Fort Mason History

Photo: Ft. Mason became one of the "tent cities" for refugees of the earthquake and fire in 1906. Photo from a private collection.

Fort Mason has had four names and two lives in its 233-year history. Under Spanish rule in 1776, it was Punta Medanos, a fortified military site, and, when Mexico took over, it became Bateria San Jose, later, Point San Jose. When the U.S. won the war with Mexico in 1846, the site and naming rights reverted to California and, since 1882, it has been Fort Mason, after former California governor Col. Richard Barnes Mason.

Government, guns and soldiers would shape its history for the next nearly one hundred years. The 1906 earthquake and fire turned Ft. Mason into a refugee camp, feeding and housing hundreds under the direction of Major General Fred Funston. The fort’s three piers and four warehouses were built between 1908-1912, and were the embarkation point for military personnel from 1909 to 1962. During World War II, 1.7 million troops and 23 million tons of equipment were shipped out to the Pacific. And, in recognition of Fort Mason’s importance at that time, 49 of its buildings were designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1985.

But back to the post- war era of the 1960s when change was in the air.  Literally. The advent of air transportation had made Fort Mason obsolete for military use. The Defense Department moved its transportation operation to Oakland, decommissioned the major portion of Fort Mason, and turned it over to the City. Supervisors, facing an urgent need for new housing, set to work on a plan to sell the property to developers who would turn it into luxury housing (not an unfamiliar proposal today).  It sparked a lively debate between real estate interests and critics who decried the loss of open space in this “misguided proposal” and “appalling decision.” (The Argonaut, 1968).  In the early 1970s, Representatives Alan Cranston and Phillip Burton, working to protect historic sites and national parks, pushed through legislation to establish the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), which included 13 acres of Fort Mason.

Transforming the abandoned military facility into a cultural center marked the birth of the Fort’s second life. Fort Mason Center, a nonprofit organization, partnered with GGNRA and opened in 1977. Its goal was to create a cultural, educational and recreational complex reflecting the diverse interests of the region’s residents and visitors. It succeeded. The Dalai Lama visited shortly after the Center opened; Sam Shepard and Michael McClure began their careers at the Magic Theatre; Danny Glover, Boz Scaggs, Marcel Marceau and Spalding Gray appeared at the Cowell Theater; the Zen Center opened Greens Restaurant, the first gourmet vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco. An exhibition from the People’s Republic of China and the HIV/AIDS Names Project Quilt premiered at Fort Mason Center.

The Center has become a national model for the conversion of military facilities to peacetime use in well-maintained late 19th and 20th century buildings. Museums presenting exhibitions, lectures, classes and family workshops include Museo ItaloAmericano and the SFMOMA Artists Gallery. Five theaters offer drama, comedy, dance and music programs; some 2000 organizations rent space for conferences, classes, and workshops. A path winds around the bay with views of the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz.

1 Fort Mason, a unique and charming new restaurant that hosts a site for meetings, events and celebrations, recently opened on the site of the Officers Club, which closed in 2003. Created under the watchful eye of the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy, it's a model of handsomely green renovation.  Balancing respect for the site’s history with the need for a contemporary upgrade, the makeover included recycling and replacing its carpeting, the wall and window treatments, furnishings and kitchen equipment. And recent events and conferences demonstrate 1 Fort Mason’s stated commitment to agriculture, the environment and health. Which makes it the perfect place for the Neighborhood Parks Council’s 2009 “Celebration of Green” and Tribute to its pioneering founder, Isabel Wade.

–Jeanne Alexander

Established:  1882
Location:  Entrance Marina Boulevard & Buchanan St.
Bus: #28-19th Ave; #22-Fillmore; #49-Van Ness Ave
Contact: Pat Kilduff,