather the various companies of the Lucas empire together in one exciting location.

The Letterman Digital Arts Center as it opened in June of 2005.
Photo from the NPS Presidio of San Francisco web site, and in the public domain.

And that is exactly what it is. 23 acres including 17 acres of public park space. The complex consists of four low-rise office buildings, 865,000 square feet, on the remaining 6 acres. From the view seen above, you get the idea how the new structures will mix well with the historic structures elsewhere in the Presidio. Take note of these construction and design facts from the Lucasfilm website describing the project:

  • The Letterman Digital Arts Center is designed to be 33 percent more energy efficient and 30 percent more water efficient than conventional buildings
  • The campus is slated to receive a Gold Certified Rating from the U.S. Green Building Council for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)
  • Much of the demolished Letterman Hospital -- and its 13-acre asphalt parking lot -- was recycled or reused in the construction of the Letterman Digital Arts Center, including steel, piping and crushed concrete
  • The building incorporates operable windows to capitalize on the Presidio's mild bayside climate, reducing energy use and providing natural ventilation
  • Central, naturally lit staircases help promote a more active workplace and reduce the use of elevators and artificial lighting
  • Underfloor air delivery throughout the buildings reduces energy use and provides greater comfort to employees
  • All existing trees on the site were saved and incorporated into the landscape design, including one 80-year old oak tree that was relocated from one location on the site to another
  • More than 90,000 yards of concrete was manufactured on site, reducing truck traffic entering and exiting the park during construction.

How about these facilities for all of the happy workers?

Dining commons, operated by Guckenheimer, a leader in work place dining; fitness center operated by BaySport, a pre-eminent Bay Area fitness center operator; childcare center that will accommodate over 100 children with environmental learning areas, water feature, growing garden and play structures, operated by Bright Horizons; 300-seat theater, two 65-seat screening rooms and 1,500 underground parking spaces.

Tie it all together with landscaping that matches the rest of the area including approximately 500 trees, shrubs, vines and perennials; a creek and lagoon; walkways and sitting areas. The irrigation system uses primarily reclaimed water to keep it all nice and green.

Sounds like a mighty nice place to work. And work they do! According to the web pages, the crew at Industrial Light and Magic are currently at work on effects sequences for Disney/Walden Media's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and Warner Bros. "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." They're also doing FX work on the two "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequels that the Mouse has in the works. .

I hope to be able to share more about both the Disney Museum as well as the LDAC with you soon. The potential awaiting both projects promises to keep us entertained for some time to come.

Just as the Ohlone or Costanoan peoples expressed themselves "in a complexly woven tapestry of stories, myth, song, dance, and ritual" thousands of years ago, who knows what the talents that work here now will bring forth for the rest of us to enjoy and learn from in the coming years.

With such a wonderful heritage to call upon for inspiration, perhaps the past really is the prologue for this special part of San Francisco.

Earlier this year, you all generously helped out by supporting the efforts toward relief of the victims of the Tsunami. If you can see your way to doing so again, the victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita now face many of the same daily challenges for basic necessities. The need is every bit as real and as serious. Consider a donation to the American Red Cross if you can. Every bit helps, even more now...

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