The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 19, Number 4, January 24, 2016, Article 15


In an earlier E-Sylum article I commented on the sad state of the former U.S. Mint building in San Francisco. In the February 2016 issue of The Numismatist from the American Numismatic Association, Nancy Oliver & Richard Kelly published an article with an encouraging update on the situation. -Editor

Old San Francisco Mint 2005 The following paragraph is excerpted (with the author’s permission) from John King’s article, entitled “Blighted Icon Left to Decay,” which appeared in the June 28, 2015, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle:

This 140-year-old landmark had the dubious honor last week of being named by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places, and no wonder: ascend the steep steps and what strikes you is not the splendor but the stench. City Hall awarded the building in 2003 to a well-intentioned historical society, then paid little attention while plans for a museum foundered. Now the sandstone walls stand empty while the granite porch atop the grand stairs from Mission Street doubles as a homeless camp. The landscape is dying as the ornate fence succumbs to rust. Amid all our pressing civic issues, the fate of a tattered icon may not seem important—but neglect at this scale should embarrass the leaders of a prosperous city that claims to value its past.

The San Francisco Old Mint was a coining facility from 1874 until 1937, and after it closed it was converted into office space for several federal agencies. In 1972, under the direct involvement of former Mint Director Mary Brooks, the Old Mint was restored to most of its original splendor, both interior and exterior, and eventually became a museum, opening to the public in 1974. Inside were displays of coining and mining artifacts; numismatic collections; and antique furniture (once used in the mint). A gift shop and regular guided tours of the basement and first floor also drew visitors.

However, in 1994 the museum (as well as the entire structure) closed due to operational costs and the need to seismically retrofit the entire building. (The latter was necessary be-cause of modern seismic codes, even though the mint was built so strong that it survived the 1906 earthquake with little damage and remained virtually intact (although the building moved two feet to the south).

Following the closure and removal of almost all the exhibits, the property was transferred from the U.S. Treasury Department to the General Services Administration (GSA), which is technically the federal government’s “landlord agency.” The GSA never developed a renovation plan, and the building languished until June 2003, when the agency decided to transfer the property to the City and County of San Francisco for a ceremonial charge of $1.

A genuine sense of hope became evident when the nonprofit San Francisco Museum and Historical Society (SFMHS) stepped forward and offered to lease the facility. A contract was negotiated, and the work of fund-raising began in earnest. After some initial success, the society removed the debris accumulated over the years, effected major repairs, and made the interior quite presentable for public events, spending $14 million in the process over an 11-year period.

However, the society’s dream of a grand museum for San Francisco, at an estimated cost of around $60 million, began to diminish, as did the donations to make it so. Why the downturn of contributions in the society’s later years? It could have been the sluggishness of the national economy around 2008, and the fact that history museums are not as popular with wealthy benefactors as art or ethnic museums. Despite an almost monthly promotion of various events at the Old Mint to raise funds, the amount coming in was not nearly enough for the SFMHS to aggressively pursue its plans.

At the end of the first quarter of 2015, the City of San Francisco ran out of patience with the SFMHS, terminated the organization’s lease, and decided to move in another direction. A city representative reported “a lack of progress, which forced us to pursue alternative means.” This same official, however, did praise the SFMHS for its work, and added that the society gave “a glimpse of what this treasure can and should become.” (To view 50 excellent photos of the mint, see photographer Ron Henggeler’s images taken just before the SFMHS vacated the building on August 1, 2015, at ).

Old San Francisco Mint interior
Old San Francisco Mint interior (from Henggeler’s site -Editor)

Another city newspaper reporter recently noted in his regular column that the average San Franciscan seems to accept the beggars and street people who camp out on the granite steps and around the mint, and the odor of urine that lingers. He added that maybe the people have lost pride in their city and have decided to shrug and accept the idea that anything goes. He cannot imagine any historic building in England being treated this way.

Why is it that New Orleans and Carson City maintain the integrity of their old federal mints, with public museums attached, while San Francisco does not? As the above-noted reporter suggested, the answer seems to lie in public apathy. Such a sad state of affairs! So, what is to be done with this historic building that once played a major role in the nation’s financial affairs and was the largest contributor to San Francisco’s recovery after the earthquake and fire of 1906? And what about its numismatic history?

Old San Francisco Mint grafitti

San Francisco Chronicle reporter Bob Bragman reported on December 19:

The Old Mint, a San Francisco landmark, has sat in a state of shameful disrepair for too many years. But maybe that’s about to come to an end. I sit at a desk in the old Chronicle building, lucky enough to have a view that overlooks the grand monument, which itself is a testament to San Francisco’s tenaciousness.

His article (which can be read online at has given us renewed hope for the structure. Bragman stated that for several weeks he has observed workers doing some major cleanup on the mint grounds.

Two workers emerged from the building, and when Bragman inquired as to what was going on, he was told that the city government had appropriated funds to “repair the place inside and out” and provide 24-hour surveillance at the site. They also added that the extensive graffiti on the walls would be removed in a way that would not harm the stone.

Bragman added that San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said in a press release, “We are taking the first step to fully renovate this landmark so that the community can enjoy it for generations to come.”

We are surprised and quite pleased by this news, and hope this restoration will bring back the respect the Old Mint of San Francisco deserves.

This is an encouraging development, although I fear it may only be another futile half-measure that doesn't truly address the long term survival of the building. -Editor

To read the complete articles, see:
San Francisco’s Old Mint: an endangered icon (
Old Mint to be revived as event space (

To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:

Kraljevich E-sylum ad26 Snowden

Wayne Homren, Editor

NBS ( Web

The Numismatic Bibliomania Society is a non-profit organization promoting numismatic literature. See our web site at

To submit items for publication in The E-Sylum, write to the Editor at this address:

To subscribe go to:



Copyright © 1998 - 2020 The Numismatic Bibliomania Society (NBS)
All Rights Reserved.

NBS Home Page
Contact the NBS webmaster