The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1999, Volume 45, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

The Presidio: From Army Post to National Park. By Lisa M. Benton. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1998. Photos, tables, maps, bibliography, notes, index. Xvii + 277. $29.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Robert J. Chandler, a Civil War, California, and Wells Fargo historian, who is not related to Presidio General Manager Robert Chandler.

In 1776, San Francisco became the third of four Spanish colonial presidios, and with Monterey (1770), retained its military character, while San Diego, the first (1769) and Santa Barbara, the last (1782) evolved into civilian communities. Little remains of San Diego’s presidio, but Old Town, built on the flood plain below Presidio Hill, became a hugely popular public-private state park. In a parallel case, Lisa M. Benton traces the transformation of the Bay City guardian into a federal park.

Benton, currently a geography professor at New York’s Colgate University, in 1993 picked the Presidio of San Francisco for a Stanford University dissertation to produce “a biography of a place.” (p.4). She gained a special perspective as assistant to William K. Reilly, senior advisor to the Presidio Council. This council, composed of prominent and knowledgeable San Franciscans, offered free advice and expertise to the National Park Service. As Reilly once managed the Environmental Protection Agency, Benton’s thoughts are similar, and she strongly advocates the “Greening the City” (p.198). The heart of her study comes through meetings, reports, analyses, observations, and newsclips from June 1993 to June 1994, strengthened with Benton’s May 1996 follow-up interviews with major players.

In brief historical chapters, geographer Benton stresses “the interdependent relationship between the city of San Francisco and the Presidio itself.” (p.205) For detailed history, she recommends John Phillip Langellier and Daniel B. Rosen El Presidio de San Francisco: A History under Spain and Mexico, 1776-1846 (1992); revised and published with the same title as Brand Book No. 19 of the Los Angeles Corral of Westerners (1996); Erwin N. Thompson and Sally Woodbridge, Presidio of San Francisco: An Outline of its Evolution as a U.S. Army Post, 1847-1990 (1992); and “T” Thompson’s later two-volume Historic Resource Study Defender of the Gate: The Presidio of San Francisco: A History from 1846 to 1995 (1997).

Benton’s story really begins in 1988 with the end of the Cold War, the closure of military bases, including the Presidio, and its transformation into an urban public park — but one that must pay its own way! Concurrently, as the Presidio’s Army mission began to fade, an activist environmental movement emerged that challenged land use and land abuse. As Benton observes, after the Civil War, an urban park movement created New York’s Central Park and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Now, environmentalists fought to make the Presidio part of “the second wave of the urban park movement” (p. 56). Their first victory came with the inclusion of the Presidio in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, established in 1972.

The National Park Service also joined the new environmental movement. At a Colorado retreat, park leadership embraced the “Vail Agenda” emphasizing restoration of landscapes, renovation of buildings, and education in environmental awareness. Benton details the endless maneuvering and intrigue in 1993 between urban park planners, National Park Service officials, and legislators. The proposed global environmental center at the Presidio, she says, transforms the “mission, purpose, and meaning” of this former Army base. “The Presidio’s plan is thus a cultural expression of the importance of addressing environmental issues as social issues” (p. 182).

Benton’s final words state this “biography of the Presidio” is “not a finished product but an ongoing process” (p. 201). Definitely. The Wednesday Bay Guardian always has a fit over something; an editorial headline on May 12 proclaimed: “Bulldozing the Presidio” in order to “turn a national park into a private business park.” However, while San Francisco dailies cover the Presidio randomly, the Guardian presents continued in-depth reports.

A few days later, the morning Chronicle reported that President Bill Clinton attended a Democratic party fund-raiser on May 14, hosted by Walter Shorenstein. Here is the clincher. “You sure have to admire the timing of the event: It comes just as Clinton’s appointees to the Presidio Trust are about to make the big call between Shorenstein’s company and filmmaker George Lucas for the rights to develop the Letterman Hospital site.” On May 22, a further headline read: “Presidio Fight to the Finish.” Read The Presidio: From Army Post to National Park and stay tuned for Lisa Benton’s sequel!

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