Historic Presidio Fort Envisioned as a ‘Campus for Change’

The Presidio Trust is ready to turn a collection of largely untouched historic military buildings into a hub for social and environmental justice.

In the northeast corner of the idyllic Presidio lies a 106-year-old military fort dubbed the “guardian of the Golden Gate.” Throughout its tenure, it has been a site for the anti-war movement, class divides, and a treasured home for native wildlife — but since 1994, it’s stood mostly empty.

Now, Fort Winfield Scott is ready to be of modern use to San Francisco. In January, the Presidio Trust put out a request for proposals from parties interested in turning its collection of 22 buildings into a “Campus for Change,” with an estimated $200 million cost of revitalization.

“The idea of using Fort Scott for a special purpose, for a higher purpose, has been around since the beginning of the Presidio,” says Presidio Trust CEO Jean Fraser. “We’ve been conceptualizing this for a long time.”

For San Franciscans who haven’t heard of the fort or don’t often venture to the Presidio, Josh Bagley, the trust’s director of real estate development, describes it as a “series of historic buildings in a historic forest.” The Ohlone first occupied the area before Spain, Mexico and, ultimately, the United States used it as a military post.

Fort Scott has 10 Mission Revival-style buildings that circle a green outdoor space, which serves as a habitat for native flowers and animals. With another 12 adjacent buildings, the site has been home to dorms, offices, classrooms, gyms, a jail, and even a fallout shelter — totaling nearly 300,000 square feet of indoor space. Plus, the 30-acre site is next to impressive views of the Bay and Golden Gate Bridge.

Though only one group will have its proposal accepted, the Presidio Trust envisions it as a hub for many.

“This will never be a private space,” Bagley says. “This will always remain an open campus.”

As Bagley and Fraser repeatedly referenced during a tour of the site, the Presidio Trust is on strong financial ground to take on this project and wait for the right option — even if it doesn’t come before the submission deadline in June. Revenue from roughly 3,500 residents and more than 4,000 workers in the Presidio has boosted the trust’s annual budget. Based on the trust’s by-laws, it must be reinvested in the area.

But whatever moves in must be financially capable; like its Presidio home, Fort Scott is part of the National Park Service and must be financially self-sufficient. The Presidio has been a designated National Historic Landmark since 1962.

Part of the estimated cost for the site’s renovation includes restoration, plumbing and electrical additions, and transportation. Plus, the U.S. Park Police station sits at the site, and may be relocated within the Presidio. As an additional qualification for candidates, the Presidio Trust is adamant that this shot at real estate is mission-driven toward benefiting societal or environmental change — while preserving Fort Scott’s historic and cultural value.

Rob Thomson, a preservation officer with the Presidio Trust, points to a section of a mural painted in the 1950’s by soldiers in the training room of their barracks at Fort Winfield Scott on Monday, April 2, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

But the fort itself is worth the effort. One of the treasures is a locked-away set of murals artist Perren Gerber painted in 1956-57 when he was assigned to serve at the Presidio service. With the help of three other artists, Gerber depicted army life on the walls of training classrooms.

The murals have deteriorated a great deal but show enlisted officers in administrative roles, playing baseball by the Golden Gate Bridge, undergoing training in a gas chamber, combatting enemies in a jungle setting, and crouching from a mushroom-like explosion. Another set of black-and-white murals painted solely by Gerber is said to be how servicemembers imagined civilian life as family men, musicians, photographers, and patrons of fancy restaurants.

Another notable building in the fort is the former jail, which features signs like “no smoking in bed,” along with human cages to separate rowdy prisoners. It was even home to a mutiny of drafted soldiers resisting the Vietnam War, who were charged with desertion.

While allegedly trying to escape in 1968, 19-year-old Richard Bunch — who was charged with going AWOL — was shot and killed. His death started a riot among prisoners who made demands for an investigation, better jail conditions, and an end to the racist treatment of Black prisoners. The group — which became known as the Presidio 27 — were formally charged with mutiny and threatened with the death penalty before public outcry led to shorter sentences.

“The whole episode raised the issue of the anti-war movement from within the military, which was an important component of the larger anti-war movement,” says Federal Preservation Officer Rob Thompson. “This is just another example of how different layers of history at the Presidio and here at Fort Scott, in particular, present themselves and could offer some really interesting opportunities for interpretation to the public in the future.”

The mutiny wasn’t the only divide between soldiers and higher-ranking officials, Thompson adds. While enlisted men had barracks and recreation centers, officers enjoyed a fancy clubhouse and tennis courts that showed a stark class division at Fort Scott. Soldiers often played sports like basketball and baseball while officers played sports like racquetball and squash.

But not every building at Fort Scott has history to preserve, like the gym, which could function with more open space. A former gas station that sits adjacent to the Mission-style buildings has potential be a cafe, laboratory, or educational makerspace, Bagley says.

Besides preserving the fort’s historic character, adapting buildings such as these for reuse is an environmental win, as it modernizes existing buildings rather than tearing them down and constructing new ones altogether. It’s an ongoing trend: The Presidio has more than 20 projects that are either LEED-certified or have certification in sight.

The Presidio Trust is open to projects that are completed in phases, bringing use to some buildings while others remain under renovation. And if the existing buildings don’t meet a specific need of interested parties, up to 20,000 square feet could house new construction.

After the proposals are presented at the end of June, the trust will unveil some of the responses received to the public on July 25. The proposal form has been downloaded more than 600 times, and tours have been at capacity, according to Presidio Trust spokesperson Lisa Petrie.

Members of the public can get an idea of what the grounds could hold in person, when Fort Scott is opened for a rare tour on Saturday, April 28.

“We really want public engagement on this,” Fraser says.

Ida Mojadad is a staff writer at SF Weekly.
Imojadad@sfweekly.com |  @idamoj

To RSVP for the public tour or for more information, visit presidio.gov/fort-winfield-scott.

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