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A tour of the Presidio’s historic jail turned visitor center

Trust spent three years changing old army guardhouse into the new face of the park

The old guardhouse, a brick building with a low, sloped red tile roof.

It took three years and $5 million to transform a onetime jail into the new park Visitor Center in the Presidio, which Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi dedicated at a ceremony on Thursday. The San Francisco park will celebrate its opening on Saturday with a day of free events.

But in a broader sense, the building is a product of the Presidio’s centuries-long journey from a bastion of military might perched over the Golden Gate into a sprawling tableau of San Francisco’s history, culture, and natural heritage.

Case in point, the building itself, just south of Doyle Drive at 210 Lincoln Boulevard, was originally the old U.S. Army guardhouse circa 1900.

“It used to be a jail, and we were converting it into a use as opposite that as you can fundamentally get,” architect David Andreini (of the San Francisco firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson) tells Curbed SF.

“From the get-go we saw it was a building with great potential and a lot of integrity, a real gem. We wanted to restore some of that integrity,” says Andreini. “It was very symmetrical, and we wanted to preserve how it worked spatially.”

The center consists principally of two large rooms, the first meant to help potentially discombobulated visitors get their bearings on the huge park’s layout and landscape.

(“We expect about a third of the people who come in to be tourists who got lost trying to find the bridge,” says park ranger Michael Faw.)

An enormous 1:1,350 scale 3D model map of the park on a circular podium, its shape echoed in the halo-like light fixture hovering overhead, forms the centerpiece.

“That map needed to be the hero of the room,” explains exhibit designer Jeremy Regenbogen, who previously designed displays for Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Regenbogen notes that the Presidio covers roughly five percent of the area of San Francisco. He says, “We want people to grasp the scale and size of the topography, the features and the hills and the form of the land.”

Note the kiosk’s adobe brick surface.

The rear room, which once housed the jail cells, is dedicated to the Presidio’s long history, from the days of the Ohlone to the present.

Regenbogen’s favorite feature is the interactive table, essentially a pair of gigantic computer tablets on legs. Hundreds of icons representing people, places, objects, and events critical to Presidio history swim across the screens, yielding information at the tap of a finger.

The high, barred windows from the jailhouse days remain.

But most of the exhibits are old-school analogue affairs full of historic photos, artifacts, and historical narratives. Different building materials from the Presidio’s history, from adobe to wood siding to brick, line the surface of the kiosks.

The roughly 7,700 square foot guardhouse has stood the test of time and two major earthquakes, but its historical value made it a delicate specimen in some ways.

The hundreds of icons are constantly moving to make room for each other.

The high, barred windows which used to illuminate the jail cells don’t provide much of a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, for example. But neither could they be altered or moved. Instead, the architects converted the former loading dock in back, a remnant from the building’s days as a post office, into a viewing area.

The former loading dock.

Sometimes the old building sprung surprises on everyone. Keen observers will note that one of the old brick walls turned out not to be brick at all, for example, but plaster on which someone had unconvincingly doodled a brick pattern with a fingertip decades ago.

Plans to use the building’s original concrete floor ran into a hitch when it turned out the floor had intentionally been laid with a five inch slope.

“Once a week they used to hose out the drunk tank here, and they wanted it to drain easily,” says Faw.

The floor plan of the old jail.
A tell-tale gap from the drunk tank days.

Lines on the new hardwood floor mark out the location and dimensions of the old cells. There’s still a slight slope to it though, and possibly always will be. (Sloping is not uncommon in many an old San Francisco building.)

And, of course, there were a few disagreements during the long design and build process.

The “easter eggs,” simple, eye-catching exhibits at the eye level of toddlers representing small bits of Presidio history.

“We spent 18 months trying to pick the perfect couches everyone could agree on,” recalls Faw. “We went through nine designs” before settling on a pair of $6,000 beauties that finally made the room hang together.

(The couches hadn’t yet been delivered when these photos were taken.)

Architect Andreini notes that, while the scale of the project was small in terms of building size, the stakes were high. “We’d have meetings with 15, 20 people,” he says. “It got pretty intense. But it made us realize how much this mattered to all of them.”

In short, the building is much like the Presidio itself: old, uneven, and constantly changing, but also beautiful, meaningful, and laden with many, many layers of San Francisco’s ever-changing identity.

Designers very much wanted to turn these two openings into one, but weren’t allowed to remove that much original building material.
A faux-brick wall, created with wet plaster and a fingertip decades ago...