During last month’s National Outdoor Recreation Conference, I had the opportunity to tour the Presidio of San Francisco, a park that is located on the northern tip of the San Francisco Peninsula and is a component of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. As part of a 1989 military reduction program under the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, Congress voted to end the Presidio’s status as an active military installation of the U.S. Army. In 1994, it was transferred to the National Park Service, ending over 200 years of military use and beginning its next phase of public and mixed commercial use. Congress created the Presidio Trust in 1996 to oversee and manage the interior 80% of the park’s lands, with the National Park Service responsible for the coastal 20%. In a first-of-its-kind structure, Congress mandated that the Presidio Trust make the Presidio financially self-sufficient by 2013, which it was able to achieve ahead of schedule. The park is characterized by many hills, wooded areas, and scenic vistas overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco Bay, and the Pacific Ocean. The Presidio is both a California Historical Landmark and a National Historic Landmark. I really enjoyed the all-day bus and walking tour which consisted of stops at various key locations or facilities at the park. Summarized below are the highlights for me:
- Crissy Field Center: Our first stop was the Crissy Field Center, an urban environmental education center with programs for schools, public workshops, after-school programs, summer camps, and more. Operated by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the Center includes interactive environmental exhibits, a media lab, resource library, arts workshop, science lab, gathering room, teaching kitchen, café and bookstore. It was great to hear from the staff, especially because they are so passionate about engaging and working with urban youth. Landscape architect George Hargreaves designed the landscape of Crissy Field and helped to restore a naturally functioning and sustaining tidal wetland as a habitat for flora and fauna. I also learned that many green elements have been incorporated into the design and construction of the 7,200-square-foot interim facility. For example, advanced pre-engineering substantially reduced the demand for raw materials and makes the construction site virtually waste free. Also, a solar-powered generator is used to further minimize environmental impact. For more information, be sure to check out this brochure.
- El Polín Spring: The history of El Polín Spring is fascinating. In particular, I learned that the Yelamu Ohlone were the first people to live in this area, and signs of their seasonal camps have been discovered near El Polín at Crissy Field. The Ohlone likely gathered water and plants at the spring. In 1776, Spain established the military fort known as El Presidio de San Francisco, just a short distance northwest of the fresh water source. El Polín was settled by Spanish and Mexican colonial families by 1812, over twenty years before the town of Yerba Buena (later San Francisco) was founded. Thus, it is considered by some to be “San Francisco’s first suburb.” Our guide also shared that El Polín spawned a legend that the colonists said began with the Ohlone people and continued with early Spanish soldiers. They believed the spring was magical: any woman who drank its waters under a full moon would have an abundance of children, especially twins.
- Lunch Speaker: During lunch, we had the opportunity to hear from Mr. Craig Middleton, the executive director of the Presidio Trust. It was very helpful and inspiring to hear how the Presidio has been transformed under his leadership and management over the years. It is remarkable what Mr. Middleton and the Trust have accomplished. Over the last decade, the Trust has developed major areas of the Presidio into public parkland; redeveloped and preserved hundreds of historic buildings; recruited over 200 organizations to become part of the park and its programs; and raised over a billion dollars in non-federal funds for the park. Perhaps most importantly, the Presidio has become financially self-sufficient. Also noteworthy is that under his watch, the Trust entered into a major agreement with Lucasfilm to build a new facility called the Letterman Digital Arts Center, which is now Lucasfilm’s corporate headquarters. Previously, Mr. Middleton worked closely with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi on bipartisan legislation to establish the organization and served as the Trust’s first employee.
- Officers’ Club: We also got a sneak peek at the Officers’ Club which is being renovated/expanded and will re-open to the public in September 2014. According to our guide, this was San Francisco’s most historic building and social center of the Presidio for more than a century. It was a bit awe-inspiring to stand inside as we listened to stories about the Club. When the renovation/expansion is complete, the Officers’ Club will be a multifaceted cultural destination that will host world-class exhibitions and dynamic programming drawn from the Presidio’s significant role in American history. It will also have a restaurant that will highlight authentic cuisine that celebrates the Presidio’s early cultures. The Officers’ Club will be available for family and business gatherings. School groups will be able to learn through guided curriculum in onsite classrooms, the Trust archaeology lab, and explorations in the park. Admission to the Officers’ Club exhibitions and programs are free, supported by the Presidio Trust. I look forward to re-visiting this facility after its transformation is complete. For photos and renderings of the Officers’ Club, please visit this web link.
- Mountain Lake: The last stop on our tour was Mountain Lake. We walked a portion of the Mountain Lake Trail which traverses the southern boundary of the Presidio from the Broadway Gate to Baker Beach. Mountain Lake is a natural lake on the southern border of the Presidio. I found out that it is an important place for both nature and history. Apparently, in 1776, Captain Juan Bautista de Anza’s scouting party camped here before establishing the military outpost that would become the Presidio. Later the lake was a water source for the growing city of San Francisco. Mountain Lake’s fresh waters have also long made life possible for plants, birds, and other wildlife. Today, Mountain Lake is a popular visitor destination. It is also a living laboratory for restoration and is being brought back to health with the participation of the community.
It was eye-opening to see the Presidio and fascinating to learn about its transformation from a military installation to a park. For anyone visiting the San Francisco Bay Area, I suggest adding the Presidio to your itinerary. For a preview, here are some of my photos from the tour.
Note: Special thanks to the Society of Outdoor Recreation Professionals (SORP) for organizing this wonderful tour.
All photos by author.