Thursday, November 08, 2007

Some of the greatest preservation "victories" were not even contested, but instead depended on something as tenuous as one man's opinion.

Fort Point, in San Francisco's Presidio, was one of the 1850-1884 "Third System" harbor fortifications that included such well known Civil War-related structures as Monroe, Morgan, Jackson, Pulaski, Pickens, and Sumter.

Fort Point was finished in 1861, and was the first tier of San Francisco Bay defenses covering the Golden Gate. As Emanuel Lewis wrote in Sea Coast Fortifications, "from the technical standpoint, this large group of massive, vertical-walled forts represented the general embodiment and the fullest development of features which had previously appeared in only a few and isolated instances, i.e., structural durability, a high concentration of armament, and enormous overall firepower.

Fort Point today is one of San Francisco's historic treasures, but it might easily have been
demolished to make way for the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s. Interestingly, the principal resistance to destroying the fort, in the future-looking world of 1937, came from the builder. Thank goodness for Joseph Strauss (look for his statue on the south overlook next time you visit the bridge).

The NPS website on Ft. Point includes a worthwhile, downloadable pdf history of the fort ("Fort Point: Sentry at Golden Gate" scroll down to find link), written by historian John Martini (speaking of martinis, in another post I'll find some way to weigh in on the Bay Area's prideful claim to have created that cocktail). Mr. Martini writes:

Chief Engineer Joseph Strauss initially concluded that Fort Point sat on the optimal location for a huge concrete caisson anchoring the bridge’s San Francisco end. After touring the empty fort, however, he changed his mind. In a 1937 memorandum to the bridge’s Board of Directors, Strauss wrote: “While the old fort has no military value now, it remains nevertheless a fine example of the mason’s art. Many urged the razing of this venerable structure to make way for modern progress. In the writer’s view it should be preserved and restored as a national monument…” Strauss made some additional calculations and concluded that the fort could be spared by moving the southern anchorage several hundred feet south. However, in order to make up the difference in the total length, he would have to add a ‘bridge within the bridge,’ and consequently designed a steel arch in the southern anchorage to span the old fort. Fort Point would be overshadowed by the new bridge, but it would be preserved.

The bridge itself is a wonder to behold, but I always find myself looking for that little arch on the south endthe bridge within a bridgethat serves no other purpose than to protect an old pile of bricks. Thank you, Mr. Strauss. As it turns out, the top deck of that fort offers one of the most amazing views of the bridge, and Strauss probably thought of that too.


DW@CWBA said...

The one time I visited the fort (it was shortly after 9/11), it was completely closed to public access with temp. fencing and patrolled by armed national guardsmen. Needless to say, I didn't try to get close to it. From the outside, it actually looked more than a bit run down. Can visitors go inside today?

dw said...


I've never known it to be closed, but now that you mention it, I recall that for awhile after 9/11, guards were posted on both ends of the Golden Gate Bridge, which was thought to be a target. Next time you're around, try again.

I think it's in pretty good shape under the circumstances. With the wind and fog and the salt spray, it exists in some harsh conditions. There are some exhibits inside, and a small NPS visitor center/bookstore. The bookstore is open Fri., Sat., and Sun., but the fort itself is open all year round, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's.