Classic SF

In Mint Condition

by Kendra Boutell

On January 11th, the California Historical Society will throw a black-tie gala at SF’s Old Mint to honor statesman George Shultz for helping rescue the institution from demolition in 1972 after the government declared it surplus. At the time, preservationists worried the building would be replaced by a high-rise.

Nicknamed “The Granite Lady,” the Greek Revival structure dominates 5th and Mission. Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961, the Old Mint represents one of the United States’ most important examples of Federal architecture—simultaneously, it symbolizes the Western frontier spirit. The Historical Society, in collaboration with the City of San Francisco, plans to transform the long-neglected edifice into a vibrant cultural center. With three stories and 75,000 square feet of usable space, part of the repurposed building will include the organization’s new headquarters.

As with much of SF lore, the story of the Old Mint begins with the 1848 California Gold Rush. The miners’ raw material needed to be transformed into coins, but shipping it to the Philadelphia Mint was costly and dangerous. To serve the West, the U.S. Treasury Department built the city’s first mint in 1854. With the discovery of silver at Comstock Lode in 1859, the facility became overwhelmed, and a more extensive operation was required.

The Old Mint, designed by architect Alfred B. Mullett, opened in 1874. Its massive stone facade survived the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire. As the only financial center left standing, The Granite Lady played a crucial role in the city’s miraculous recovery and rebirth. During its zenith, the neoclassical building’s steel-lined vaults held one-third of the nation’s wealth. In 1937, minting activities moved to the New Mint, an Egyptian Revival Style fortress across town.

The Old Mint housed a mixed bag of government agencies and functions until closing its doors in 1994. Despite efforts of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, the once-proud grande dame fell into decay and disuse. It became a refuge for the homeless, who have sheltered between its Doric sandstone columns. In 2015, The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed it as one of the 11 most endangered historic places. The Granite Lady’s fortune changed when San Francisco selected the California Historical Society as the lead community partner for its restoration plans. Dr. Anthea Hartig, the nonprofit’s executive director and CEO, is committed to not just preserving the Old Mint but also revitalizing it. “There are two main focuses of preservation: the tangible elements that include the architecture and systems, and the intangible ones—what people want to see and feel when they enter such a historic space,” she explains.

To address the tangible elements, the Old Mint Restoration Project consulted with the structural and geotechnical engineering firm of Rutherford + Chekene. The SF-based company’s civic and cultural commissions include the Ferry Building and de Young Museum. Having survived the earthquakes of 1906 and 1989, the Old Mint needs seismic upgrades to safeguard it from the next Big Quake.

For intangible elements, the group held four community workshops where residents voiced their hopes and dreams for the Old Mint. They also queried Shultz about his views for its future. No matter what happens, “it is important that [renovations] be historically accurate,” says the gala guest of honor. Awarded a million-dollar planning grant from the California State Library, Hartig’s team intends to break ground on the Old Mint Restoration Project in 2019.

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