For a city that was a center of the 60s peace movement, the uninitiated might be surprised to know that for centuries, a military base took up a significant chunk of San Francisco real estate. For nearly 250 years, the northwest corner of the city has been home to the Presidio, a wide swath of land on the border between the San Francisco Bay and the Pacific Ocean. The fascinating history of this centuries-old park/military outpost makes it yet another reason to call San Francisco a multifaceted cultural capital. Here are 5 amazing facts about the evolution of the Presidio.
It’s as old as the United States itself
“Presidio,” the Spanish word for fortress, gives the name to this former Spanish colonial military base. While the base was opened in 1776, the American Revolution was a far-off concern for the soldiers who built it. Instead, they were looking to establish a strong military presence in the Bay Area, a valuable shipping outpost even in that colonial era.
The Presidio, now a U.S. National Historic Landmark, exchanged hands several times before becoming a National Park in 1994.
It grew out under Mexican management
In between hosting Spanish and American troops, the Presidio was, for over 20 years, a Mexican Army fort. While armed conflict between nascent Mexican forces and Spanish colonial occupation was being waged down south, the Presidio’s troops switched over bloodlessly.
At the same time, the Presidio was beginning to take shape as an entity all its own beyond the former perimeter of the Spanish garrison. Farms, ranches, even sawmills were being built directly to the south of the fort, and Presidio caught on as a catchall name for the area. In 1846, at the outset of the Mexican-American War, it was captured by U.S. forces and reopened as an American base in 1848.
In disaster, city residents found refuge there
Before being turned over to the National Parks Service in 1994, the Presidio wasn’t always strictly a military operation. In the aftermath of the tragic San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, the fort opened its grounds to those who lost their homes in the destructive seismic event. While soldiers from the base helped recovery efforts, tent cities went up on the base, providing desperately needed shelter to unlucky San Franciscans. 3,000 canvas shelters went up at the Presidio, housing 16,000 refugees.
It came incredibly close to being UN Headquarters
From the UN Charter’s approval in San Francisco’s Opera House in 1945, to it’s signing the next day at the War Memorial Veterans Building, the city played an outsized role in the origin of the international governing body. Apparently, delegates to both events were so impressed with the city that they named it a finalist to host the organization’s permanent headquarters, to be voted on in late 1946. A gift of prime New York City real estate from John D Rockefeller Jr proved the decider, however, as the UN took up residence on the east side of Manhattan instead.
Now, it houses intergalactic fighting forces
After the Presidio was converted to peacetime use in 1994, the site of the bases’s former Letterman Army Hospital saw the building of a new dedicated structure for private use: the Letterman Digital Arts Center, home of Lucasfilm: the studio behind the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises, as well as affiliated video game company Lucasarts and the visual effects house Industrial Light & Magic. While it is a place of business and not exactly a tourist attraction, the Digital Arts Center does have several Star Wars mementos on display in their lobby which is open to the public. The centerpiece for passersby, however, would have to be the Yoda Fountain out front of the building, featuring a life-sized statue of the diminutive green Jedi.