I visited San Francisco's Old Mint over the weekend for the annual SF History Days, a chance for every organization in town to pass out brochures about how they preserve the city's history.
Walking by, it's easy to think this building is just another old court house, but it's architecture and history are extraordinary. To begin with, it's not the oldest mint in town. The first one, built in 1854 for turning gold from the Gold Rush into coins, occupied a modest brick building which still stands on Commercial street.
This grand building replaced it in 1874, when the amount of money in the city was much greater. At a time when gold was used in everyday transactions, this was the U. S. Government's factory for stamping out coins. It once held one third of the Treasury's gold reserves.
Those front steps are steep and hard to climb, the harder for robbers to run in and out. The foundation is built of granite and concrete to prevent tunneling into the vaults. It has its own water supply, accessible in a central courtyard.
But my favorite feature is the gallery that graces the old counting room.
It looks like a decorative feature, but it had a practical purpose. Back when people brought gold dust, bullion or coins to the mint, this room was set up for weighing and counting the precious metal as it changed hands. Men with rifles were stationed on the gallery high above to discourage any attempts to rob the mint.
In 2003, the federal government sold the building to the City of San Francisco for one dollar. There's been talk of converting it to a museum of the city's history, but at the moment it opens only once a year for San Franciscans to gather and trade information on that subject. It seems a shame to have it sitting empty.