On Fifth and Mission streets, adjacent to the heavily visited Westfield Centre, sits a regal old building. Passersby often pause to ponder its purpose before continuing on their way — and that purpose is still in the making.
That building, the Old Mint, dates to 1874, and has sat underused for 80 years while around it, San Francisco was transformed. Now, the California Historical Society (CHS) and the city have teamed up to find a solution. A $1 million state grant kicks it off, and both are seeking ideas from the public on how to turn it into a cultural center and public space.
“We don’t have a great track record with this building,” says Katherine Petrin, architectural historian and Old Mint restoration project manager, at a public workshop on Monday.
The Old Mint — built to mold raw gold and silver from California and Nevada into coins — once held a third of the entire country’s gold, and was the only financial institution to survive the 1906 earthquake.
But its glory days ended when a “new mint” opened in 1937. That building continues to produce hard currency at 155 Hermann St., just up the hill from Church Street Station. The Old Mint was due for some technical upgrades, and its downtown location was deemed insufficiently secure to hold that much money, Petrin says.
The building served as federal offices from the 1940s to the 1960s, before being designated a national historic landmark in 1961. Unsuccessful proposals for its next stage have come and gone since then.
A 1959 proposal would have demolished the building in favor of a plaza, salvaging its front step columns to stick inside a pond. That was derailed, and instead it served as a money museum from 1973 to 1994, frequented by local school kids.
The cost to demolish the sandstone building was deemed too expensive along the way and, in 2003, the city bought the Old Mint from the federal government for one silver dollar — made in that very building. It’s now managed by event company Non Plus Ultra.
A previous agreement with the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society (SFMHS) would have turned it into a historic museum, but the partnership ended in 2015.
The latest idea is for CHS to have a presence in the building to serve as its cultural and historical anchor, potentially taking up 10,000 of the useable 78,000 square feet. Maximizing the public’s use and enjoyment of the historic building as a regional center are listed as future goals, and ones that city residents have some opinions about.
Jim Haas, an SFMHS board member, says the previous plans — such as converting one level into glass flooring and adding a skylight — were too grandiose, and that CHS should think more modestly.
“It needs to be a building that has many purposes,” Haas says. “It has to pay for itself.”
Others echoed Haas’ points, adding that CHS ought to consider lack of free or low-cost meeting space for nonprofits or community groups, or even artist residencies. Audio tours to immerse visitors in the history, making it an official tourist center, or even bringing the Smithsonian in as a partner were also suggested.
Another member of the public workshop, who dubbed himself a “concerned citizen,” called to restore some rooms to a 19th-century setting, to be a “museum without walls.”
Learning from the last proposal, CHS and city officials say that whatever they choose to do, they will probably keep a light touch on the building. It’s too early to know the total cost.
But what is clear is that the Old Mint has been a chronically missed opportunity for decades. In 2019, that could change when a final proposal reaches the Board of Supervisors.
For Petrin, it’s an overdue preservation of a unique piece of history. “A building like this will never be built again,” she says.
Additional workshops take place on Saturday, Dec. 2 from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Chinese Historical Society of America, and on Monday, Dec. 11 from 7-8:30 p.m. at the San Francisco Public Library Presidio Branch. The public can give additional input at oldmintrestorationproject.org/comment.