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From Bull Fights to Aviation, Looking Back at the Many Past Lives of Crissy Field

Welcome to Hidden Histories, where we highlight a Bay Area location with a secret past. Maybe it's no longer there, maybe it's been converted into something else, but each spot holds a place in Bay Area history—even if not many people know it. Have a suggestion or know a place with a secret history? The tipline's always open, or you can leave a comment after the jump.

This week High Line designer James Corner locked down the commission to design 13 acres of new parkland that will link the Presidio's main post to Crissy Field, after a rather intense ideas competition that included entries from the likes of Snøhetta and West 8. With the project slated to open in 2018 (after some guaranteed-to-be-lengthy public design workshops), we thought we'd take a look back at the varied history of Crissy Field before it transforms again.

From the earliest days of Spanish exploration, the area that is today Crissy Field was a two-mile-long tidal marsh. Sand dunes helped protect and form a low sandy beach known as Strawberry Island. Spanish colonists unloaded their supplies from ships there, but didn't do too much to change anything. Though they did use the area for rodeos and bull fights, which sounds pretty rad.

Eventually the US Army built a road that connected Lyon and Jefferson Streets to Fort Point in the mid-1860s. By 1870 there were wharves and roads connecting up to the main post. Sometimes the army used the sandy areas for field artillery and cavalry drills, eventually even selling some of the sand. More often than not, though, they just dumped the post's trash in the marsh.

In 1890 a life-saving/Coast Guard station was constructed as a small boathouse and keeper's residence "to the aid of ships stranded or wrecked at sea." They were moved a smidge to the west for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition to accommodate a race track and polo grounds. The US Coast Guard built a new three-story boathouse that was used until 1990 and today is home to the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center.

As part of the 1915 expo, the marsh was filled in with a massive landfill to form exposition grounds. A one-mile track and three large grandstands were built, with areas delineated for polo, aviation events, and a drill ground for military demonstrations.

Once the 1915 expo wrapped up, some army officers recommended using the newly constructed airfield as an Air Coast Defense Station. Things were kept pretty sparse: There was the grassy field itself, along with some hangars, workshops, and a garage along the southern edge of Crissy Field. The airfield was named for Major Dana Crissy, who died during the First Transcontinental Reliability and Endurance Test.

Things were pretty mellow in the 1920s and 30s. The airfield was used for aerial photography, flying in personnel, civilian missions, US Air Mail service, and aerial forest-fire patrols. By 1936, officials decided the airfield was too easy a target for enemy ships, so it closed down as an air base and operations moved to Hamilton Field in Marin.

During World War II, the airfield became home to temporary wooden barracks, and the former air-mail hangar became barracks and classrooms for the army's top-secret Military Intelligence Service Language School—where second-generation Japanese Americans were trained as battlefield interpreters. Today this building is home to the MIS Historic Learning Center through the National Japanese American Historical Society.

After WWII, the army used the airfield for light planes and helicopters, adding a paved runway to replace the grass landing strip. Most of the flights consisted of MedEvac transports bringing wounded Vietnam soldiers to Letterman Hospital. Crissy Field was finally closed as an airfield in 1974, and by 1994 the entire Presidio had been transferred to the National Park Service.

When the army left, Crissy Field was left as a "jumble of asphalt and forsaken Army buildings." In 2001, the area was restored to a halfsies state, overlapping a 20-acre area of tidal marsh, beaches, and trails with a 28-acre re-creation of the historic grass airfield. The completed Crissy Field reopened in 2001.

The future gateway to Crissy Field? New concept for Presidio Parklands, by James Corner Field Operations

· James Corner to Design New Presidio Landscape Over Parkway [Curbed SF]
· Starchitects Vie to Design Presidio Plot That Doesn't Exist Yet [Curbed SF]
· The Last Word in Airfields: A Special History Study of Crissy Field [NPS]
· Historic Structures Report—Fort Point US Coast Guard Station [NOAA]
· Crissy Field [NPS]
· Military Intelligence School at the Presidio [NPS]
· Back to Nature [SFGate]

Crissy Field

1199 East Beach, San Francisco, CA 94129 Visit Website