The National Cemetery in the Presidio of San Francisco looks over San Francisco Bay to Angel Island and feels like the heart of this army post turned national park. .
Starting from the Main Post, with its barracks, Officers Club, and office buildings, housing of all kinds fans out over the hillsides: houses, duplexes, unit blocks, apartment buildings. To the west are the stables that were once home to the equine members of the cavalry. To the north is the strip of land along the bay that was once a busy military air strip .
In the center of it all is this resting place for veterans of the War between the States, the Buffalo Soldiers, War in the Phillipines, the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam and more.
My family has no military history, and I am not a veteran, but this place fills me with awe. If being part of something larger than yourself means anything to you, it will affect you the same way.
Andy Goldsworthy's Spire has stood on a hill near Inspiration Point in the Presidio of San Francisco since 2006. On June 23, 2020, someone set fire to it. An investigation is ongoing, but so far nothing is known publicly about who did it or why.
I wrote about Spire in March of last year. It was the first of four sculptures in the Presidio by the world-renowned artist. Standing ninety feet tall, it was made of a collection of trunks from Monterey Cypress trees planted by the U. S. Army in the 1880s.
Most of Spire still stands. It is being evaluated for structural integrity. No decision has been made about whether it will have to be removed.
Informed about the vandalism, the artist had this to say: "The burning of Spire goes too deep for my own words. Besides, Spire has always spoken for itself and will perhaps now speak with an even greater eloquence after what has happened. If anything, its epitaph will be better written in the memories, thoughts and words of those who have lived with it over the past twelve years....What I do know is that art doesn’t give up. It is resilient and fights back. It is part of our collective and personal hard-won immunity."
Andy Goldsworthy's sculpture, Wood Line, stretches 1200 feet through a grove of eucalyptus trees in the Presidio, San Francisco's national park. It consists of curved eucalyptus branches, laid end to end so as to create a meandering line. At the upper end they are about three feet in diameter, and they gradually taper to about one foot at the far end.
As usual with Goldsworthy's sculptures, the place is as important as the piece. Like most of the trees in the Presidio, these eucalyptus were planted by the U. S. Army in the 1880s. In military fashion, they were planted in ranks and files to cover a hillside.
Rows of Monterey cypress trees were alternated with the eucalyptus, and over the years a peculiar thing happened in this grove. The eucalyptus grew faster and overshadowed the cypress. The cypress eventually died out, and, where they did, they left this unnaturally long, straight corridor because the trees had been planted in rows.
The place was already a remarkable example of humans leaving a mark upon the landscape when Goldsworthy chose to draw attention to it by drawing a line with eucalyptus branches.
The land under the bridge is part of the Tennessee Hollow Watershed. The water flows from a freshwater spring down the side of a mountain and trickles through this grassy area.
When the US Army drained this "swamp" to create dry land for a shooting range and other uses, the water was channeled into culverts and carried underground to its ultimate destination, San Francisco Bay.
When the Presidio Trust daylighted the water, the native plants returned, creating habitat for native frogs, insects and birds. It's a lively place.
It got its name from the 1st Tennessee Regiment, volunteer soldiers who camped here before shipping out to the Philippines for the Spanish-American War.
Memorial Day at the Presidio felt like the reunion of a very large family. Veterans, active-duty personnel, teenagers from military academies, couples, families. Some wore the uniforms of bygone days, World War II, the War in the Phillipines, the Civil War. The mood was surprisingly festive, considering all were there to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
I felt like a member of the family, which was strange since I've never served in the armed forces. I stood around in my vest that says "Presidio Trust/Volunteer" and gave directions to the restrooms and the road to the national cemetery. I even helped one woman find where the Buffalo Soldiers are buried. At the end of the day, I joined the volunteers folding the garrison flag.
Toward the end, as Ann and I were handing out boxed lunches, a Vietnam-era vet thanked me for my service. Made my day.
The big tree in the middle of this picture is the Centennial Tree on the Main Post in the Presidio. The National Park Service gives such a wonderful description of its origin that I will quote it in full:
"In 1876, the post's trader, Angelo Marcian Gasper Beretta, planted three eucalyptus trees in honor of his three daughters to celebrate the centennial of the American Revolution. The Army cleared the area for a new parade ground but left one of the trees, the Centennial Tree, which still stands near the center of the parade ground . . ."
