Sam McManis

Discoveries: Presidio Officers’ Club

Even now, freed of the Army’s constraints and cradled in the nurturing bosom of the national parks system, the Presidio still feels like a forbidding place, daunting in its epic sweep, barely navigable with its meandering streets, and confusing with its row upon row of almost identical militaristic structures.

Visitors arrive at this sprawling U.S. Army base-cum-national park and ask, what now?

“What we hear from many folks,” said Michael Boland, chief of planning, projects and programs for the Presidio Trust, which runs the park, “is that they don’t know where to begin their experience.”

From the days of the Spanish imperialists to the Mexican expansionists to U.S. militarists, this 1,500 acres of prime real estate hard by the Golden Gate Bridge served as a fortress, a society unto itself, an exclusive club where you would need more than a secret handshake and password to get beyond the velvet ropes. It was exclusionary, by design and by necessity.

So now that, in Boland’s words, “we’re throwing the doors open,” it’s the Presidio Trust’s job, as commissioned by Congress, to make the park inviting and lift the iron veil from its restrictive past life, to put the Presidio in historical context yet forge a future where it can move beyond its role as a mere repository of memories.

The nexus of the Presidio, which is almost bigger than New York’s Central Park and Golden Gate park combined, has become the Main Post. While there’s much to visit ringing this hub – everything from the bay-hugging Crissy Field to a golf course to 24 miles of trails, to campgrounds, overlooks and a national cemetery – much of the attention, especially recently, has been paid to the densely constructed block of land where battlefield decisions once were made and generations of soldiers learned to hunker in a bunker.

There you will find an unusual, but not unprecedented, commingling of the commercial and the historical. When Congress closed the base in 1989 and transferred ownership to the National Park Service in 1994, it was with the mandate that it become financially self-sufficient. In 2013, that goal was achieved by the Presidio Trust’s plan to rehabilitate barracks and cottages and lease them as apartments and single-family dwellings to housing-starved San Franciscans, to take ramshackle warehouses and hangars and rent them to retail businesses, and to preserve the most storied of structures, many on the main post, while simultaneously generating income.

“It’s a little bit of a Robin Hood model,” Boland said, “where we ask our tenants to support the park through their rent.”

It could’ve become a Colonial Williamsburg-like, Disneyfied assault on the senses. Instead, prudence and good taste won out. Yes, there is a Starbucks and, ironically, the Disney Family Museum on “base,” along with a yoga studio and climbing gym and hulking Sports Basement outlet, but the commercial enterprises are sprinkled throughout so judiciously as to almost blend into the landscape, like one of artist Andy Goldsworthy’s installations, which also dot the park.

Don’t misunderstand: The Presidio, post-Army post, hasn’t lost its verdance. In fact, it’s more sylvan than before and will only get more so in years to come. The Army, in its infinite efficiency, “filled in” natural valleys, which the Trust now is restoring to their original configuration with native plants and natural streams and creeks that were buried.

Once the elevated highway that separates Crissy Field from the rest of the park is redirected to tunnels under construction, the Trust will embark on fashioning the Parklands. Design concepts are being debated but, when completed, 13 acres of green open space will connect Crissy Field to the Main Post.

And it’s at the Main Post where the melding of commerce and history works best, where Trust officials hope visitors will stop first on their visits.

At the Post, the Trust itself transformed an old military bachelor’s quarters into the Inn at the Presidio, a boutique hotel, and the Civil War-era Funston House into a guest cottage rental. It turned an erstwhile mess hall into The Commissary, an upscale eatery that opened last spring and garnered a three-star review from San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer.

Now comes perhaps the most anticipated transformation yet at the Main Post. Next weekend marks the opening of the Presidio Officers’ Club, by most accounts the first building constructed in the city by Spanish colonists in 1776, a few weeks before Mission Dolores was propped up. For more than a century, the Officers’ Club was the social heart of the Army base, a “revered place” in the words of the Presidio Trust’s executive director, Craig Middleton.

Then again, how would we know? Only those with military ties, or friends in high places, had access to the tri-level Spanish Colonial gathering place, which afforded killer views of the bay and beyond, as the well-to-do danced and the drank the night away while hashing out battlefield scenarios and gossiping about the San Francisco socialite du jour.

Those exclusionary days have passed. Starting next weekend, visitors can roam the wood-floor hallways, sip a cocktail in the main salon called the Moraga Room, drink in the view from the Ortega Ballroom (or rent the space for a reception), dine at the upscale new restaurant Arguello (helmed by noted chef Traci Des Jardins), gain free entrance to check out the historical exhibits in the Presidio Heritage Gallery, or just gawk at the Mesa Room, where the original adobe walls, circa 1800, have been peeled back and exposed. There will be lectures, author readings, concerts, theater events, family activities such as craftmaking, and educational programs tied to state curriculum.

Did we mention that most everything, save the cocktail, the ballroom rental and Aguello’s cuisine, is free?

How many generals’ wives must be spinning in their graves at that prospect?

“I grew up in the Bay Area, and the Presidio was always a place that was off-limits,” Boland said. “… I only came here as a child when I camped as Boy Scout. Other than that, it was a place that wasn’t very welcoming. Of course, national parks belong to everyone. So, one of the challenges we faced is taking this site that for so many years, most of our lifetimes, was really off-limits and making it a place for everyone.”

Boland sees the Officers’ Club blossoming into the park’s centralized hub, much like Yosemite National Park’s village in the valley is jumping-off point for its visitors.

“It’s a multidimensional cultural facility, restaurant and public rooms that will feel like the historic main rooms at the Ahwannee,” he said, referring to Yosemite’s exclusive 1920s hotel (and original Miwok village site) now open to park visitors. “When you go to Yosemite, you see those beautiful rooms at Ahwannee. Anyone can come in, have a seat, have a drink, listen to music, enjoy the ambiance. You can do that (at the Officers’ Club). And woven through the facility, there will be a series of exhibits to allow the visitor to get deeply immersed in the history of Presidio.”

In remaking the Officers’ Club, Presidio Trust architects had to deal with an unwieldy, confusing ediface that Presidio Trust spokeswoman Dana Polk compared to the Winchester Mystery House “It had a lot of warrens and little rooms, seven bars at one time and tons of kitchens that were obsolete,” she said.

Because the Officers’ Club is part of the Presidio’s designation as a national historic landmark district, much of the original structure had to remain intact – no razing walls to open up the floor plan and no changes at all without going through a compliance process. But the Army built an entire wing in the 1970s. That wing, Polk said, was built after the club’s “period of significance” (roughly up to World War II).

The rehabilitation project, which cost $19 million and took more than three years, protected the original adobe bricks made from the soil at the Presidio’s El Polin Spring, near the southern boundary of the park, east of the Inspiration Point overlook. An adobe specialist from New Mexico was commissioned to preserve the walls. Thermal technology was used to scan the walls to expose high moisture levels, enabling workers to add new adobe bricks when necessary and keep the history intact..

And what a history it is. Many movers and shakers, military brass and flashy Hollywood types, roamed the halls, from Gen. Mariano Vallejo to comedian Bob Hope. Author and historian Kevin Starr wrote about the party scene at the club during the World War II years thusly: “At night, after duty hours, the bar at the Officers’ Club was packed solid with men in khaki and brass, pinks and greens, highballs in one hand, Lucky Strikes or Camels in the other, the room electric with the excitement of a city, a state, a nation, a world at war.”

To see the evolution of the Officers’ Club, drop in the the Mesa Room, where 1800s adobe gives way to 1930s Victorian clapboard walls (“when the Army wanted to Westernize it,” Polk said) to a Mission Revival style (Polk: “At least the Army’s romanticized version of it”) to basic 1970s masonry.

These walls don’t talk, as the cliche might suggest; they stand at attention and salute you. At least, they will after your third margarita at Arguello.