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The Presidio. Another great park for San Francisco?

The Presidio Golden Gate Park should be near the bridge with that name, overlooking the entrance to San Francisco Bay. But it isn't. That other great open space, the Presidio, is.

If this 213-year-old, 1,400-acre facility is closed as a U.S. Army fort, it will still remain in public ownership, under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. But its future uses are far from decided.

What is this immense public legacy, and what are the best ways to get to know it first-hand? Here and on the following pages, we offer ways to sample the history of this very approachable urban reservation--as well as to enjoy its staggering scenery. You can walk, bicycle, or drive; take in the oddly peaceful atmosphere of a quiet military village; play tag amid huge eucalyptus trees; or tour a museum that 125 years ago was the post hospital.

The color-coded map on pages 80 and 81 shows the layers of history, which the Presidio wears like stripes on its sleeve. It also identifies good places to explore.

What is the Presidio like, at a glance?

On the ocean and bay sides of the Presidio, the wind sculpts trees and hikers' hairdos. To the south, joggers and dog walkers invade its woods and creeklands. The eastern portion is the Army's downtown--the main post and hospital.

More than a hundred years ago, San Francisco seeded the dunes that would become the future landscape of Golden Gate Park. Not to be outdone, the Army by the mid-1890s had planted some 400,000 trees--mostly eucalyptus and Monterey cypress and pine--in its reserve. Major W.A. Jones wrote, "I have surrounded all the entrances with dense masses of woods . . . a contrast from the city." He was right. To enter the Presidio is to leave the grid of city streets for roads that follow the contours of the land through forests secluding the fort from its urban surroundings.

For now, the Presidio is still a working Army post. The glimpse you'll get is authentic--and unremarkable, except that it changes so little. Still, it can bring a lump to your throat: crisply exchanged salutes, a bunch of flowers along a row of tombstones, the cannon's roar as the flag is lowered at day's end.

Location led to the Presidio's original founding by the Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza, and proximity to San Francisco kept it going. San Francisco was the nation's ninth-largest city at the turn of the century, when other places in the region were clearings in the woods or dusty cowtowns. The U.S. Army needed a presence here to protect this new Pacific gateway--and perhaps to keep an eye on the tumultuous city.

Militarily, though, the Presidio's great moments have been limited. It trained the troops who punished the Spanish bully boys in the Philippines. In more recent wars, Letterman medical center provided vital aid to the wounded evacuated from Asian and Pacific combat. But global conflicts more or less passed it by (except as an administrative center).

Our map: history, tour routes

Candidates for the National Register are shown in color corresponding to when they were built. Text at right describes some events of the time. The six dark-shaded areas show zones of Presidio's historic, and in some cases current, uses.

Historic walls hold back sea, divide post from city. Dashed lines are jurisdictional.

For touring, we've mapped three routes; each starts at the Army museum (1).

The stops we describe help you sample both the history and the scenery of a great public area whose future use will soon be determined. They include a museum, a park with good picnic spots, a little-known WPA mural, and some spectacular view sites. The first stops can be visited without moving your car or unloading your bike.

The Army allows you to go anywhere on the post unless it's marked otherwise.

1. Presidio Army Museum, 1864. This building was the original post hospital (supplemented in 1899 by the first U.S. Army general hospital, later named Letterman). Displays on two floors document the Spanish period through Vietnam, with a detour into Black military history and another on propaganda posters. Models and dioramas on the 1906 earthquake and the 1915 Panama-Pacific exposition are especially useful, since San Francisco has no city museum. To arrange to use the excellent photo archive, call (415) 561-4115.

Behind the museum, look for two 10- by 16-foot shacks recently moved to the site. Built quickly for temporary housing after the 1906 earthquake, 17,000 of these were erected in camps around San Francisco. Some were later sold and moved onto lots and can still be spotted around the city. The two here are restored and contain exhibits. Hours are 10 to 4 Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission is free. Also free on request is a map showing points of interest in the Presidio.

2. Officer family housing, 1862. Fearing Confederate and British incursions into the bay and the gold fields, Congress allocated funds to enlarge the Presidio and build these mid-Victorian officers' houses facing what was then the eastern edge of the parade ground. In 1878, their fronts were reoriented toward Funston Avenue, presenting a better face toward traffic coming in from the city. Lawns, trees, and flowers separate the houses--a treat in a city where Victorians sit wall to wall along the sidewalks. The grander houses across Funston--including a mansard-roofed experiment--came a decade or more later.

