The Presidio of San Francisco was the oldest Army installation operating in the American West and one of the longest-garrisoned posts in the country. Three flags have flown over this former military post on the strategic Golden Gate. Established by Spain in 1776, the Presidio of San Francisco became a Mexican outpost in 1822. In 1847, during the Mexican War, the New York Volunteers occupied the Presidio’s adobes inaugurating 147 years of growth as a major U.S. Army post. Now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Presidio has 1,491 acres, vast Army-planted forests, miles of beaches and bluffs, hiking and biking trails and 768 historic buildings and structures including massive coastal batteries. It is one of the largest and most innovative preservation projects in the Nation.
During World War II the Presidio became the nerve center for Army operations in defense of the Western United States, including, for a time, Alaska. General John L. Dewitt led the IX Corps and Fourth Army from his headquarters at the Main Post. The Harbor Defense Command, which was under the General’s authority, was located at the old Battery Dynamite. Through the early 1940s, a new mine casement and various emplacements and support buildings (now mostly demolished) were provided to protect the Bay Area. Elsewhere on the reservation, the substantial and impressive building programs that continued to distinguish Presidio architecture through the year 1940 shifted radically in 1941 to hastily planned projects of light wood construction in response to the new World War. Today, many of these World War II “temporary” buildings at the Presidio, as well as other bases, have been demolished; the Post’s best examples of such buildings and groups of buildings remain in the areas of the Main Post, Fort Winfield Scott and Crissy Field. By 1942, construction of a permanent nature resumed and several prominent buildings were added to the Post during that period, including the Red Cross building, a radio transmitting station for the coastal defenses, two large and impressive identical houses built as officers’ family quarters and an indoor pool and gymnasium.
Enter the Presidio at the Lombard Street gate and bear right on Presidio Boulevard to Lincoln Boulevard. The two-story complex with the red tile roofs is Letterman Hospital, one of the Army’s busiest medical centers during World War II–at the height of the conflict, it registered a peak load of 72,000 patients in one year. After the Presidio became a national park in 1994, this complex was reborn as the Thoreau Center for Sustainability with offices for non-profit organizations.
Off Lincoln Boulevard, across from the fire station, is the narrow end of Building 35 (1912). Under the authority of Executive Order 9066, General John L. DeWittissued a series of military proclamations from his offices at Building 35, headquarters of the Western Defense Command. The proclamations first established restricted military zones on the West Coast within which “all enemy aliens and all persons of Japanese ancestry” were subject to military regulation. By late March 1942, DeWitt began issuing Civilian Exclusion Orders expelling “all persons of Japanese ancestry, including aliens and non-aliens” from the West Coast military zones. Building 35 will house the Bay School of San Francisco, an independent high school with an emphasis on science and technology, ethics and world religions, and will include interpretive exhibits on the building’s historic role. One month prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Fourth Army Military Intelligence Service Language School was established in Building 640, a converted hangar along Crissy Field, where Japanese American soldiers were trained in translation, battlefield interrogation skills, decoding documents, and interpreting commands. Located just a short distance from General DeWitt’s command post at Building 35, many of the school’s graduates were serving the Army in the Pacific Theater while their families were excluded from the West Coast.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, anti-submarine net was stretched across the Golden Gate and heavy artillery guarded the coast. The Fourth Army drilled on the parade grounds. The 7th Infantry Division that recaptured Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians trained at the Presidio. One block west, turn left onto Graham Street. At Graham and Moraga is the historic Officers’ Club, the temporary location of the Visitor Center where you can get a map or catch the free PresidiGo shuttle. Two 1941 bachelor officer quarters stand across Moraga Street. West of the stately red brick Montgomery Street barracks (1895-97) is the Golden Gate Club, built in 1949 and financed by soldiers as a memorial to their comrades who gave their lives in World War II. Nearby is the serene San Francisco National Cemetery; a register here locates individual graves.
Continue along Lincoln Boulevard to the coastal bluffs overlook with its panorama of the Art Deco Golden Gate Bridge (1937). Ahead, up a slope to the left, is the West Coast Memorial to the Missing with a statue of Columbia and a list of those lost or buried at sea in the Pacific Theater. South on Lincoln are Baker Beach and Battery Chamberlin (1904-1948). A small museum here includes a demonstration of a 6-inch “disappearing” gun.
On the bay side of the Presidio is former Army Air Corps’ Crissy Field with a restored grass landing field. Across Mason Street is Building 640, a small 1928 hanger that was the home of the Military Intelligence Service Language School in 1941. Here Japanese American soldiers studied military Japanese to serve as interpreters and intelligence personnel in the Pacific Theater. The National Japanese American Historical Society will renovate it as an interpretive center (expected to open in 2006). The Presidio Trust, a Federal government corporation, is charged with rehabilitating and making the Presidio self-supporting by 2013. Today, the housing is available for leasing by the public and former Army offices are leased to 175 non-profit and for-profit organizations.
The Presidio of San Francsico, a National Historic Landmark, is part of the National Park Service’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It is roughly bounded by Lyon St., West Pacific Ave., Lake St., the Pacific Ocean, the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay. Directions, transit and PresidioGo shuttle information can be found online. Many ranger and docent-led guided tours depart from the Visitor Center, open 9:00am to 5:00pm daily. Call 415-561-4323 or visit the park’s website for further information. The Crissy Field Center is open from 9:00am to 5:00pm, Wednesday-Sunday; call 415-561-7690 for more information. You can also contact the Presidio Trust at 415-561-5300.