by Ellen Hall
The Presidio in San Francisco was a military post for over 200 years under Spain, Mexico, and the United States. Now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, The Presidio contains more than 500 historic buildings, the oldest National Cemetary in the U.S. and historic Crissy Field.
Covering 1480 acres at the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula, the Presidio was established in 1776 by Juan Bautista de Anza as part of Spain's colonization of the California coast. Its role was to control native populations, help found missions and communities, and protect the frontier from foreign invasions.
After Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1821, the Presidio came under Mexican control. This lasted until American forces occupied the fort in 1846 during the U.S-Mexican war. In 1848, California became a United States territory.
Prompted by the sudden growth of San Francisco after the Gold Rush, President Fillmore reserved the Presidio for military use in 1850. In following years, conflicts such as the Indian Wars and Spanish-American War increased the role of the Presidio.
All four of the African-American regiments known as the Buffalo Soldiers" were stationed here.
In 1921, Crissy Field air base was built to assist in harbor defense. It became better known for the historic long-distance flights that began and ended here, including the first dawn to dusk transcontinental flight and the first non-stop flight to Hawaii. During World War II, Crissy Field also housed the first Military Intelligence Service Language School.
A West Coast World War II Memorial overlooking the entrance to the Golden Gate from the Pacific Ocean at Lincoln and Harrison Boulevards in the Presidio was dedicated in 1960. Bearing the names of 413 soldiers, sailors, marines and coast guardsmen and airmen lost or buried at sea in the American coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean between 1941 and 1945 the memorial consists of a curved granite wall, a terrace and a statue of Columbia by sculptor Jean de Marco..
The Presidio was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962, and was closed down by the army in 1989. It was transferred to the National Park Service in 1994 as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, one of the largest urban national parks in the world.
With miles of eucalyptus groves and sweeping coastal vistas, the Presidio offers excellent hiking and biking as well as historic sites.
At the heart of the Presidio, the Main Post contains the complex's oldest existing buildings, including the Post Hospital, built in 1854.
The octagonal additon on the right of the building housed a surgical wing and biological laboratory. Converted to a museum in the early 1970s, the old Post Hospital had been serving as an outpatient clinic and dispensary since 1899 when Letterman General Hospital was completed.
Behind the old Post Hospital are two refugee cottages from the 1906 earthquake. They were saved from demolition, moved from 34th Avenue and Geary and restored to their 1906 state by the US Army.
John McLarenSan Francisco Park Superintendentdesigned the small buildings and insisted they all be painted a park-bench green. 5,610 cottages were built by union carpenters in 11 refugee camps to house over 16,000 San Franciscans.
A boulder near the flagpole in Pershing Square marks the site of the original Spanish Presidio. The two bronze cannons at this site are among the oldest in North America and were originally placed at Castillo de San Joaquin an adobe structure built by Spain on top of a white cliff where Fort Point is today.
The nearby Officer's Club incorporates some of the Spanish fort's original adobe walls. Originally the Presidio's Commandants quarters, it was built between 1776–78 and modified several times. It is now the temporary home of the Presidio Visitor Center.
Murals in the visitors center incorporate portraits of military personnel stationed at the Presidio. The Post Interfaith Chapel, just west, contains a striking wall mural depicting the Army's peacetime activities.
George Lucas' Letterman Digital Arts Center stands on the former site of Letterman General Hospital, the Army's first general hospital. During World War II it was the largest debarkation hospital in the country, treating over 76,000 patients in 1945.
Both Fort Scott—the first of the Presidio's Spanish Colonial Revival buildings—and the Log Cabin—built in 1937 as a sergeant's club and now used for private events—still rest on the coastal bluffs in the Presidio.
The San Francisco National Cemetery, designated in 1884 and oldest in the U.S., contains over 30,000 graves. Soldiers were buried here starting in 1849.
Not far away is the Presidio's intriguing pet cemetery. Military families began burying their pets here in the 1950s, and local residents still do so.
Slideshow—all photos on this page
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2015 Lee W. Nelson