Friday, December 07, 2007

Whither goest the Presidio of San Francisco?

The debate swirling around a proposed art museum for the Presidio of San Francisco is but the latest chapter in a story as old as The City regarding land use and abuse that makes for an engaging study for urban historians, urban planners, students of architecture and urban geography and anyone interested in San Francisco. Being that it is about San Francisco, a city which sparks an emotional chord with people the world over --even if they have never been there-- makes this all the more intriguing.

For the purpose of keeping these thoughts at less than book length, I'll refer you to the AIA Guide to San Francisco, which should give you the proper backstory and context for this latest incident in the City's cultural history.

The issue, in brief, is the donation of the funding for the construction of the Contemporary Art Museum of the Presidio to house the priceless and peerless art collection of Don and Doris Fisher. The proposed site for the museum is at the end of the parade ground of the Main Post of the Presidio --in effect, the prime locus of the entire 1,491 acres of the Presidio
nearly as prominent as the Lincoln Memorial in relation to the Mall in Washington, D.C. The proposed museum site would entail the removing of a less-than-historic bowling alley; yet its modern design will bear no architectural relationship to the historic structures which line the parade ground. While Fisher has gone to great lengths to keep the museum from bearing his name directly, it will serve as his personal monument to the City for generations to come. Don Fisher also has a longstanding connection with the Presidio Trust, responsible for the future of the park.

For more than a century, how the history of the Presidio would be preserved for future generations has been studied, discussed, argued over, and committeed possibly more than any other piece of urban space in the United States.
The byzantine politics concerning the Golden Gate National Recreation Area and its mandate unique among national parks to become financially self-sufficient has a role in this little drama. There are passions and egos at play --of developers, civic-minded leaders, and a billionaire or two. The person responsible for the landscaping of the Presidio can't even so much as propose the chopping down of a single tree (even to save the forest) with raising the ire of some citizens of the City.

I should disclose that my family has long, personal ties to the Presidio as well. Two of my siblings were born at Letterman Hospital, now the main campus for George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic.
A cousin once lived in one of the Officer's Quarters that are now leased to the fortunate few. For most of my life, I have hiked its trails, shopped at the commissary, wandered among the decaying barracks and marveled at the breathtaking views of the Golden Gate.

Plans for fully realizing the potential of the parade ground, as with so many other well-intentioned projects, were curtailed by the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Many other projects are already in various stages of planning, negotiation or actual construction. The design of the museum is actually quite nice and well received in principle by museums, architects and urban planners nationwide. It is inconceivable that the Fisher collection should end up anywhere but in San Francisco, yet it has been argued that real estate to house a site suitable for the collection is prohibitively expensive anywhere else in the City.

In time, the controversy around the proposed museum will find a place among so many similar changes to the urban landscape in so many cities the world over, wherein a reviled project becomes an integral part of the City's landscape. Perhaps the citizens of the city will declare this a worthy project in the perfect location (although the decision is decidedly less than democratic; most residents of the City probably don't even know or care who the current members of the Presidio Trust are).

I would only suggest that for those who are able to waste no time visiting the Main Post of the Presidio, and wander around the stately buildings, listening to the whispers of ghosts from the past.
To delay a visit will result in a lost opportunity to experience the Presidio as it presently is. Of course, the Presidio as with all corners of the City, has undergone constant change since the earliest days of the City's existence.

I myself don't claim to have a direct say in the outcome of this debate, as I currently live in the city far to the South of San Francisco that dare not speak its name. Yet I, as with anyone who who has ever considered themselves a San Franciscan, would be remiss in my fidelity to the City were I not to
chime in; and I will, as will all San Franciscans past, present and future, live with whatever consequences result. It is scarcely the worst that could happen to the site, given the past history of the City. As with the Sutro Tower or the Transamerica Building --or even the grid of the City's streets once thought illogical-- there may well come a day when it will be will inconceivable for San Franciscans to not imagine having the museum grace the Presidio in the proposed form.


Thomas said...

Your arguments are well formed and solid. I mentioned your story in Sam Spade's San Francisco and I linked to the posting.

circuitmouse said...

Thanks! -Now if only the powers that be would heed the will of the people.