Historic hospital site finds new life in the Presidio

PHS hospital, after closure in 1981,
with nonhistoric wings

Historic PHS hospital has been
renovated into new apartments

When is a hospital not for the sick? When it anchors a high-end residential community in the Presidio of San Francisco.

Covering a breezy 45 acres of the southern section of the Presidio, the Public Health Service (PHS) District has probably been noticed over the years only by Richmond District residents, especially those on Lake Street at 14th and 15th Avenues.

Evolving from a complex built in 1875 (which included a 480-bed hospital, nurses’ quarters and doctors’ residences) into a green historic landmark district, the area will soon be better known.

Under the command first of the Treasury Department and then of the Surgeon General, the PHS hospital was one of the Marine hospitals that was created in U.S. port cities to treat indigent sailors suffering from contagious diseases and injuries inflicted while aboard ship. Treatment was free and no sailor or ship was ever turned away. Its mission eventually expanded to include the study and treatment of communicable diseases.

The first PHS hospital was built South of Market but was destroyed in an earthquake in the 1860s. To continue care and research, a hospital was built on Army (Presidio) property in 1875, though it was not part of the military at that time. During this phase, the building was loaned to the Defense Language Institute of Monterey while the institute awaited the completion of its new building.

In 1932, a new hospital was built on the current site overlooking Mountain Lake and until 1981 served merchant seamen while researching preventive medicine, when the federal government closed all PHS hospitals. The district became part of the Presidio of San Francisco in 1994 when the Army turned the Presidio over to the National Park Service.

However, since the closure, these historic buildings had been abandoned. Graffiti, overgrown and dead vegetation, and a sense of isolation best described the PHS District. Wooden floors had buckled due to exposure to the elements and thieves had stolen copper from the site.

It was only at the turn of the current century that the Presidio Trust collaborated with Forest City Enterprises to restore to green greatness the district’s buildings, which now serve a different purpose. The 1932 campus remains intact, the site of a major revitalization. The former hospital – the Presidio’s largest historic building – has been rehabilitated for residential use and its original facade has been restored. Historic homes along Wyman Avenue and all of the buildings that once supported the campus are now enlivened by new uses. The entire district is integrated into the fabric of the larger park.

When the hospital’s eastern and western wings were removed in 2008, the building was easier to envision as multilevel apartment rental units.

“Removal of the wings … reestablished the building’s historic stature, restored open space, and made the grounds more inviting, which all contributed to the larger goal of connecting the district to the rest of the Presidio,” said Alexa Arena, vice president of Forest City San Francisco.

The hospital is not the only historic building in the PHS District. The nurses’ dormitory also has been rehabbed using green building practices for historic buildings. According to Presidio Trust officials, the U. S. Green Building Council has awarded the building gold LEED certification, making it the first registered historic building in San Francisco to be gold certified.

Chandler McCoy, Presidio Trust’s associate director for planning, said there were skeptics. “It was like you’re either doing a historic building or you’re doing a green building, but you can’t do both. We’re showing that you can do both,” he said.

The PHS District is now referred to as Presidio Landmark and includes the main residence building, a sloping lawn and gardens, historic Wyman Avenue homes, and additional commercial buildings.

The Wyman Avenue homes consist of three single-family houses and eight duplexes that were once occupied by physicians and their families. The homes have been fully rehabilitated, restoring their original character while incorporating contemporary and sustainable features. All Wyman Avenue homes contribute to the Presidio’s National Historic Landmark District designation.
Forest City’s Arena says, “If you’re creative, responsible and meticulous about sustainability, it can work no matter what the age of the site. The Presidio Trust and Forest City are both dedicated to sustainability in the park. We believe Presidio Landmark will be the first adaptive reuse project to a residential use to achieve LEED gold certification in the Bay Area. LEED certification is a measure for us, but by implementing best practices in sustainability we were able to be sensitive to the environment, respectful of a historic building, the park, and to the history of health and wellness of the site.”

The project has had its controversies over the impact it may have on the adjacent neighborhoods, especially at the 14th and 15th Avenue entrances. The Presidio Trust is proposing roadway changes around the new development to address these issues.
Battery Caulfield Road, which runs parallel to Presidio Landmark, provides a route from the Richmond to the Marina through the Presidio. The Trust is considering two approaches:
• Alternative 1: limit vehicular use during weekday peak a.m. and p.m. hours as well as on weekends.
• Alternative 2: limit vehicular use at all times.

The proposed limitation on vehicular use is intended to reduce pass-through traffic to maintain public health and safety, to protect environmental values, natural resources, and to prevent conflict among visitor uses. By restricting the use of Battery Caulfield Road, the Trust also intends to reduce the use of the 14th and 15th Avenue gates. The full proposal can be found at www.presidio.gov/trust/projects/phsh/.

The Trust will accept comments on these proposed limits to public use no later than Oct. 15, 2010. Send comments to John Fa, The Presidio Trust, 34 Graham Street, P.O. Box 29052, San Francisco, CA 94129-0052, or via e-mail to BatteryCaulfield@presidiotrust.gov. Please make sure your comments include your name and contact information. The final decision of the Trust will be published in the Federal Register.

An open house celebrating the Presidio Landmark’s “Green Grand Opening” will be held on Sept. 25 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. The event will offer tours, music, food carts, children’s activities provided by the Presidio Community YMCA, and sustainable prizes. Free parking and shuttle service to the site will be available at the Main Post. For further information about the event, visit www.presidio.gov/ggopresidio or call 415-561-5418.