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At Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Presidio Trust Ponders Where to Put a New Art Museum


Presidio of San Francisco Main Post map with parade ground at center. NPS photo.

It’s bad manners to look a gift horse in the mouth. But what if the gift horse is a big, modern-looking art museum and the donor insists that it be built in an historic national park setting?

The Presidio Trust is facing just such a dilemma as it tries to figure out just what location will work best for this exciting new addition to the Presidio of San Francisco, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The 1,491-acre Presidio, which is congressionally mandated to be self supporting, and which has “appropriate” development as a core component of its management plan, is certainly one of the most unusual components of any national park.

But the Presidio’s managers have some precious historic resources to protect and some traditional values to uphold. It’s a difficult balancing act, and all the key decisions the Presidio Trust makes are sure to draw fire from some quarters – the art museum site decision being a good case in point.

On the surface of it, there is much to be thankful for. Billionaire philanthropists Don Fisher and his wife Doris (who co-founded Gap in 1969) have arranged to donate an outstanding contemporary art collection to the Presidio. They’ll also fund the construction of a museum to house the collection, build a large hotel and multiplex cinema, and provide a hefty endowment. If everything goes smoothly, the Contemporary Art Museum at the Presidio (CAMP) will open its doors in 2011.

You can view architectural sketches of the building in the proposed location at this site.

Whether the CAMP should be built at the Presidio is a matter of debate. Such developments are in keeping with the Presidio’s management plan, which dates to 2002. However, many oppose the planned development. Nearly 50 San Francisco neighborhood associations representing many thousands of local residents are have gone on record as opposing the planned development, which would include a modernistic contemporary art museum, a large hotel, and a movie multiplex. Activists have sought help from San Francisco supervisors, calling upon them to analyze CAMP’s impacts upon the historic Presidio, traffic, transit and nearby neighborhoods.

The Presidio Historical Association, a small NGO that has been fighting since the 1950s to preserve the integrity of the Presidio’s National Historic Landmark District, has blasted the museum proposal, saying it would be excessive “urbanization” of the Presidio. The PHA is spearheading the opposition attempt to keep the CAMP (or Fisher Art Museum) off the Main Post.

In early April, the National Park Service expressed “serious concerns” about the proposed new construction on the Main Post. The Park Service asserts that constructing a museum and hotel there would adversely affect the park and imperil its National Historic Landmark status.

While the proposed museum site is highly controversial, the quality of the art is not. The artworks illustrate very nicely the various paths by which some of the best artists of our age arrived at their lofty status. The Fishers feel that it’s in the public interest to make this valuable collection of contemporary art, representing some 1,000 artworks collected over the span of 30 years, readily accessible to the public. Who can argue with that? And who can fault the Fishers for wanting to see the galleries that house this wonderful collection placed in a permanent setting of superior quality?

Specifically, the Fishers want the Fisher Art Museum and its accompanying hotel and theater to be constructed adjacent to the landscaped parade ground in the heart of the Presidio’s Main Post (founded 1776). It’s not hard to understand why the Fishers prefer this site for the CAMP. It is highly accessible, pleasing to the eye, and historically interesting. The Fishers like this particular place so much that they insist it’s the only site they’re interested in.

That’s a big problem. Many critics -- including influential ones like the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Presidio Historical Association, and John King (whose popular “Place” column appears in the San Francisco Chronicle each Tuesday) – insist that a big, modern-looking museum complex cannot be placed at that site without seriously blemishing the Main Post’s historic character.

On May 16 the nation’s leading historic preservation organization, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, sent the Presidio Trust a letter denouncing the damage that would result from building the Fisher Art Museum, hotel, and movie multiplex at the Main Post.