I think all patriotic Americans can appreciate Beretta's gesture and the Army's decision to save one of the trees for posterity. What I love about this story is the haphazard process by which we arrived at a centennial tree in a prominent place in a national park. History is so messy.
By citing this account, I am correcting my own blog post in which I said the Army planted the Centennial tree. It turns out the Army only spared its life. Beretta planted it. No word yet on which of the daughters had the satisfaction of seeing her tree saved.
Also worth noting is the Bicentennial Tree next to it. A plaque near the tree says, "Commemorating 200 years of America's freedom. Sequoia Chapter NSDAR. March 7, 1976." NSDAR would be National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
It's great to see lots of people and organizations pitching in to make the Presidio what it is.
This office building on the east side of the Main Post of The Presidio is now the San Francisco Film Centre. Scanning the building's directory I notice tenants include for instance Zap Zoetrope-Aubrey Productions, Friday's Films, Actual Films, 72 Productions, Chicken & Egg Pictures, and Edelman Productions, along with law offices, funding organizations, and other services associated with film production.
This seems like a great place for folks in this business to gather since the Letterman Digital Arts Center is a ten-minute walk away on the east side of the Presidio, and the Walt Disney Family Museum faces this building across the parade ground.
I should mention that it's called "The Walt Disney Family Museum" because it was created by Walt's family, not by the Disney Corporation. It is really a museum about Walt Disney as a filmmaker. Not only can you learn about his life and career, you can also learn a lot about filmmaking. He experimented with lots of things that never became family oriented feature films.
So the Presidio is quite a filmmaking hub. No word yet on why they went with "Centre," the European spelling, instead of "Center."
Across the street from the former Bachelor Officers' Quarters Building, which is now the Inn at the Presidio, are these lovely wood frame houses that date from the time of the Civil War. They once served as housing for married officers and their families in the Presidio,
Most of the former military housing in the Presidio, from mansions for generals, to duplexes, and apartments, has been refurbished and offered for rent at market rates, This was a boon to San Francisco's housing stock in the early 2000s.
However these little houses have been rented as professional offices. They are occupied by investment advisors, accountants, psychotherapy practices, and the like. Delightful as it is to think of living in one, this was a good decision by the Presidio Trust. Just behind these houses are buildings used for public events. It would not be a quiet place to live.
These houses line the western side of Funston Way, named for "Fightin' Freddie" Funston. He was the general in command of the Presidio in 1906 when an earthquake followed by a firestorm destroyed three quarters of the city, which then had a population of almost 400,000.
Funston made the still controversial decision to dynamite parts of the city in an effort to create fire breaks. The jury is still out on whether or not this instead spread the fire.
This fine old building in San Francisco's Presidio was built in the 1880s, around the same time as the enlisted men's barracks. It was also around that time the US Army planted the forests of eucalyptus, Monterey cypress, and Monterey Pine to shelter the army base from the wind coming off the Pacific ocean.
This was the barracks for bachelor officers. Each man had his own bedroom and parlor. There was an officer's mess on the ground floor where they took their meals. It is only a few steps from the Officer's Club.
In recent years this barracks was made into a bed-and-breakfast hotel called the Inn at the Presidio. If you stay there, you will have a bedroom and a parlor, just like those bachelor officers did. You will also have a bathroom all to yourself. And you will have breakfast in that officer's mess.
I haven't been inside, but I'm told the Presidio Trust has been true to its policy of preserving the military history of the Presido in the decoration and furnishing of this B-and-B. Even the beds have the same olive-green wool blankets as the Pendleton Company of Portland Oregon supplied to the Army.
The Bay Area Ridge Trail winds through the southern part of the Presidio, a national park within the boundaries of San Francisco. This part is referred to as the Southern Wilds because it is forested, while other parts of the park are landscaped for other uses.
This walk in the Presidio is a small part of the overall Bay Area Ridge Trail. When completed it will allow adventurous hikers to circle the Bay Area using over 400 miles of trails, mostly on ridges that afford a view.
