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Mint Conditions

Wednesday, Jul 12 2000
"The fire department will have little trouble quenching any conflagration that may arise within its walls," wrote the San Francisco Call about the Old Mint, or what was then the rather new Mint, in 1874, "and unless an earthquake gives it a subterranean quietus, it bids fair to stand up for centuries." This Call writer may have been a prophet -- two heavy earthquakes and a fire would in fact test the granite and sandstone building over the next 125 years -- but he never saw the federal government coming.

In the new round of chatter over what to do with the Old Mint, no one has fully reprised the building's recent history, but it's worth reviewing because of the way two federal agencies have acted, or failed to act, to use the building wisely. In 1994, when the Department of Treasury closed the Old Mint Museum over howls of local citizens, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer accused Treasury of ducking responsibility for a multimillion-dollar restoration job. She led a campaign to transfer ownership of the Mint from Treasury to the General Services Administration, another federal branch, which presumably could find money to maintain an old building, since that, as a general thing, is what the GSA does. (It rebuilt the U.S. Appeals Court at Seventh and Mission.) But nothing happened. Now the GSA and San Francisco are working on a deal to transfer ownership of the Mint to the city for a dollar. Rats, in the meantime, have the run of the Mint's mahogany halls.

Keep a careful eye on the current negotiations, if you care about historical things, because Boxer's accusation of responsibility-ducking may still stand. The whole six-year story of the building's current quietus may be the tale of a slow sloughing of old skin by the federal government.

What seems to have happened is this: In 1989, certain walls inside the Mint were weakened by the Loma Prieta quake. "A lot of the interior walls of the building are clay tile [at their core], and with an earthquake event, a very similar thing to what happened at Seventh and Mission Street could occur there very easily -- walls collapsing because there is no structure in the walls," says Mary Filippini, a spokeswoman for the General Services Administration. "There could also be a lot of potential movement off the side of the building, shedding off the side of the building."

Treasury first closed the building, without warning, at the end of 1993, but its officials failed to mention any weak interior walls. They said only that operational costs were too high. This excuse surprised Carol Mayer Marshall, superintendent of the Mint until 1992. "Profit is irrelevant," she said at the time. "The museum was not set up to make money. Its purpose is to protect the history of San Francisco and the Treasury."

Treasury seemed to be hiding something. Lloyd Bentsen, then-secretary of the Treasury, allowed the Mint to reopen for another year, but reports came out during 1994 that the building wasn't stable or safe, that retrofitting would cost a lot of money -- roughly $28 million -- and that no one at the Treasury Department had the stomach or will to write a check. The building closed for good in December '94.

Sen. Boxer fought to move ownership of the Mint to the GSA, where it would be eligible for $18 million from the GSA's public buildings fund. She also passed a bill approving that money (step one in the legislative process) but not appropriating it (step two). Before it could be appropriated, the so-called Republican Revolution came to Washington. The new Republican majority couldn't see why San Franciscans in general, and Barbara Boxer in particular, should get all that nice cash for an ugly old building. And the GSA, in the meantime, has decided the building doesn't fit in with its "role as an agency." Too expensive. (The possibly inflated figure being discussed now for restoration is $35 million.) So the agency wants to donate the Mint to the city.

Fine, says Boxer. But not without that $18 million.

"They're in what are pretty close to the final stages of negotiation," says Matt Kagan, at Boxer's L.A. office. "They have a public comment period that they're in the middle of, but they very much consider these the final stages."

The result is that San Francisco will almost certainly inherit a grand but expensive leviathan of a building that can't, by law, be torn down. (It's a national historic landmark.) So what do we do with it? Ideas proliferate like rats. The Examiner wants another museum inside the Mint, paid for by the city and some local donors, which is not a bad idea, but not the only one. I'd like to re-suggest using the Mint as an annex to the New Main Library.

Willie Brown floated this idea in 1997, but it sank. At the time Brown suggested using the Mint as a "periodicals morgue," but now it looks ripe as a public home for the city archives. Storage problems at the New Main haven't gone away, and it's a mark of permanent shame on a city with world-class pretensions that our sleek young library -- in spite of its immaculate Web accessibility and Starship Enterprise décor -- lacks the space to expand.

You might remember Nicholson Baker, the novelist, emphasizing the New Main's failures as a building in 1996 with a series of semilegal antics and a New Yorker article. He argued that even the old library's collection didn't fit on the new building's shelves, and that the new library's computer catalog was less complete than the old-fashioned cards. Things have improved, a little, since then. One way the library has eased congestion is by moving rarely-asked-for material, as well as the city and county archives of San Francisco, into a windowless basement below the Civic Center Parking Garage called Brooks Hall. But Brooks is closed to the public. "Right now," says Susan Hildreth, acting city librarian, "we're pretty much at capacity, in terms of [open] shelving."

Certain outside library experts have suggested making the Brooks Hall stacks public, but Brooks is less than grand as a public space. It seems to work as a storage bunker; as an open-stack annex it would lack windows and ventilation. "If the mint building were to come up as an option," says Hildreth, "we would probably look at relocating our entire [city] archival collection and function there. Because that would make it much more accessible to the public."

Moving the city and county archives to the Mint would open more storage space for the library, and bring city archives into the daylight. By law the Old Mint needs to be used for a purpose "commensurate with its landmark status," and you can't get much closer to a historical purpose than housing what amounts to San Francisco's official record of itself.

The fit is too perfect to overlook, even if no one at the New Main is actively pursuing the Mint. The archive wouldn't even take up the whole building. Extra floor space -- at least 20,000 square feet -- could be used for some kind of moneymaking operation, like a ferociously overpriced bistro or office space for Internet firms. (Joke.) A coin press might be appropriate, combined with a smaller museum. (The Old Mint Museum used to press commemorative coins for tourists, bringing in $60,000 per day on the rare occasions when its directors chose to run the equipment.)

That, at least, is my scurrying rat of a contribution to the Old Mint debate. Any working solution will need private donations as well as public money -- the Granite Lady may never pay for her own upkeep -- and the whole scheme assumes a reasonable deal with the feds, one that doesn't stick the city with an earthquake retrofitting bill that is 11 years old, and owed by the federal government.


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