In stating its objections, the National Trust cited the “enormous” scale and obtrusive nature of the proposed project as well as noncompliance with the park’s management plan:

Our understanding of the proposed undertaking is that it includes demolition
of historic and non-historic buildings totaling up to 157,000 square feet, new
construction of up to 265,000 square feet, rehabilitation of up to 20
contributing buildings (though it is not clear how many of these are within the
Main Post District), creation of new parking for up to 2,100 cars, and
modifications to historic circulation patterns. In addition, the undertaking
includes the finalization of Main Post design guidelines and an amendment to
the Presidio Trust Management Plan (PTMP), the latter necessitated by the
fact that much of the proposed development would violate the existing PTMP.

Those who approve the idea of building the museum complex at the Presidio, but take issue with the Main Post site, want a less obtrusive location selected. To be sure, the Presidio Trust has been exploring other possible sites.

Columnist John King points out that a nearby site, Infantry Terrace, would be a much more suitable place for the museum. Infantry Terrace is centrally located, and that is a key asset. An even more important consideration is that constructing a large, modern building of contemporary design at Infantry Terrace will do less harm to the Presidio’s historic resources than constructing it next to the old parade ground on the Main Post.

Some other possible sites have received attention. Across from Crissy Field, one of Golden Gate’s most popular attractions, is the former site of the Presidio’s commissary. In the Presidio's 2002 management plan, the Presidio Trust stated that this site, which offers great views (and is currently leased to Sports Basement), should be eventually reused for museum space.

The Fishers don’t like the ex-commissary site because it’s adjacent to Doyle Drive, the elevated approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. Being problem-plagued, Doyle Drive is slated for a five-year, $1 billion replacement project that will begin in 2011, the very year the new museum is projected to open.

Some suggest that the museum should be built at Fort Winfield Scott, but few give this idea serious thought. Fort Scott is situated in a remote, fog-swept area of the Presidio. To say that the site lacks centrality is a major understatement. Anyway, sticking a huge, modern-looking museum-hotel-theater complex in with the modestly-sized 1930s era Mission Revival barracks at Fort Scott would create a bizarre juxtaposition of the new and the old, the big and the small. As the saying goes, that dog won’t hunt.

Building design is certainly an important consideration here. The planned museum is a white, 100,000 square-foot edifice whose design has inspired some critics to say that it reminds them of “two bars of Ivory Soap.” This is not to say that the Richard Gluckman-designed structure is ugly, but rather to emphasize that it is quite big and conspicuously modern. The large hotel and multiplex theater accompanying the museum are also of modern design.

Can buildings like that be harmoniously fit into an historic milieu that the National Park Service is solemnly charged to preserve? Some say yes, some say no, and nobody can tell you for sure. The National Park Service standards for building “related new construction” in an historic context aren’t very specific. To use a timeworn metaphor, there are loopholes you could drive a truck through.

The Park Service has stated that “new work shall be differentiated from the old and will be compatible with the historic materials..... to protect the integrity of the property and the environment.”

Translation: the new building should not be passed off as an old building, but it should fit well with its old-looking surroundings. OK, so just exactly what does that mean in this particular case?

People who admire the design of the new building insist that the contrast between the modern building and the nearby old buildings makes the historic structures look even more conspicuously old and interesting. (By the same reasoning, pretty women who surround themselves with ugly women look gorgeous by comparison.)

Critics insist that harmony of design should exist in the true esthetic sense. Sweeping aside the jargon, they want the damn thing to look like it belongs there.

What do you think? Do you really care? The Presidio Trust has scheduled a public meeting on July 14 to solicit comments on its findings.

As Traveler readers were recently informed, compatibility of design and function in historic settings is also an issue over at Alcatraz Island, another popular component of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Park Service must decide on the appropriateness of converting historic Alcatraz buildings for lodging, special events venues, food sales, souvenir shops, and other uses.

It sure will be interesting to see how all this plays out, and whether the decisions made at the Presidio and Alcatraz will have major implications for policy- and decision making elsewhere in the National Park System, such as the proposed commercial development of Fort Hancock at Gateway National Recreation Area.


On August 28 the Landmark Advisory Board declared the site on the parade ground of the Main Post "would not be compatible with the massing, size, scale, and architectural features of the historic Main Post buildings, and would therefore violate the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards."

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