Presidio Park, a beautiful enclave in the middle of San Francisco

Presidio Park's unique history

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service with our series, “America the Beautiful,” we tour a park that sits on prime real estate in the middle of San Francisco.

As the sun rises over one of the most densely populated cities in America, it also wakes up one of the largest urban national parks in the country: the almost 1,500-acre Presidio of San Francisco.

“I like to think of it as the whole national park system collapsed down into one place,” said Michael Boland of Presidio Trust, which manages the park. 

Presidio Park in San Francisco CBS News

“There are these beautiful coastal bluffs that are wild and you can barely see any of San Francisco. There’s the waterfront along Crissy Field. You can walk in the forest. … So it’s a little like Vatican City, we’re like this little enclave in the middle of San Francisco,” Boland said.

This enclave owes its existence to the military, reports CBS News correspondent John Blackstone. It was founded and served as a strategic army post for three different nations, starting with Spain.

“The front part of the Presidio Officers Club is built by the Spanish in 1776,” Boland said.

While 13 colonies were forming on the East Coast, this was Spanish territory. It was the first building in San Francisco, he said.

As the city grew, the post changed hands from Spain to Mexico, and by 1847, the United States.

Rick Penn worked there before the army closed the post in 1994. An act of Congress transferred it to the National Park Service, and Penn stayed on as a ranger.

“Defenses have always been a part of the Presidio’s story,” Penn said, showing Blackstone a 50-ton cannon with a six-inch shell that could be fired seven-and-a-half miles out to defend the coast.

Penn said defenses like those at Fort Point were built to protect shipments flowing out of the California gold rush.

“So were cannons lined up here looking out to the Golden Gate?” Blackstone asked. 

“Yes, each of these little square casemates had a cannon that could be fired, almost literally to the other side of the bay. So any ships coming through would have to run the gauntlet of 102 cannons,” Penn said.

Despite never firing a shot in anger, the fort had a huge impact on the city’s most famous landmark.

“Originally, the large supports for the Golden Gate Bridge were to sit in this area, but the architect, Joseph Strauss, decided to preserve the fort, went back to the drawing board and drew this arch – and the arch was actually here because of the preservation of the fort,” Penn said. 

Fort Point by the Golden Gate Bridge CBS News

Although the Presidio is infused with history, its modern role as a place to live, work and play is what sets it apart from other parks.

“We were the first national park to become financially self-sufficient,” Boland said. “There were about 1,500 housing units in the Presidio, those have all been renovated and rented and there’s an incredible number of families that live here. … Buildings that are office uses, we just lease them.”

While the funding model is unique, at the end of the day, it’s the experience for visitors that makes the Presidio a national treasure.