Yes, reader: San Francisco is full of secrets and historical tidbits. Case in point: SF’s Presidio is an amalgamation of urban greenery and (mostly) abandoned relics.
Some 870 buildings sit nestled within the vast expanse of San Francisco’s Presidio. Some are happy little homes. Some are businesses. Some are historic installations from the park’s long history as a military base before its acquisition by the National Park Service in 1994. As you stroll through this historic neighborhood, you’ll see many placards and signs detailing buildings’ use. But others sit quietly, with no explanation — blank and mysterious, refusing to reveal their secrets.
If you’re like me, these are the buildings that pique my curiosity. Most of the Presidio’s buildings are former military installations that shuttered when it became a national park, and while some have been rehabilitated — the former guardhouse that now houses the Presidio Visitor Center, for instance — at least 100 are completely unused, their boarded-up windows accruing graffiti and cobwebs. If you’ve ever walked through this most Area 51-like corner of San Francisco and thought about what secrets these buildings conceal, here’s a list of just a few you might’ve wondered about.
Buildings 312 & 314
Perched at the edge of the Presidio Golf Course not far from Andy Goldsworthy’s Spire, this complex hides behind a fearsome chain-link fence and sharp tangles of concertina wire, with “NO TRESPASSING” signs galore, in case you didn’t get the message. These two buildings were constructed in 1921 as a base for a U.S. Army radio broadcast system with the call letters WVY. After the war, it became associated with MARS (Military Auxiliary Radio System), a program that trained amateur civilian radio operators to assist the military with communications in case of emergency. Prior to 2010, a military observation tower also stood at the site. Painted the same orange and white colors as Sutro Tower, it developed a reputation among locals as “Sutro Tower’s little buddy” and was often broken into by teens fancying a nice view and a toke. It was replaced by a 175-foot tower currently in use as part of the Coast Guard’s trans-coastal “Rescue 21” communications system.
This humble, extremely haunted-looking shack greets visitors approaching the Presidio from Crissy Field. It was built in 1921 as a guardhouse for the then-newly-created Crissy Airfield. When the airfield closed in 1974 and became the recreation area now known simply as Crissy Field, the shack became an office for the Army Medical Department. Despite its unusual architectural style — a fusion of Colonial, Mediterranean, and Georgian revivals, all of which were all the rage in the 1920s — it hasn’t been quite as fortunate as its older and more famous cousin that now houses the Visitor Center. It’s been abandoned since 1994, except by the ghosts we’d like to imagine are rattling inside.
Even longtime Presidio explorers would be forgiven for missing this building. Located near Fort Winfield Scott, this moldering ruin sits in a small valley near some tennis courts, hidden from the road by a dense patch of trees. In spite of its disuse, it still has a distinct sense of grandeur — likely because it was once the Fort Scott Officer’s Club. Erected (once again) in 1921, this building served a similar purpose to the famous Log Cabin across Fort Scott: hosting formal dinners and providing hearty meals and drinks to military officers. By 1960, it was being used as a mess hall for non-commissioned officers (the commissioned officers ate at the Log Cabin), and by 1980, it was a recreation center for soldiers stationed nearby. It hasn’t been refurbished or re-opened since 1994, though the nearby tennis courts see some traffic.
While none of the buildings on this list are accessible to the public, this one isn’t even viewable by the public. Its address is 1332 Wright Loop, but it’s in fact the only building on Wright Loop, a private street boasting a truly extravagant lawn and wedged between Fort Winfield Scott and Rob Hill Campground. This grand residence was built in 1943 as a home for the Commanding General of the Ninth Coast Artillery District and is an example of the Spanish Colonial Revival architecture style, the more extravagant successor to the Mission Revival style whose white exteriors and red roofs define many buildings on the Presidio. From 1996 to 2000, it was the home of Presidio Trust Director Jim Meadows. We’re not sure who lives there now, but last time it went on the market in 2009, it fetched $14,000 a month in rent. A hefty price, but keep in mind this might be the only house in the city where pissing the neighbors off isn’t a concern. (Pissing hikers off, maybe.) These buildings, 312, and 314 are the only ones on this list that are still in use.
The Presidio Chapel near the Golden Gate National Cemetery is more glamorous, but there’s a good chance this humble, squat, red-roofed church is more famous; it’s impossible not to see it when taking Lincoln Blvd. from the Richmond District to the Golden Gate Bridge. The Fort Scott Chapel was built in 1941 and is a typical example of WWII-era wood-frame construction, hastily assembled and not designed to last long (identical chapels, in fact, exist at Fort Baker and Fort Barry in Marin County). Though technically a Christian place of worship, it also housed a Torah to accommodate the Jewish soldiers stationed on the Presidio. In 1972, the building was damaged in a fire, but it remained in use as a chapel after its refurbishment. It fell into disuse following the Presidio’s conversion to a park. It briefly opened in 2016 as a venue for the For-Site Foundation’s Home Land Security exhibit, which displayed artworks pertaining to issues of national security at several abandoned Presidio buildings. Tucked into the nearby trees is Building 1390, built as a Sunday school and used at various times as a nursery and a community meeting place before being abandoned along with the chapel.
This boxy building near Rob Hill Campground cowers in the shadow of an impressive guyed mast that seems poised to fall and crush it. Erected in 1941, Building 1444 was the site of the Presidio Coast Defense Radio Station, which broadcast news bulletins to the Navy base at Cavite NPO in the Philippines during World War II. The Army also intercepted Japanese radio signals at Building 1444, failing to predict the attack on Pearl Harbor. Following the war, it was used as a storage building. The California Historic Radio Society has taken a liking to the building and has attempted to restore it since the late 1990s, but it remains graffiti-strewn, vacant, and boarded up.
Built in 1957, this squat building across Lincoln Blvd. from Fort Scott is the newest building on this list and the only one associated with the Cold War. In the 1950s, the U.S. Army developed its first anti-aircraft missile system, Project Nike. Twelve missile sites were located in the Bay Area, controlled by the 740th AAA Missile Battalion, who were headquartered here in Building 1648. In 1974, after advances in Soviet missile technology rendered the Nike weapons obsolete, the building was used for a top-secret military intelligence project of which little is publicly known; even the commander of the Presidio army garrison was barred from entering the building. The U.S. Park Police occupied the building from 1993 to 1996, and it has been completely unused since then except that it was also used as a venue for the For-Site Foundation’s Home Land Security exhibit in late 2016.
All body images: Courtesy of the author
Feature image: Courtesy of The Lodge at the Presidio