3. Officers' Club, 1821. A WPA-built Spanish revival addition enveloped the old Mexican comandancia but left an original wall on view. The porte-cochere awning and shadowed entry make it look like a place you'd really like to enter. Most guided tours schedule a look. At off-hours, ask whomever's on duty if you may go in and see what's left of one of San Francisco's oldest buildings.

4. Pershing Square. This grassy plot and historic cannon site are named for the General of the armies during World War I. In 1915, John J. Pershing was chasing Pancho Villa in Mexico when his house, on this site where the flagpole now stands, burned down. His wife and daughters perished; only a son escaped. At 6 A.M., when the flag is raised, the cannon is fired (weekends, it's a considerate 7:30 A.M.). Retreat booms out at 5 P.M.--a reminder to generations of neighborhood children that their mothers expect them home.

5. Headquarters, Presidio, 1939. At each side of the entrance stands a 2,100-pound projectile made for the 16-inch guns that were to defend the Golden Gate. The 15-inch cannong balls recovered from Kirby Cove, on the Marin side of the Golden Gate, are each drilled with three holes--not for bowling, but for inserting gunpowder, fuses, and shell hooks.

6. Burger King, 1989 (remodeled 1968 building). This fastfood chain has a worldwide contract with the military. But when it came to putting a commercial restaurant in the Presidio, environmentalists insisted that it bear the smallest sign in burgerdom--and then not on the bay side. It's the least expensive eating with bay-and-bridge view in San Francisco.

7. Main Post Chapel, 1931. This is the largest of three chapels on post. Services are at 9 and 11 on Sundays. Other days, ask at the basement office to go inside. Flags, plaques, and stained-glass windows depit such themes as daring, motherhood, sacrifice, and loyalty. On the east side, originally on the outside wall but now roofed over and enclosed, is a little-known 1935 mural by Victor Arnautoff, The Peacetime Activities of the Army.

8. Cemetery. The 1854 post burial ground was designated a national military cemetery in 1884, and soldiers formerly buried on the battlefields where they fell were reinterred here; this will continue to be run by the Veterans' Administration. Originally 10 acres, it was gradually expanded to 28.3 acres. Views stretch out to bay, bridge, and city. Technically, this cemetery is full. But space was found for the graves of GGNRA founder Congressman Phillip Burton and his wife, Sala Burton, who on the death of her husband was appointed (and later elected) to his seat in the House of Representatives. She died in 1987.

9. Stables, 1913-14. Built of brick to a standard military design used in the West as early as the 1870s, these date to the last years of cavalry's usefulness in warfare. Look for a watering trough and, on the outside wall, rings for tying up horses. It's easy to imagine what fun it would be today to saddle up and ride through the woods to the bay. Uphill, across Lincoln Boulevard, wood-frame barracks (1902) housed the cavalrymen.

10. Pet Cemetery. This is a short walk downhill toward the bay from the stables. Among the carefully set out epitaphs are "Skipper, the best damn dog we ever had." "A G.I. pet, he did his time," and "Our Knucklehead, parakeet to paradise." Funny and also sad, they recall cherished pets who lived with families that faced uprooting for transfer every several years, always threatened by war.

11. Fort Point, 1853-61. The most popular Presidio attraction is now administered by the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. When it was finished, it was obsolete. The builders had followed plans for Fort Sumter (which had proved no match for the Union's artillery). It was the only fort of this type built on the West Coast. A planned second fortress, on the Marin shore, was never built.

Thanks to the bridge overhead, the fort's pavement sports a Jackson Pollock splatter of paint in Golden Gate Orange.

Fort Point is open 10 to 5 daily. Guides in period uniforms lead tours that visit the restored powder magazine and cannon display. You're on your own in the bookstore.

Walk to the next two places if you don't mind a 200-foot (but visually thrilling) climb up and under the bridge.

12. Batteries, 1890s. To protect against increased firepower, the Army rushed these coastal artillery emplacements into service. But air power introduced in World War I sounded their death knell. The last guns were removed in the 1940s, and by the 1950s Nike antiaircraft missiles appeared around the bay (in turn, they, too, were superseded--by ICBMs located elsewhere). Today these are harmless places to clamber around, protected by shrubs that block views of the waters they once guarded. You'll see a Nike in The Army museum.

