We head up the road this week to San Francisco, and that city’s official beginnings—its modest Spanish mission, California’s sixth, and The Presidio, its military companion. Today’s spectacular, Yankee-style military outpost is nothing like the original, a structure built of adobe and sticks that first housed a few dozen soldiers. What remains of the city’s original El Presidio is buried beneath the Main Post and inside the walls of the Presidio Officers’ Club, now a museum and cultural center.
Regally located just south of the Golden Gate Bridge, the present-day Presidio is among the most sublime public parks anywhere. Part of it is included in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the rest is held and managed in the public’s interest by the Presidio Trust. Most of the 1,600 buildings built here since 1847, when the U.S. Army moved in, are eclectic blends of Victorian and Spanish-revival styles.
You could do worse than plant yourself for a time at the Presidio. Consider its wraparound views of ocean, the Golden Gate, and the bay; 70 miles of trails; even a glorious golf course. Plenty of museums, also, including the Walt Disney family’s museum, quite a tribute to the animation arts. Quirky stuff, too, like the Yoda statue in the courtyard of Lucasfilms’ headquarters, something of a Star Wars shrine. Add to that some good places to stay and eat and worthwhile events, including the annual Kite Festival. If you like it here at the Presidio, and value the fact that after the Sixth Army Command turned over the reins in the 1990s, the public owns this stunning piece of real estate rather than rich people, thank Congressman Phil Burton, gone but not yet forgotten here in the city. A local boy who made good.
You’ll need to head over to San Francisco’s Mission District to appreciate Misión San Francisco de Asís, founded about a month after the military outpost, on October 9, 1776. The settlement was named for St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order, but was—and is—also commonly known as “Mission Dolores” after a nearby lagoon and creek, Arroyo de Nuestra Senora de los Dolores, or “stream of our lady of sorrows.”
Don’t be fooled by the garish Spanish baroque cathedral next door, also known colloquially as Mission Dolores. The city’s oldest building, the mission chapel, all that remains of the original complex, is the modest adobe the basilica overshadows. It survived the 1906 earthquake thanks largely to its four-foot-thick adobe walls. Particularly compelling inside are the gorgeous painted wooden ceilings, a very artistic echo of the native Ohlone people’s work. Their original designs were painted with vegetable dyes. For a peek at the collection of mission artifacts and memorabilia, visit the small museum.
Also spend time in the peaceful cemetery within the mission’s walled compound, where the “Grotto of Lourdes” marks the unmarked graves of more than 5,000 Ohlone and others among the native workforce. Most died of measles and other introduced diseases in the early 1800s, the rest from other varieties of devastation.
After California became a state, the first U.S. Indian agent came to town to take a census of the native Californians. It was an easy count, since there was only one left at the mission, Pedro Alcantara, who was still grieving for a missing son.