Sunday, October 13, 2019

The San Francisco Mint

I remember being taken to the Mint when I was still in my single digits.  I believe it was one in Washington D.C.  I was so disappointed, not sure why but maybe it was because I went with a my class to a donut factory we all got samples and at the Mint we could not get close enough t actually see the money, just the stacks on a conveyor belt below our glass glorified catwalk.

In any case, it did give me a taste for how money is actually made.  Therefore, when I read an article in The Arts Journal, one of the art blogs I subscribe to, I latched onto this headline “The Museum where they Print Money”. The article came from the San Francisco Chronicle, “SF Newest Museum is opening in the City’s Oldest Mint”.  In 1792 Congress passed the Coinage Act, establishing the first national mint which Congress declared would be in Philadelphia, this country’s Capital at the time.  Congress directed that “In copper: half cent and cent, In silver: half dime, dime, quarter, half dollar, and dollar and In gold: quarter eagle ($2.50), half eagle ($5), and eagle ($10)”.   Only the gold and half penny have disappeared in the meantime!

When gold fever gripped the country, they needed to open U.S. branch Mints with assay offices to weigh and value the gold. The California Gold Rush began in 1848 and the San Francisco Mint opened in 1854 , the oldest one in the West, turning nuggets and gold dust into coins.  It was soon too small, and a new mint was established in 1874.  This building known both as the Old United States Mint and “The Granite Lady” was one of the few to survive the 1906 earthquake.  Only the base and basement were made of granite, the upper stories were done in sandstone.  It is very much in the same Classical Style as the Metropolitan Museum built in the same decade but by different architects.

By the time of the fire, the San Francisco mint held $300 million, one third of the United States Gold Reserve.  Fort Knox was established only in 1936 and in 1937 got the first shipment of the country’s precious bullion reserve.  At the same time San Francisco built a new Mint. 

Designated a National Historical landmark, the old Mint was open to the public until 1993. In 2003 the Federal government sold it to the City of San Francisco for $1.  They used an 1879 silver dollar struck at the mint to pay. It was supposed to become a historical museum and called San Francisco Museum at the Mint.  They finished the first phase but then the project languished between many possible owner museums.  In 2014 the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society began raising funds for phase 2 but they failed. Vice president of the Historical Society was also active in real estate and saw an opportunity in this property located in the heart of the oldest part of the city.  He made a deal with the city that if he left the original building intact and it remained a museum he could build on the property.

The Historical Society has a 5-year lease with an option to renew.  They have started out modestly with an exhibition on the untold stories of the men of the gold rush, which I certainly would be interested in seeing.  If you go let me know what you think.

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