The fourth Nicole Tang Noonan mystery, tentatively entitled Dark Video, opens with a scene on the section of the trail pictured here. Nicole follows a section of the trail for pedestrians only into a densely wooded section where something unpleasant happens.
I am currently writing Dark Video and hope to publish it this summer.
These buildings were originally a station of the U. S. Life-Saving Service. In 1890, they overlooked one of the world's busiest ports. When a ship was disabled or wrecked in the swift currents of San Francisco Bay, lifeboats were launched from the building with the watchtower. A dozen shipwrecks still lie beneath the waters around the Presidio.
In 1915, the Life-Saving Service merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to become the U. S. Coast Guard. Today these buildings are home to the visitor center for the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.
For me they are a reminder of how beautiful buildings are when their design is dictated by their purpose and when they employ passive lighting and ventilation systems (windows).
As for the palm trees, remember: there are no native trees in San Francisco.
If you don't look too hard at this building, you might think it is one of those left behind in the Presidio by the U. S. Army. But in fact it is part of the Letterman Digital Arts Center, completed in 2005.
This complex of buildings is home to Lucasfilm Ltd. though you would never know it unless you wander into the lobby full of Star Wars memorabilia or notice the bronze statue of Yoda tucked away under an arbor.
The name of the complex is taken from the building it replaced, the Letterman Army Hospital. Both with its name and its architecture this creative powerhouse flies under the radar on the former army base turned national park.
Readers of the Nicole Tang Noonan mysteries will recall that in Dark Exhibit Nicole calls her childhood friend, Irene Gonzalo, and finds out that an acquaintance from her college days now works for Industrial Light and Magic in the Presidio. This would be his workplace.
On a hill near the southern border of the Presidio stands a sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy called Spire. It is about ninety feet tall, and can be seen reaching above the surrounding trees. It is a bundle of trunks from Monterey Cypress trees that reached the end of their lives.
Goldsworthy visited the Presidio in 2006 and found the forestry crew replacing cypress planted by the U. S. Army in the 1880s with seedlings. Struck by this moment, new trees replacing old, he created Spire to memorialize the old forest, which can be seen in the background.
In about ten years, the project will be complete. By then the newly planted trees in the foreground will have grown nearly as tall as Spire. This remnant of the old forest will disappear into the new one. It will become a secret sculpture, discoverable only by walking to it.
The spire Goldsworthy created will not change, but, since the growth of the seedlings was part of the concept, Spire is a kinetic sculpture. It's moving very slowly, but it is moving.
I've written several times about The Presidio, a former army base turned into a National Park. I have featured the view of San Francisco Bay from the Main Post and The Walt Disney Family Museum.
I've been volunteering there to introduce people to the four sculptures in the park by Andy Goldsworthy. I've featured two of them here, Tree Fall and Earth Wall.
But I haven't written about the neighborhood along the southern border of the park, Presidio Heights. These hillside homes are highly desirable because they look over the treetops of the forest planted by the U. S. Army and have a view of San Francisco Bay.
But it's not all sweetness and light. You can't walk more than a block or two among the mansions without coming upon a scene like this. Indeed sometimes you'll find two houses in the same block with a tool shed and a dumpster parked in front.
You should not conclude from this that the neighborhood became run down and has to be rehabilitated. I doubt Presidio Heights has ever been anything but splendid.
No, the orgy of remodeling is driven by the boom times in the city's economy. People with big houses have big bucks to spend swapping out the oak flooring for cherry, adding a roof garden, and doubling the size of the kitchen.
No one seems to mind the cluttered streetscape. I wonder how they would react if someone parked an RV at the curb.
Why is there a life-size sculpture of a blue whale at Crissy Field?
Why not? Given the choice between having something this cool and not having it, I think most people would go for it.
But there's a little more to it than that. This lovely sculpture is made entirely from plastic trash collected in California.
Why make a blue whale out of plastic trash? Because, Every nine minutes, 300,000 pounds (the approximate weight of a full-grown blue whale) of plastic and trash end up in the ocean.*
*According to National Geographic.
Come on, people, we can do better than this!
By the way, Crissy Field was formerly a military airstrip. It's part of The Presidio. The whale sculpture is a joint project with the Monterey Bay Aquarium and some other great organizations. You can read all about it here.