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Update: Will a “Chop and Drop” Strategy Rescue the Presidio’s Contemporary Art Museum Project?


Presidio Main Post map. The parade ground is near the center of the map, and the new proposed site for the CAMP is at the parade ground’s west (lower) end. NPS photo.

Harsh criticism forced the Presidio Trust to rethink its plans for the new Contemporary Art Museum at the Presidio (CAMP). A new proposal for the CAMP emphasizes smaller, better located structures built largely underground. Whether this “chop and drop” strategy will mollify preservationists and other critics remains to be seen.

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, a component of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The Fishers have also offered to fund a museum to house the collection, an accompanying hotel and multiplex cinema, and a hefty endowment. Proponents hoped that the CAMP would open its doors in 2011. For additional details, visit this Traveler article.

The original plans for the CAMP drew heavy criticism from preservationists, Presidio neighbors, and many park advocates. The Fishers’ original proposal featured a two story, 100,000 square-foot building at the head of the Main Post parade ground. Preservationists said that the historic Main Post is an inappropriate location for something like the CAMP, and insisted that the structures would be, in any event, too large and obtrusive.

A separate but related set of objections centers on whether the CAMP project should be built at all. The NPS has expressed concern that constructing a museum and hotel on the Main Post might adversely affect the park and imperil its National Historic Landmark status. Nearly 50 San Francisco neighborhood associations have opposed the planned development and called upon San Francisco supervisors to analyze CAMP’s impacts upon the historic Presidio, traffic, transit and nearby neighborhoods. The Presidio Historical Association has decried what it sees as excessive “urbanization” of the Presidio, and has spearheaded the campaign to, at the very least, keep the CAMP off the Main Post.

Stung by criticism that seemed to cascade from every direction, the Presidio Trust went back to the drawing board. After about six months they came up with is a new proposal that not only features a move to a presumably less objectionable location, but also a “chop and drop” strategy emphasizing scaled-back design (downsizing) and largely underground construction.

The new proposal calls for a museum situated not at the head of the Parade Ground (where sensitive archeological sites would be disturbed), but rather at the west end. Gone is the two-story, 100,000 square-foot main structure that dominated the original proposal. In its place are two smaller structures. One is a one-story, 70,000 square-foot structure built with half of its mass underground. The other is a one-story, 35,000 square-foot structure, over half of which would be underground. A 110-room, 80,000 square-foot hotel would be built on the eastern edge of the parade ground, substituting for the 125-room, 95,000 square-foot hotel originally proposed.

Many of the CAMP’s critics see this new proposal as a step in the right direction, but are reserving judgment pending release of additional design details. Some opponents are unimpressed, insisting that the location and design changes do not adequately address various key concerns, including the basic question of whether the CAMP should be built at all in the historic Presidio.

The Fishers and other CAMP advocates seem resigned to the fact that the CAMP cannot be built unless it blends into its historic surrounding as much as practicable. It will certainly be interesting to see how this controversy is resolved. For good or ill, preservationists appear to have lots more room to flex their muscles.


Why can't they simply turn 6-8 of the existing buildings into museum space, and scatter the galleries throughout the Presidio?

I don't have a problem with business ventures operating at NPS sites. I think you can have that, AND preserve the historic integrity of the building and grounds. Sure, they may have to rearrange interior walls and probably reinforce the structure of existing buildings to handle all the foot traffic, but it's better than further cutting into the landscape to build new buildings.

Oh, and drop the cineplex idea completely. Movie revenues are dropping sharply and will continue to do so. There are abandoned movie theaters all over this country, including mega-multiplexes. Ruining a historic site to build a known, failed business venture is madness.


My travels through the National Park System:

As far as I know, repurposing existing buildings has never been considered a viable alternative to new construction, which is what the Fishers have wanted from the beginning. Judging from the CAMP proposals, the Fishers have no particular commitment to historic preservation per se, but simply believe that the historic Presidio provides the right context for their museum.

The Park Traveler omits a very important fact: the Presidio of San Francisco is part of a national park. NPS Management Policies permit construction of new "cultural facilities" in a national park only when five strictly defined standards are met. A contemporary art museum in the Presidio fails four of the five tests. These restrictions were designed to prevent the resources of our national parks from being overrun with well-intentioned museums and private philanthropic "gifts". A similar "gift" is being resisted near the Westward Arch in St. Louis, where a wealthy person wants to build a museum.

The guiding principle that has served our national parks for almost a century is to preserve the resources of the parks for future generations. Building facilities that are unrelated to the purposes of the park, as defined in their establishing legislation, is a sure way to impair public understanding of the resources.

The Presidio Trust is given far more latitude than your typical national park management entity -- perhaps not least because it is under Congressional orders to be financially self supporting by 2013.

Mr Janiskee,

The Fisher proposal for the Contemporary Art Museum at the Presidio (CAMP) includes rehabilitation of a 48,000 sf historic baracks building, one of the iconic "Montgomery Street Barracks." It would accommodate both "back of house" museum functions and public art programs.

Tia Lombardi
Director of Public Affairs
The Presidio Trust

Allowing Fisher to put his museum on the Presidio would be a tragedy. This museum will house soley his collection, which he is not giving to--just permitting it to be viewed by-- the public. He has insisted that he curate what is shown, when it is shown, how it is shown, what will be lent out, and what will be shown from other collections. No self-respecting PUBLIC art museum would ever permit such unilateral, unreviewable control.
So what this amounts to is allowing a private collector to build his own museum on public land, to run however he wishes. But not just ordinary public land. For here we are talking about a National Historic Landmark District, and not just that, but at the very top, center of its Main Post, the universally acknowledged "heart of the Presidio", the "Plymouth Rock of the West". Could anything be more unjustified?

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