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Can the Old Mint be Recoined?

For decades, a city treasure has suffered incompetence and neglect. But that could soon change.

 

Ask a dozen San Franciscans to name the most indispensable structures in the city, and you’ll get a dozen predictable answers. The Golden Gate and Bay Bridges. The Ferry Building. City Hall. Coit Tower. Mission Dolores. The Transamerica Pyramid. Few would mention the Old Mint. Yet the massive SoMa granite pile at Fifth and Mission is as vital and necessary as any of them.

The Old Mint is one of the most significant buildings not just in California but west of the Mississippi. One of the oldest structures in San Francisco—it was completed in 1874—the Mint is a rare link with the heady era when California was still a new state. The mighty edifice, with its portico of six towering sandstone columns, was a source of enormous civic pride. It was also extraordinarily productive: By 1877 it was minting $50 million of the $83.9 million in gold and silver coins produced in the United States. By rights, the Old Mint should have been destroyed in the great earthquake and fire of 1906, which consumed nearly everything around it. But thanks to its fortresslike design and the heroic efforts of its employees and the army, it survived.

And as San Francisco’s only functioning financial institution—its vaults constituted a West Coast Fort Knox—it prevented the city from plunging into economic chaos after the disaster. The list of the Old Mint’s noteworthy attributes goes on and on. Its use of ornamental cast and wrought iron is extraordinary. Its seismic engineering was revolutionary. More practically, its central location makes it a natural candidate to become something the city has never had: a world-class museum dedicated to San Francisco, the region, and the state. (Fortunately, we have just the right sort of organization to run it in the California Historical Society.)

Yet for more than two decades, this Greek Revival civic treasure has essentially been allowed to molder. The slow-motion debacle began in 1994, when the federal government closed the Old Mint museum after a 21-year run. Thereafter, the city made one regrettable decision after another. In 2003, under Mayor Willie Brown, San Francisco acquired the property (by then the site of a spectacular rat infestation) from the feds for$1—thereby assuming fiscal responsibility for the tens of millions of dollars’ worth of restoration work it needed. In 2006, the city turned control of the Mint over to the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, an organization with no track record of meeting an ambitious and expensive goal like creating a grand museum in a dilapidated national landmark.

And then our leaders sat on their hands for nearly a decade while the SFMHS flailed—and ultimately failed to raise the needed money. Of the more than $14 million the SFMHS did manage to amass, only $580,000 was used to rehabilitate the building; the rest, scandalously, went to architects’ fees for drawing up plans that would never be realized, designs for exhibits that would never be built, and staff salaries.

When the city was in the economic doldrums, it was forgivable to ignore the sad fate of the Old Mint. But with San Francisco going through a boom that rivals the Comstock delirium, and the once-decrepit corner of Fifth and Mission slated to experience a dramatic transformation via the massive 5M Project, the Old Mint could become a singularly foul-tasting cough drop. Preservationist groups are well aware of this—and are seizing the moment. San Francisco Heritage, the city’s leading historic preservation advocacy organization, has nominated the Old Mint to be placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s dreaded America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list. Making the nomination even more ignominious, the Old Mint has already landed on this list before, 20 years ago.

Both Heritage’s executive director, Mike Buhler, and Anthony Veerkamp, the field director for the trust’s San Francisco office, acknowledge that the nomination is intended to be a wake-up call for the city. “Our focus is on missed opportunities,” Veerkamp says. “Here’s a fundamental symbol of San Francisco, really a place that made the city’s prosperity possible. If we can’t figure out how to do right by it now, then when can we?”

For his part, Jon Lau, a project manager in San Francisco’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, says that the city “absolutely” feels a sense of urgency: “We can’t let the whole neighborhood and the world kind of pass us by here.” Lau says that the city is exploring all options in terms of partners and approaches to restore the Mint: “We hope by the end of this year to have a road map on how we’re going to get there.”

Well, that’d be a start. The Old Mint has been a civic black eye for too long. How fitting it would be if the structure that enabled San Francisco’s gilded present and future could partake in it, too.

 

 

Originally published in the July issue of San Francisco

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