SF’s newest museum is opening in the city’s oldest mint

The newest museum in San Francisco will open in the city’s oldest mint this week.

The museum is in the new home of the San Francisco Historical Society at 608 Commercial St., a narrow thoroughfare that runs through the heart of the oldest part of the city.

The Commercial Street building is built on the site of the first U.S. mint in the West, which opened in 1854 during the California Gold Rush to turn nuggets and gold dust into coins and bullion. Later it was used as a subtreasury, where the government stored millions of dollars in gold and silver bars.

The original building came crashing down in the 1906 earthquake, but some of the original brick walls remain, and the subterranean vaults are still there.

Though the building is ancient by West Coast standards, it is topped by a Financial District high-rise.

And it comes with an only-in-San Francisco story involving a failed project, an impatient city government, a deal the planners made and even a Halloween horror show.

As trivia game experts know, San Francisco has had three U.S. mints. The first mint, on Commercial Street, was replaced in 1874 by a grand structure at Fifth and Mission streets. That building, now called the Old Mint, was itself replaced in 1937 by a new mint on Duboce Avenue, which is still coining money,

The Old Mint is a classic white elephant: too historic to demolish, too expensive to operate. The city acquired the building for $1 in 2003 and leased it to the San Francisco Historical Society, which had ambitious plans to convert the Old Mint into a museum of San Francisco history. But the society could not raise the $100 million or so the building needed to bring it up to modern seismic standards. When the fundraising stalled, the city ran out of patience and evicted the historical society. That was four years ago.

The society went on, offering programs, publications and city tours, but without a building to call home. Last last year, society First Vice President Tom Owens, who is active in real estate, stumbled on a deal he couldn’t pass up.

This was the building at 608 Commercial St. It was an old, small building, long on history and in a good location in the Financial District. It had been purchased in 1970 by the Bank of Canton. The bank wanted to build a high rise on the site — and after many delays, the city planners gave approval, on condition that the bank had to build around the historic existing building and maintain a museum there.

It was called the Pacific Heritage Museum and was a modest success. But the East West Bank, which took over the property, had no interest in operating a museum. So Owens cut a deal for the Historical Society to take over. The term is for five years, with an option to renew.

The first exhibit, a modest show called “Gold Fever! Untold Stories of the Gold Rush,” opens to the public at 10 a.m. Tuesday. Admission is free.

The show includes displays about the gold rush that transformed California, including some artifacts: gold nuggets, tools used to pan for gold and dig it out, and clothes worn by the miners, both European and Asian.

Visitors can peer into the underground vault where dusty crates used to hold a fortune in gold.

It’s the first of what the historical society hopes will be a long line of events and displays on Commercial Street.

“I have a passion for San Francisco history,” Owens said. “We want to show real stories out of old San Francisco. I think the stories are interesting and fun too, and if you can see it and feel it, that’s extremely important.”

Real estate is all about location and 608 Commercial St. lies at the epicenter of San Francisco history. Emperor Norton thought so; he lived for years in a rooming house just up the street. At one time, the shore of San Francisco Bay was just down the block at the corner of Commercial and Montgomery.

In the summer of 1846, a detachment of sailors and Marines rowed ashore there, marched up the sandy street to the plaza of the little town of Yerba Buena and raised the American flag for the first time.

Three years later, businessman and Mormon elder Samuel Brannan rode down Montgomery Street, a block away, shouting a message that changed California forever. “Gold!” he yelled, “Gold from the American River.” Not so long after that the town that grew up along Commercial Street turned into the city of San Francisco.

History is still being made. The Old Mint at Fifth and Mission is still mostly vacant, though it is being rented out for special occasions. One of them is opening his week.

On Thursday, a Halloween show called “Into the Dark” opens. “You are invited to take a tour of the historic San Francisco Old Mint where you come face to face with despicable horrors … scene after scene of horrific history,” the website says. Tickets are $62.

Carl Nolte’s column appears Sundays. Email: cnolte@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @carlnoltesf

Article source: https://www.sfchronicle.com/bayarea/nativeson/article/SF-s-newest-museum-is-opening-in-the-city-s-14494442.php

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