13. Fort Winfield Scott, 1910-15. A horseshoe of mission-style structures, this looks as if it could be Father Serra's seminary. The fort was built to headquarter coastal defense. Its spacious parade-ground lawn, protected by surrounding structures, faces the south tower of the bridge. Fort Scott is now part of the Presidio and houses the Headquarters Command Battalion.

14. One favorite stretch of forest lines a dirt road uphill from the intersection of Arguello and Washington boulevards. The land falls off on each side. To the west, huge ivy-twined eucalyptus frame views toward the Presidio golf course and the residential avenues. To the east, past alleys of cypress and pine, flashes the brightness of the bay.

15. Mountain Lake Park and 16. Julius Kahn Playground. Mountain Lake Park, well maintained but little known, has a fitness course, playground, and tennis courts, and is popular with Richmond District dog walkers. Over the hill to the east is Julius Kahn, leased by the city from the Army--a good picnic stop with tables, more tennis courts, a baseball diamond, and a gated play area.

"The main idea is to crown the ridges ... and cover the areas of sand with a forest."--Major W.A. Jones, 1883

A hundred years ago, the San Francisco side of the Golden Gate looked as barren as today's Marin shore. To the Spanish, the grasses and shrubs of the Presidio may have looked pretty lush compared with arid Iberia. But to U.S. Army personnel trying to get established there, it was not green and homey Illinois or Virginia. So, for the first time in its history, the Army undertook a massive landscaping program. It planted mostly Monterey cypress and pine, acacia, and blue gum eucalyptus. Rows of trees as straight as a regiment on review now stretch to the horizon.

At their century mark, the trees are declining. During the winters of '82 and '83, winds toppled many. Arboreal dog tags now identify 10,000 trees considered potential blowdowns; these are checked periodically.

It is time to decide where and what to replant. Many fine views have been obliterated. Should they be restored? Should a special effort be made to encourage native plants? These have been the great casualty of the forestation program. (They do best streamside, and the last free-flowing stream in San Francisco, Lobos Creek, in the Presidio's southwestern corner, still supports a community of native willows and wax myrtles.)

Two rare and endangered plants that grow in the Presidio require special protection. These are the Presidio manzanita (Arctostaphylos hookeri ravenii) and the San Francisco lessingia (Lessingia germanorum).

Getting around in the Presidio: it's a breeze

Compared to city streets, parking is a cinch. The exception is the lot near the toll plaza. We found it easier to use the free unpaved lot (marked with 'P' on our map) off London between the road to Fort Point and the bridge turnoff; from here, it's a 1/4-mile walk either to the bridge sidewalk or to the spot below the bridge where we shot this month's cover. On weekends, ignore all Presidio parking prohibitions except handicapped signs, red zones, and anything marked "General's parking."

City buses 28, 29, 43, and 45 pass fairly close to the flagpole at Pershing Square (where many of the groups touring the post meet). Call 673-6864 for schedules.

In all of the post and much of the GGNRA, dogs under voice control may be off the leash. But it's leashes only along the bay from the Coast Guard station to Fort Point.

Discovering today's Presidio, planning tomorrow's park

As early as the 1870s, there were calls to make the Presidio into a park. And that's how locals, for many years, have used it. A growing number of escorted tours are visiting the Presidio. Nearly every weekend, something is planned by Friends of the Urban Forest, San Francisco Architectural Heritage, City Guides, Fort Point, the Sierra Club, or another group. The Sierra Club Presidio Task Force sponsors a hotline for outings on the reservation; call 923-9255. The GGNRA also offers tour information through its Presidio Resource Center, at 556-0865.

For the Park Service, the Presidio is a deam inheritance. No matter how complicated the issues of Army withdrawal (toxic cleanup and other final custodial responsibilities in the dying days of a long tenancy) and of GGNRA takeover (lack of funds, local pressure for local uses, and national pressure for special uses), it is the environmental opportunity of a lifetime.

Public planning for the Presidio's future is about to begin. The Park Service will soon issue a booklet on guidelines for the future park. It will outline historic and natural values, state constraints on uses, and set the stage for public meetings to start this winter. To get on the mailing list, write to GGNRA, Bldg. 201, Fort Mason, San Francisco 94123, or call 556-8164.
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Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Nov 1, 1989
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