A tale of two museums

A tale of two museums

The Presidio Trust’s choice between the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center and the Disney Museum speaks volumes about what’s happening in San Francisco’s national park

By Amanda Witherell

The Presidio, converted from military to civilian use 12 years ago, has six million square feet of former officers’ quarters, barracks, and buildings that make it unlike any other national park in the country.

This public space has become home to a mixed bag of occupants — primarily private citizens, a smattering of nonprofit organizations, and an increasing number of commercial enterprises — as the Presidio Trust pursues a controversial congressional mandate to be financially self-sustaining.

Two different museums have also vied for residence at the site of the park’s Main Post: the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center (CIMCC) and the Disney Museum. Both submitted viable proposals for exhibition space, representing starkly different futures for the Presidio.

This is the story of how one may get to stay and the other just had to go. This is also the story of how the Presidio Trust is transforming a prized national park into just another piece of real estate to be claimed by the highest bidder.


In Presidio Trust literature, the Main Post is called the “heart of the Presidio.” The centrally located seven-acre parcel includes an enormous parking lot surrounded by dozens of buildings that provide a steady stream of traffic pumping through the arteries of Presidio Boulevard and Doyle Drive. If you were hoping to attract a regular flow of visitors to your museum, the Main Post would be an ideal place to put it.

Photographs of classic Presidio architecture usually show the northwestern edge of the Main Post where Buildings 103 and 104 are a stately couple among a quintuplet of identical four-story brick structures. They are now empty, except for some temporary office space. Approximately 44,000 square feet each, the historic barracks were built between 1895 and 1897 to accommodate troops returning from frontier battles during the conquest of Native American tribes.

When the National Park Service was handed the Presidio in 1995, the CIMCC became one of the first “park partners” to set up office. For almost two years, the museum negotiated with the park service to lease additional space for the first living museum of Native American culture in California.

The museum planners took a shine to Building 103, paid for a $44,000 renovation study, and kicked off the necessary fundraising with a $2 million allocation from then–Senate president pro tem Bill Lockyer. Joseph Myers, a Pomo Indian, lawyer, and chairman of the CIMCC Board of Directors, said there was a lot of enthusiasm for the project.

“Even when we just had office space here we had international visitors wandering through, wondering when there would be a museum here,” he said.

Things were looking hopeful, and on Sept. 21, 1996, the Presidio, originally home of the Ohlone tribe, hosted a formal dedication of the return of a Native American presence to the park. Then-mayor Willie Brown attended the ceremony and pledged his support to the project.

Not long after, the Presidio’s power structure radically shifted. The park was split into two areas, with Area A along the waterfront managed by the park service and the inland Area B and the bulk of its buildings, including the Main Post, managed by the Presidio Trust — the result of a newfangled proposal by Rep. Nancy Pelosi that won acceptance in a Republican-controlled Congress.

The Presidio is the first national park with a mandate to pay its own way; the trust’s finances are governed by a board of seven presidential designees — initially chaired by downtown-friendly Toby Rosenblatt and including Gap founder Donald Fisher. The new landlords informed the CIMCC that all real estate negotiations were on hold.

“We tried very hard to convince them we would be good tenants,” Myers told the Guardian. “The Presidio is originally one of the places where Indians suffered at the hands of Spanish conquistadors. They were tortured and killed for not being good slaves. That’s old history, but it’s certainly morally and culturally acceptable to consider the Presidio a good place for a museum.”

But over the course of three years, serious discussions with the trust were delayed, and alternate plans and proposals for different buildings were ignored. In September 2000, at Myers’s insistence, the CIMCC finally met with Presidio staff and was encouraged to submit a proposal to renovate three dilapidated buildings near Lombard Gate.

The deadline to submit was short, but the CIMCC met it and museum planners say they were promised a decision within 14 days. Nine months later they received a formal response with, according to Myers, no solid answer. They continued waiting until an article in the San Francisco Chronicle informed them that the buildings had been leased to a private foundation from Silicon Valley.

The results of that deal now stand within sight of the Main Post: the Letterman Digital Arts Center, 850,000 square feet of space renovated and leased for $5.6 million a year by the private company Lucasfilm.

According to Presidio spokesperson Dana Polk, negotiations didn’t work out because the CIMCC couldn’t pay rent or put money into the work on the building. “They weren’t able to do either,” she said.

Somehow the museum was able to do it elsewhere. After withdrawing all proposals and vacating its office space, the CIMCC purchased a 24,000-square-foot building in Santa Rosa. The museum pays $10,000 a month in mortgage for the building, now worth $3 million, and it’s a better deal than the Presidio offered: a leased space at $50,000 a month after $10 million in renovations paid out from the CIMCC’s pocket. But it doesn’t lessen the irony or pain of the situation.

“The philosophy behind keeping the Presidio alive for public access was not for the purpose of George Lucas and Disneyland, but for California culture,” said Myers. “I think they have their own idea of what cultural projects are, and it’s not us.”

The new museum is still under construction in Santa Rosa and will include displays of indigenous art and archives. The National Indian Justice Center already calls it a home, and there are regular workshops on subjects like storytelling and art, current issues, and traditional uses of California native plants.

“That would have been a perfect fit for a national park,” said Joel Ventresca, chair of Preserve the Presidio, a watchdog group that’s fought past Presidio developments. He likened the CIMCC to exhibits in Yosemite where visitors can learn about the lives and legacies of local tribes. “Where is that in the Presidio? It’s nowhere.”

Actually, he’s not quite right. Directly in front of Building 103, there’s an old, paint-chipped sign with faded letters that reads, “Old Burial Ground. The area immediately to the west of this marker was used by the Indians, Spaniards, and Mexicans to bury their dead — 1776–1846. The remains are now in the National Cemetery, Presidio of San Francisco.”


If the CIMCC had found a home in Building 103, Myers would be preparing to welcome a new next-door neighbor. The Disney Museum is the next bastion of culture vying for residence in the Presidio and it has designs on Building 104.

The proposal comes from the nonprofit Disney Family Foundation — a compendium of Walt’s family, headed by daughter Diane Disney Miller, that split from the Disney Company. Due to a curiosity about Walt Disney apparently unsatisfied by several theme parks around the world (one of which, at 47 square miles, is nearly the size of all of San Francisco), the family is looking for a place to display what remains of Disney’s personal artifacts.

Museum planners hope that by 2009 they can invite the public to view items like the Academy Awards he once won and the cars he once drove. Part of the Disney proposal includes renovating Buildings 108 and 122 as well, and the overarching plan is for office space and a reading room, gift shop, and café.

Walt Disney never lived in San Francisco, and when asked why the Disney Family Foundation selected the Presidio, trust spokesperson Polk said of the family, “They live relatively locally, in Napa. They’ve always enjoyed the Presidio and the history here.”

No agreements have been signed yet between Disney and the trust, and according to Polk the project is still subject to approval by the Presidio board. But the foundation has announced the plan on its Web site and held a celebration in November 2004, where Miller and trust staff answered questions about the project.

When the Presidio was first conceived as a national park in 1994, it was sold to the public as a “global center dedicated to the world’s most critical environmental, social, and cultural challenges.” Part of the National Park Service’s General Management Plan was to house people and organizations inspired by their unique setting to do good work for the public benefit. Then when Congress put a financial noose around the park and designed the Presidio Trust with a mandate for fiscal sustainability, that vision was blurred.

“This underlying issue of letting market forces come into play in a national park, it’s a terrible precedent,” said Presidio activist Ventresca. “People who have an important cultural story to tell are given the cold shoulder, and people with deep pockets are being given a place to build a monument to their father.”

Originally published July 18, 2006 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian