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Outside Lands Podcast Episode 469: Robert Thomson of the Presidio Trust

Special guest, Robert Thomson joins Nicole in conversation about his responsibilities as Federal Preservation Officer and that of his organization, the Presidio Trust.
- Aug 12, 2022

Outside Lands Podcast Episode 469: Robert Thomson of the Presidio Trust Outside Lands Podcast Episode 469: Robert Thomson of the Presidio Trust


Podcast Transcription

WNP469 – Robert Thomson

Nicole: [00:00:00] It’s Outside Lands San Francisco, podcast of the Western Neighborhoods Project. I'm Nicole Meldahl.  And I am here with a very special guest. That's right podcast listeners, this is another one of our super awesome interview podcasts, where we get to chat with amazing locals who are doing incredible work. And so, I have with me today, Rob Thompson, federal Preservation Officer for the Presidio Trust, who's gonna chat about some of the major projects the Trust has diligently been working on for I think we can say decades. Rob, welcome.

Robert: Thank you, Nicole. It's wonderful to be with you. I am a big fan of this podcast and an even bigger fan of the Western Neighborhoods Project, so thanks for having me.

Nicole: And we love the Presidio Trust and everything that y'all are doing. I mean, what you do is just insanely complicated. People don't understand how many years [00:01:00] it takes to plan something like the projects. They just see the amazing opening ceremonies.

Robert: It's true. We are very fortunate to have a lot of really great park partners. Everybody from our residential and commercial tenants to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the Golden Gate National Park Conservancy, lots of donors out in the community who help make our projects possible. So, it is truly a community project as it has been from the beginning.

Nicole: So, can you explain, I mean, the Presidio Trust and how it was created? It’s actually really groundbreaking for sort of private-public partnerships. Can you explain a little bit and how you are separate from the GGNRA, but how you work together in the Presidio?

Robert: Yeah, absolutely. So, the Presidio Trust is a independent federal agency and we set up to run the inland portion of the 1500-acre former U.S. Army Reservation. The inland [00:02:00] portion's about 80% of the land, but it's 95% of the buildings. There's 6 million square feet of buildings in the Presidio, about 850 individual structures and a lot of the Presidio operates like a small municipality. We have our own road system, our own water system, our own electrical grid, that's completely separate from the city and county. So, a different model was needed to operate the Presidio after the Army left. And that model really requires a lot of funding. And the federal government decided at, at the time in the late ‘90s, that it wasn't up for cutting those checks year after year. And so, we were set up with a specific mandate to rehabilitate and lease our physical assets, the buildings, most of which are historic, and use that revenue to support the park and keep it a public place. So, [00:03:00] that model has worked really well over the years and allows us to not only perform, plan and perform really high-quality historic rehabilitations of landmark district contributing buildings, but also landscapes and the public spaces that the public gets to enjoy every day.

Nicole: And Nancy Pelosi had a hand in this legislation, right? Because every time someone doesn't like something that's happening in the GGNRA, we get an email saying, can't one of you call Nancy Pelosi?

Robert: Yes. Speaker Pelosi had a very prominent hand in the series of arrangements that led to both the, the maintenance of the Presidio as a public space, but also the creation of the Presidio Trust in the late ‘90s. So, she deserves a ton of credit for both navigating the national politics side of things, which she did on a bipartisan basis, very adeptly. And she continues to [00:04:00] be a very strong champion of the park along with the rest of the district. So. we're very grateful to her and everything she does through the park.

Nicole: I've been a tenant of yours over the years. I actually rented an apartment in, on Portola.

Robert: Oh, great. One of my favorite neighborhoods.

Nicole: Yeah. It was a great time when y'all were first starting to do some of the renovations and getting new residents over there. So, you paid all my utilities. Thank you for that. I was very poor as a college student and it had a real community vibe up there. Like we didn't lock our doors, which maybe might have been a mistake, but, but we, everyone knew each other on the block. It was just this great kind of old-fashioned neighborhood that had been fostered in the middle of the Presidio. It's, it was just wonderful. Great time of my life. So okay, Federal Preservation Officer Rob sounds very intimidating. What exactly is that and what do you do?

Robert: So, the [00:05:00] Presidio Trust, as I mentioned, is a federal agency, and we manage a national historic landmark district, which is the highest designation that the United States bestows on historic sites. And so, because of those two factors, we have responsibility under federal regulations, mainly the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, to manage our property in a particular way and, in particular, to disclose and consult on projects that we're undertaking that affect historic properties in the Presidio. So, because of the nature of our agency's responsibilities, just about everything we do has some kind of trigger that requires a regulatory response. So, it's my job to manage that. I have a great team of fellow architectural historians. I also manage our archeology and our curation team. So, we are set up [00:06:00] to operate this place in a very efficient way that is also in concert with our federal regulatory responsibilities. So, what that looks like on a day-to-day basis is, you know, I work with our tenants to make sure they can use our historic buildings in a way that respects and maintains their integrity as historic spaces. And also, you know, study, understand and, you know, advance information about our historic properties to the public as our regulatory responsibilities require. So, it's a lot of fun.

Nicole: And you said curation. Does that mean you're involved with the Heritage Center that's on post?

Robert: Yeah. Yeah. So, on my team is our curator as well as our museum specialist. So, I think many of your listeners may know we have a Heritage Gallery, which is a museum space with exhibitions about the Presidio's history as well as a special exhibition that we're still running [00:07:00] on the, that's entitled Exclusion. It's about the period, the prestigious role in the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II. And we're currently operating the Heritage Gallery on a limited basis, still coming back from COVID for both financial and logistical reasons. But we're open on Saturdays from 11 to 4. So, everybody should still come out and check out our really, really high-quality exhibit in that space, which also happens to be in the Officer’s Club. Which, along with Mission Dolores is, you know, one of the few remaining Spanish-era buildings in San Francisco. So, come check it out Saturdays,

Nicole: I don't know if it's still running, but at least when it first opened, there was a video that showed like different park things over time. I was in that video as like a, as carrying things in the park, in the Park archives and Record Center back and forth. So, you just see me like, go scream. But yeah, it's hard to keep these spaces open and staffed and all that kind of [00:08:00] stuff. So, I commend y'all for coming back from.

Robert: And yeah. Thank you. We appreciate it. And, you know, we're real eager to keep important spaces that tell the Presidio's history like that opened to the public. Another thing that everybody should be aware of is our archeologists are out in the field working on El Presidio de San Francisco, which is the remnants of the Spanish era, which exists largely in an archeological context today. And they are out most days, but, in particular, Saturdays and Sundays. And willing to, we're set up to engage the public on the work that they're doing. So, if you wanna learn more about the archeology of the Presidio, come on down to the Main Post and our wonderful archeology team will tell you all about it.

Nicole: And you take volunteers as well, right? I think I've seen, your Instagram is amazing and I follow it all the time. And you can actually sign up to be trained and work on these digs.

Robert: Absolutely. We have [00:09:00] volunteers who help us with our archeology work. Along with what we call Heritage docents who help out in the Heritage Gallery. And then I believe we've started to bring on volunteer staff to help visitors navigate the new Tunnel Tops and Battery Bluff landscape that we just opened earlier this summer.

Nicole: Oh, maybe we should get into that a little bit now, Rob.

Robert: Let's do it.

Nicole: So, this all kind of goes back this whole massive project, which happens in phases, right? Nothing just happens overnight. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it tracks all the way back to 2009 with Caltrans replacing Doyle Drive, that overpass there to seismically upgrade it. And I remember this quite vividly, cause I was working for the Park Archives and Record Center at the time. This was literally right next to our parking lot and Caltrans installed vibration readers, which is probably not the right name for 'em because when they would drill to do, to [00:10:00] put these pilings down, it rocked our building so bad.

Robert: Yeah. No, I was part of the team that negotiated that arrangement and we installed those vibration monitors throughout the construction corridor so that we could keep tabs on how the construction was affecting the historic buildings. You know, we had over, well, almost a decade of, you know, major construction happening in very sensitive areas. And, you know, Caltrans is really to be commended for completing that project without any major damage to any of the historic buildings or other assets nearby. And that took a lot of work to set it up that way. And folks like you and the staff is still at the Park.Archives are still kind of recovering from what was a very long and disruptive period of construction. But, you know, the good news is the city and area now has a seismically safe [00:11:00] freeway connecting San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge. And we have, in the Presidio now, dozens of acres of new parkland that's been improved and enhanced as a result of the Doyle Drive project.

Nicole: And Doyle Drive was unsafe for a lot of reasons. I remember hearing about horrific crashes, cause it had a really tight like curve.

Robert: Yeah.

Nicole: That if you went too fast, you just kind of went over the railing and so, it was good that it was replaced for many reasons. Although selfishly, this is a weird story, Rob, I was working in the Park Archives and one of my coworkers comes up and goes, “hey Nicole, did you see that like graffiti stencil of you outside on the overpass?” And I was like, “excuse me?” So, our whole team at the Park Archives, including my boss, we all went out and looked at this stencil like, you know, like a Banksy-style thing.

Robert: Yeah.

Nicole: And it was 100% me.

Robert: That's fascinating. I never heard about that or saw it, but we should have figured out a way to preserve that. What were we thinking?

Nicole: It was [00:12:00] up, it was put up like one week before they demolished the piling that it was on.

Robert: Oh, okay.

Nicole: So, like, wasn't there for very long, but I do have a photo of it somewhere and I laugh about it all the time. I have no idea who did it. I have absolutely no idea. I'm not protecting anyone's identity.

Robert: Fascinating. Well, yeah, Doyle Drive had its issues. It was definitely seismically and functionally obsolete. And but, you know, in the interest of history, it was itself a contributing feature of the Landmark District. It was built at the same time as the Golden Gate Bridge, as part of the same project. Frank P. Doyle, for whom it was named, was a really prominent philanthropist in the North Bay in Sonoma County. And it was one of the first modern freeways really when it was built. So, you know, it had its own story to tell. And we, we did take that into consideration when we were [00:13:00] developing design guidelines for Caltrans for the new facility and how we could, you know, respect the history of this piece of historic infrastructure and, and reflect that in the new, the new facility that's now been built that functions much more effectively, safely, and so on. But, but did replace something that, that served the Bay Area for a very long time, a very specific way.

Nicole: It's funny how you get emotionally connected to landscapes, right? Like, think about all the people who opined the Bay Bridge, when it was replaced, right? Which is looks like a giant erector set to some.

Robert: Yeah.

Nicole: But yeah, you do get used to something and it becomes a part of your history too. It's hard to see it go. And you…

Robert: Exactly.

Nicole: You did such a brilliant job protecting the little pet cemetery that we had there. We were all so worried. We started to see all the trucks move in and we had like a, you know, front row seat to what we thought was going to be its demise. But you put these [00:14:00] massive concrete, it was like its own tiny freeway over it to protect it from any falling debris, and it totally held up and it looks amazing now.

Robert: Yeah, again I really credit Caltrans and the cultural resources staff that, that they have, for helping us come up with protection measures like that. That, that was a very highly engineered structure that protected the pet cemetery for all those years while it was literally, you know, in, in ground zero for construction of the new high viaduct. And yeah, I can't imagine that the Boy Scouts who helped fix a lot of the headstones in the, in the 1950s, when it was initially set up, could ever imagine that something like that would be built over it. But you know, again, as part of our agreements with, with Caltrans for completing the project, they help fund the restoration of the fence around the pet cemetery, which is a, you know, very distinctive [00:15:00] feature of that area. We had a real fun Tom Sawyer day after the fence had been put in to bring out a bunch of volunteers to go paint it. Paint it white again. And it, yeah, like you said, it looks better than ever.

Nicole: It really does. So, this has turned into a Caltrans appreciation podcast.

Robert: Yeah.

Nicole: Unexpected.

Robert: Well.

Nicole: But they did finance a lot of the relandscaping efforts that sort of pushed the other projects along, isn't that right?

Robert: That is absolutely right. And, you know, really part of the effective partnership, which included the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and the National Park Service, that set up the expectations for how the landscape was gonna be knit back together. And, you know, negotiated a lot of the mitigation measures, everything from interpretive waysides to, you know, real site-specific plantings and other design elements. It, like I said at the top, you know, it really was a collaborative effort that, that delivered for a very, very special place. You know, this [00:16:00] was not your typical freeway project. It's not your typical context where that freeway project took place. And everybody really stepped up to make it something special and, and respect the context in which it was built.

Nicole: So, the next big project from there was Quartermaster Reach marsh, it sounds like. So, this is a seven-acre tidal marsh near Crissy Field where a freshwater stream from Tennessee Hollow meets saltwater and creates this really beautiful and complex brackish habitat. Can you tell us a little bit about that project?

Robert: Yeah, Quartermaster Reach, you just summarized it beautifully. But what it, it is really one of the last pieces of the Tennessee Hollow Watershed Restoration that starts in the hills up by Presidio Heights and then drains through, almost entirely through, the Presidio down to where it meets the Crissy Marsh at Mason Street. And so, Quartermaster Reach was [00:17:00] envisioned long ago as one of these critical pieces of the watershed restoration that would essentially reverse what the Army and the PPIE had done to fill the tidal slues that once lined the whole northern waterfront of the Presidio and most of San Francisco between, you know, Black Point and where the bridge is now. So, we, we're extremely enthusiastic to, you know, take the opportunity to do that. We also interlaced in a number of cultural landscape features that tell the history of the quartermaster corps operations in that area. So, after the Fair, the Army developed the area as essentially a rail hub. Where there were storehouses, warehouses, shipping and receiving facilities that supplied the Army and connected the Presidio to Fort Mason and the Port [00:18:00] of San Francisco beyond. So, really nice detail that we added into the Quartermaster trail system are a couple of alignments of rail line in the trail segment that connects Mason Street to an overlook that looks out over the water to help, you know, connect that industrial history of the site that's a little bit harder to read now. And we have an even more exciting opportunity right now where we're rehabilitating the seven Mason Street warehouses that were constructed, again, right after the Fair was completed in 1917 and 1919 that were serviced by that rail line that cut through there. So, we're rehabbing those right now for office use. We expect to finish that up early next year. And then they'll be reactivated and available for lease.

Nicole: You let us know if you ever want Western Neighborhoods Project to use any of those spaces for free.

Robert: You guys would [00:19:00] be fabulous tenants.

Nicole: I wish we could afford to live in the Presidio as a nonprofit. But we, I, so when I was with the National Park Service, I cataloged the Sixth U.S. Army Environmental Office records. And what I learned from that is, one, the water, the natural occurring water in the Presidio is so unique and incredible and vast and like has not been treated well over time. And two, the Army would just bury anything it wanted to get rid of. Like it's, its solution was either throw it in the ocean, or to just dig a hole and bury it.

Robert: Yeah. You know, one of the things that makes the Presidio story unique is that we were really, thanks to a lot of really careful planning by, you know, the early architects of the Presidio's Post Army history, we were really well served by really effective planning and financing of [00:20:00] remediation efforts across the park. So, you're absolutely right. Like Army and, you know, Navy military posts all over the country, there was a big environmental remediation, you know, leave behind, after the Army departed. But, because of all of this careful planning, we were able to not only address the environmental remediation issues throughout the park, but also to leverage those projects which involved, you know, digging stuff up and taking it away, or capping stuff, so that it would not migrate or cause problems elsewhere. And using that to advance our, our native plant habitat and our ecological restoration goals. So, the Tennessee Hollow Watershed is a great example of how that's played out over time, where we've been able to kind of double dip on projects. And we're really lucky that that things have played out that way. And we don't have a whole lot of environmental remediation issues to deal with today.

Nicole: And, by the [00:21:00] way, listeners, it's named Tennessee Hollow after a regiment from the Spanish-American War who was possibly the rowdiest, most racist regiment on premises. They're waiting here to embark off to war, and they started fights with everybody else.

Robert: That's how the story goes. Yeah. The 1st Tennessee volunteers and they, so they stuck 'em out in a kinda out of the way corner that, as you said, just had been filled in, cause it was a sort of marshy, wet meadow area. And they were there for a short period of time and then shipped out to do what soldiers do out in in the Philippines.

Nicole: That's another podcast.

Robert: That’s another podcast.

Nicole: So, let's move on to the next part of this Presidio pie, which is Battery Bluff. So, can you tell me a little bit about what that is?

Robert: Battery Bluff is one of my absolute new favorite spots in the park. If your listeners haven't been out to visit, please do. It's located just north of the National [00:22:00] Cemetery and it is atop of one of two tunnels that probably many of the listeners have driven through on the new Presidio Parkway-Doyle Drive facility. What makes Battery Bluff so special though, in my opinion, is that we were able to reveal and really celebrate, design a new landscape around four coast artillery batteries that had been abandoned really by the Army for over a century. And, and so, that involved a lot of really careful planning around excavating around the batteries. Conserving the concrete and steel elements that had been, you know, neglected for all that time. Applying anti-graffiti coatings to the batteries after we had removed the graffiti, which had accumulated over decades. And really making them, the batteries, the centerpiece of this new landscape that had otherwise been completely [00:23:00] cut off from anybody's access, let alone the public's access for a century. So, it's just a fabulous spot and, and turned out really better than I, I could have hoped for when we first planned it.

Nicole: How do you, this is a really nerd technical question, but how do you get graffiti off of concrete? I know, you know, you could just paint over it, but how do you actually remove it?

Robert: Well, we wanted to, we considered a lot of different removal techniques. We ultimately wound up using a blasting media, so it was a combination of different particles that we could blast out of a, a device that, you know, blows, blows media onto horizontal surfaces. We tested it in a lot of different areas so that we could be assured we weren't gonna damage the concrete substrate, but still, you know, have an effective removal technique. So, that came down to using even materials like ground-up walnut shells, which is a little bit gentler on concrete surface. And it was ultimately really, really effective. But, you know, like [00:24:00] any project like that, you gotta test it. You gotta make sure you know what you're getting into before you take on, you know, the scale that we ultimately had to do. And, you know, I was really pleased with the results that we were able to achieve through that.

Nicole: So, the batteries are some of my favorite parts. And you've got batteries Blaney, Baldwin, Slaughter, and Sherwood. And these are all kind of on the edge of Fort Winfield Scott, which is, I think, one of my favorite parts of the Presidio probably because you guys haven't really done anything with it yet. So, it's still kind of like you're, you're urban exploring, but they were all built for a war that never came here, right?

Robert: That's right.

Nicole: Yeah.

Robert: So, you could either argue that they were very effective in that way or they were, you know, obsolete almost as soon as they were built. And actually, I guess both are true. But they were, you know, they were high technology at the time they [00:25:00] were built. Both in terms of the engineering that was required to construct these massive concrete structures. As well as the armaments that they were fitted out with. And, you know, the batteries at Battery Bluff are a bit unusual in that two of the four are still partially buried due to the, the landform changes that, that Doyle Drive had initially brought about. But they each have sibling batteries elsewhere in the Presidio or, you know, out on Angel Island or up in, in Marin County. Because they were all built as a, you know, a network, a system of in placements that were meant to function in a complimentary fashion to one another. So, they don't stand in isolation to each other at all, really were part of an elaborate and extremely expensive network of defenses that lined the mouth of San Francisco Bay and the inner harbor as well.

Nicole: The story of coastal defenses in San Francisco is [00:26:00] again, its own podcast. We might have a podcast with John Martini about it. But all of it cracks me up cause they're like, we built four points and like we were, let's build the other one across the Golden. Oh, nevermind. Like this is totally obsolete as we're building it. Okay, let's build these new batteries in like 1900. Right? That's when these Battery Bluff batteries are getting built.

Robert: Yeah.

Nicole: They're all obsolete by like 1917, 1920, and the army just like stashes stuff in them.

Robert: Yeah. Technology moved fast even back then, right? I mean it's, it's a real testament to how things continued to develop and advance and obviously, you know, one of the big developments that occurred in the beginning of the 20th century is air power, right? That just wasn't a factor when, when the batteries were initially constructed and it changed everything.

Nicole: And all these batteries are named for like Civil War Generals. People who died in battle, things like that. If you're wondering about Battery Slaughter, though, it's not what it sounds like, although theoretically is appropriate. [00:27:00] It's named for a lieutenant named William A. Slaughter, who actually was killed at the White River Massacre in Washington in 1855. Which of was of course part of the Indian wars of that era. We're gonna bust that myth right now, because I've heard people say, oh well, it's like a, it's a nickname for the battery, or things like that. And it's not a nickname, it's just a really ironically named battery.

Robert: Very good point. And poor William Slaughter also holds a distinction of, as far as I know, being the only namesake of the four who is buried in the Presidio. So, he was killed as he mentioned, in Washington territory. But then when the fort he was buried at was decommissioned along with a lot of the other frontier forts, those cemeteries were vacated and moved to the Presidio. So, Lieutenant Slaughter is buried in the National Cemetery in the cemetery that overlooks his namesake battery.

Nicole: Do you [00:28:00] think he has a direct view of it? Like is…

Robert: He might, I haven't, you know, I'm gonna admit I haven't gone out to his headstone to, to check that out. But that would be poetic if it was the case.

Nicole: For our listeners, if you wanna know more about that history of the relocating of those cemeteries to San Francisco, we actually did a program with John Martini. Oh, I think in the deep pandemic. It's available on our YouTube channel. It's Outside Lands videos on YouTube. Anyways, plug over. So, you've got this, it's probably one of the best views in the city. I mean, Battery Bluff. You can take a picnic there. It's one of, I agree it's one of the best time places to spend an afternoon. You can see Angel Island, Alcatraz Island, and the landscaping, I'm always impressed by how you all balance cultural and natural resources in your project. It's done really thoughtfully.

Robert: Yeah, thank you. We've got a really effective collaboration with, within the park, between our cultural, the [00:29:00] folks who design our cultural landscape areas and our natural resources staff. I think, you know, and many of the listeners may know the Presidio has a native plant nursery that grows all of the native plants that are planted in the Presidio from seed that's collected in the Presidio. So, the native plants that, that we propagate around the park are not just native to, you know, the Bay Area or San Francisco Peninsula, but to the Presidio itself. And it's just a wonderful synergy that, that works from a sustainability standpoint in terms of our use of native plants as a drought tolerant and you know, energy efficient way to, to green and fill large, large areas of the park that, that, that need landscaping. And Battery Bluff was, you know, yet another great example of how that came together, where we were able to use native plants on the historic [00:30:00] earthworks of the batteries, which would have had, in their heyday, plants that, that, that would've disguised the batteries from the water. So, would've blended into the native plant pallet that, that the battery sat in. So, it's really nice to be able to bring back that aspect of, of the site's character as well.

Nicole: I have always wondered what your water bill is like in the Presidio. With all of your grass and landscaping, it must be, my water bill's too high and gives me hard palpitations and I don't have what you have to deal with.

Robert: Yeah, we're always looking at ways to manage our water resources as effectively as we can. As I mentioned, we have our own water system. Most of our water, it changes seasonally, but a lot of our water comes from Lobos Creek. So, when you drink water in the Presidio, or when you drink a Fort Point beer that's [00:31:00] made with Presidio water, you're drinking water from San Francisco. Not from Hetch Hetchy, like you are everywhere else in the city. So that's a special, you know, situation that we have here and you know, it makes it all the more important for us to conserve water wherever we can. So, like I said, you know, deployment of native plant pallets wherever we can in new landscaping goes a long way towards that. But we're also, you know, looking at future infrastructure projects, where we can use reclaimed and recycled water especially for our irrigation. But, we also are actively, we have an active program of lawn reduction, or at least seasonal lawn management where we turn off irrigation in the dry months, let lawns go brown and you know, let 'em come back in the winter time.

Nicole: Doing your part, like all the rest of us.

Robert: Trying to do our part.

Nicole: So, Okay. The big news now is the Presidio Tunnel Tops [00:32:00] that just reopened last month.

Robert: Yeah. July.

Nicole: So, tell us about the journey from the start of project planning, Presidio, Presidio Tunnel Tops to opening day.

Robert: Yeah, that's a really exciting journey. You know, the first thing I wanted to point out about Tunnel Tops is that the whole concept of a land form at the foot of the Main Post ,that then steeply drops down to Crissy Field, is really driven by the history of that area. So, a lot about Tunnel Tops is new, you know, it sits on top of a brand-new piece of infrastructure, two freeway tunnels that are, you know, just a couple years old. But it's informed by the historic topography of the site and, in fact, the topography that, you could argue, should be credited for why the Presidio is where it is in the first place. Because that elevated flat area that the Spanish fort was originally built on was taken [00:33:00] advantage of for the vantage points that it afforded of the mouth of the bay and any ships that were coming and going through it. So, when Doyle Drive was built, it cut through that natural bluff that El Presidio was constructed on. And really created a gash, you know, through an area that was integral to how the Presidio originally functioned and how the people that established it had used the natural landforms to advance their goals. So, the inspiration to remove the freeway and put back the bluff is really what drives, you know, the basic design element of Tunnel Tops as it was as it was built. And then we, you know, really wanted to also take advantage of the views and the trails that we could bring through the site to really draw all of the visitation and [00:34:00] energy, that Crissy Field today enjoys, up into the main post where the buildings are, where we've got businesses, we've got amenities, we've got places to tell the Presidio's history. And, and, you know, now having seen Tunnel Tops function for a couple of weeks, it's really doing exactly that just as intended, which is extremely validating and exciting to see.

Nicole: I went past through there to on my way to something else, and I thought, oh, maybe I'll stop in. It was actually too packed, like there were too many people on the tunnel top, so I thought I'll come back at a different time, so well done. What are all those people doing there, like how, it's not just walking, right? There's so much more going on.

Robert: Yeah, it's got a really nice mix of activities for people that, that lots of different folks seem to be enjoying. There's lawns for passive recreation, you know, hanging out, having a picnic. There's barbecues that, you know, [00:35:00] big groups can come together and cook a big meal and use some of the adjacent really large picnic table areas to, you know, have a gathering. And then, we've brought in a really nice diverse array of food truck options that has kept everybody really well fed and watered up there. So, it's, you know, it's got a little bit of something for everybody and it's 14 acres. I'm always surprised at how long it feels like it takes to just walk from one end to the other. And, and so, there's a lot to see, a lot to enjoy, and it has been wildly, wildly well-loved so far.

Nicole: Well, congratulations again. This is so much work. I mean, everyone understands that yes, these things are a lot of work. But I don't think people realize, and I hope they do now after this podcast, how much thinking goes on into every little detail. You trying to figure out different ways to get graffiti off one [00:36:00] building is a great example, right? And I hope the next time they're out there they'll think, man, that Rob Thompson, we really owe him one.

Robert: Oh well, me and lots of other people. So yes, it is a tremendous amount of work that goes into planning projects like this and, you know, a place that's as special as the Presidio really deserves it. You know, this kind of long-term planning, long-term thinking, tracking all the details to make sure that the, these spaces that we are tasked with managing and preserving for the American public, really deserve that kind of thought and treatment.

Nicole: So, and it's beautiful to see that the Presidio continues to evolve with the city, you know, from its earliest beginnings and now it's serving the needs of a completely different type of, I wanted to say battleground, but, but, I mean, we all realized how important open space is after the pandemic. And the Presidio did its part in fighting that war, giving San Francisco space [00:37:00] to recreate and things like that. And I just, it's just incredible to see how far it's come.

Robert: Yeah. Yeah. Thank you for that observation. And, you know, we, there was a lot that was unfortunate about the pandemic and its timing. But one thing that was fortunate is that we were able to use that time, and it just coincided with the projects that we were already working on to finish up these big landscape areas, and deliver them to the public at this time to, to, you know, keep people outside, keep them, you know, engaged in our parks and continuing to discover parts of San Francisco that maybe they haven't been to before.

Nicole: And I know internally, I mean, you all were hurting as an organization, the Presidio Trust, just like the rest of us were trying to survive. So, you know, I'm so glad to see the Heritage Gallery coming back to life, to all the things that you continue to do, and let us know if you need any [00:38:00] help in that, in that museum space because that's what we love foremost. And, of course, if you wanna give us any buildings to store things in.

Robert: Come on over. Let's, let's have you to the Heritage Gallery sometime soon. And also, our visitors center, which is now open at the south end of the Tunnel Tops, has some really terrific exhibitions about the history of the Presidio and things that you can do if you come visit us here.

Nicole: Absolutely. Okay, Rob. Well, that concludes the history portion of this podcast. Now we're gonna move into another section we like to say, call, Say What Now? And this is a section in which I ask you Barbara Walter's style, hard-hitting questions. You know, anything from your food preferences to, you know, the deep, the deep, I'm just gonna deeply question your soul right now.

Robert: All right. I'm ready.

Nicole: Okay. Number one, what is your favorite spot in the Presidio?

Robert: Well, a really [00:39:00] lovely spot, that I recommend everybody come visit next time they're here in the park, is the cemetery overlook, and this is a overlook that we designed maybe about 10 years ago at the southeast corner of the San Francisco National Cemetery that is connected to a trail that takes you through a stand of 120-year-old eucalyptus trees and then opens up to a view with the National Cemetery below. And it's just a absolutely beautiful view and a really calm and quiet place to contemplate where you are.

Nicole: Totally agree. I'm a little sad you didn't say the horse stables where you can pet a horse anytime. But that's okay. That's a very eloquent thing for you to say. So, yours is much better.

Robert: I do like to go visit the horses with my daughter who finds some very charming. And I, I think it's just incredible that we're able to still use one of those historic horse stables [00:40:00] to house the U.S. Park Police Mounted Unit.

Nicole: Totally agree. I have read once, and I have no idea where I read this, that buildings are happiest when they're used for their original purpose. So, like a horse stable, having horses in it, a restaurant, having a restaurant in it, that kind of stuff.

Robert: Very true. That's one of, one of historic preservations greatest truths.

Nicole: Okay, number two, for your hard-hitting questions. Where is your favorite place to get pizza in San Francisco?

Robert: Oh well, my, my daughter would be very upset if I said anything else other than Pizza Hacker out on Mission Street at 30th, in the Outer Mission. Some of the best pizza in the whole city, in my opinion. And a really cool old building that I believe was a bank building originally.

Nicole: Ooh.

Robert: And a great place to go have some pies and some local.

Nicole: I love that you're a history nerd like we are. This is [00:41:00] fantastic.

Robert: Oh yeah.

Nicole: And it leads into the third question, which is, what is your favorite iconic building in San Francisco? And you can't say something in the Presidio.

Robert: Okay. That's fair. Well, I am a long-time Mission District resident and a great fan of one of our city's great architects, Timothy Pflueger. So, I have to say the New Mission Theater. Also, just fabulous place to go, spend an evening, play some video games in the lobby, have a bite to eat and go catch a movie. Love the New Mission.

Nicole: Shout out to the San Francisco Neighborhood Theater Foundation and all the folks there who are, why that theater even still exists.

Robert: Absolutely, one of our city's great organizations.

Nicole: Totally. And this leads in really well to number four. Since you're a Mission District resident, what is the best burrito you've ever eaten in San Francisco? [00:42:00]

Robert: Well, I am very fond of a good old Taqueria, El Cancun. Al pastor burrito. But a newcomer to the Mission District burrito scene, Taqueria El Patron, which is on 26th and South Van Ness, has an extremely solid carne burrito along with some very good quesadilla tacos.

Nicole: Ooh, gosh. Now I'm really hungry, so we gotta check it out, podcast listeners. Okay, one last question, number five, where do you take visitors when they come to the city?

Robert: I always love to bring them to the Presidio. You didn't say I couldn't say that. So, the Presidio is really where San Francisco's whole story can be told. And people just love to get out here into the park. But, when I'm not in the Presidio I do love to take people to the Musee Mecanique. That as another way to tell a [00:43:00] great story about San Francisco's history and have a whole lot of fun too.

Nicole: It's a whole lot of fun. I love Musee Mecanique.

Robert: It’s the best.

Nicole: Well, that concludes our Rob portion of the podcast . Rob, thank you so much for being with us today and sitting through my somewhat silly questions, but also giving us tons of information about all the things we take for granted in the Presidio.

Robert: It's really my pleasure and I'm, again, such a great fan of your organization and I'm so grateful for all the work that you're doing to preserve west side history, along with so many stories that cross the whole city.

Nicole: Well, I hope you'll relaunch the program series in the Presidio Officers Club. I know that's terrible to be like, you did great work, but I want this from you too, .

Robert: Well, thank you. We're always looking for new ways to engage people in the Presidio's history. So…

Nicole: You guys are doing great. So, congratulations again and I hope that this isn't [00:44:00] the last time we have you on our podcast.

Robert: Thanks for having me.

Nicole: Good night, Rob.

Rob: All right. Take care.

Nicole: Okay, so now it's time for listener mail. So first of all, of course, listeners, you can contact us with all of your incredible stories or feedback or whatever the heck you wanna say to us about this podcast or anything else, I guess, by emailing podcast@outsidelands.org. You can also hit us up on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. And I want to correct something. Someone I talked to over the weekend thought I did all of our social media and that's not true. Arnold Woods, our board president, is the man behind Facebook. He's also the man behind our outsidelands Twitter feed. And we have another board member, Vivian, who is in control of that OpenSFHistory Twitter and doing great. And then I'm your gal on Instagram [00:45:00] for both our OpenSFHistory and outsidelandz with a Z account. You can hit us up there.

And for this listener mail section, I'm gonna do something a little bit different. Last weekend is where we were at, out the Outside Lands Music Festival, all weekends long. Which is so exhausting the, because the older I get, the festival attendees stay the same age. But we love it and we love being able to explain the festival's name. We love being able to engage people in local history there. By and large, not a lot of people know who we are, but the folks who do come to the tent, 9 times out of 10 are podcast listeners. You folks that are listening right now come up to us and you ask us all kinds of questions and you're so excited to meet us. And I cannot tell you how grateful we are for that. You know, the, we're just crazy history people who enjoy talking about history and we kind of forget that this goes out [00:46:00] into the world and we're a little embarrassed when you come up to us, but it really, it just, it's just so incredibly wonderful.

There was one podcast listener in particular who came to the booth. His name was Lee. And I have to say that he about made me cry. I'm paraphrasing here, but he, we had a wonderful conversation with his girlfriend, who's not a podcast listener, and that's fine. But he said that he lost his dad last year and listening to our podcast in the evenings has really helped him feel better. And Lee, I cannot tell you how much that specifically means to me. Someone who has lost both her parents and has relied on all kinds of other things to get me through the night. So, in fact, I'm tearing up a little bit now. Oh boy, Lee, we love you. Thank you for listening, and we are absolutely here for you in our goofball community history way. So, thank you for sharing your story with us.

Also, once again, we would like to remind you that we're planning a Playland Memories [00:47:00] podcast for Labor Day Weekend. If you visited Playland before it closed in 1972, please, please, please send us your memories. You can, you know, of course, email them to us at podcast@outsidelands.org. You can call our 415-661-1000 and leave a message. We would love to hear from you. We're looking to have several people relate their memories, either live on the podcast or in an extended listener mail for the podcast. And we're looking forward to hearing everything you'd like to share with us.

Speaking of sharing things with us, it's now time for the benefits of membership and donating. So, if you clickety, clickety, clack the big orange button at the top of every page on our website outsidelands.org, OpenSFHistory.org, then you can support the incredible work we're doing. And, in exchange for [00:48:00] that, you get a quarterly membership magazine, you get discounts on events and other exclusive perks. And you support this podcast. Which we make sure is absolutely free all the time. You also support the Cliff House collection, it's care and exhibition, and OpenSFHistory, which I know has been stagnant of late, but we're getting ready.to relaunch the program with new images uploaded to the website. So really every dollar counts. I have to say. I'm the only paid employee, right now at least. And almost my entire salary is paid from our membership dues. And what that does is it means that we can just say yes to projects without having to worry about where the grant money comes from. So, you really do allow us to stay flexible and responsive to the needs of our community, and we appreciate you so much.

Speaking of all the amazing things that we do, it's now time for [00:49:00] announcements. So, this is really breaking news. If you get our newsletter, you may already know this, but we have been extended at the museum until the end of September, and that means we're planning even more events. Our events are up and running. We are also adding things to the museum all, all the time. Little things here and there, like new art from John Lindsey and the Great Highway Gallery. Or, who knows what else we'll be dreaming up in our little Cliff House crew think tank. But we are here in The Museum at The Cliff, our special exhibition, is open on the weekends, 11 to 5:00 PM, totally free. You don't have to pay a dime to come into the Cliff house anymore. You can be in here all day if you like, relaxing, learning some history, taking in the immersive sound by Andrew Roth, seeing these incredible projections by artist Ben Wood and just staring out the windows and imagining what it [00:50:00] was like to have a drink here many years ago.

You can register on our website or through our Eventbrite, which I encourage you to follow, cause that's where you get the quickest notifications when we add new events. Notifications like the Great Highway Curator tour of Naiad Cove, which will be led by our own dear friend, John Lindsey. That's August 19th, 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM. It's a Friday night at The Museum at The Cliff. So, John will lead you on a special tour of all of the art he's curated here while I sling drinks from behind the bar. This is free for Western Neighborhoods project members and $30 for non-members.

And also, I totally bypassed on August 17th. We are doing a second history happy hour here at the Cliff House. That's a Wednesday evening from 6:00 to 8:00 PM. Same price point. That's free for Western Neighborhoods Project members, and $30 for non-members.

So, if you [00:51:00] were thinking, and you've been kind of on the edge about like, well, should I join the family? Should I not join the family? This summer is the time to do it, y'all. The lowest membership is $50 a year, and that's, you know, at 30 bucks a pop for non-members, you could spend every Wednesday night with us here in the Cliff House for free. And what do you get when you come here? For our happy hours we'll have Reino Niemela Jr., whose father, was an artist and designer who created all of the signage you saw at Playland at the Beach. He was in charge of all that hand-painted signage from 1932 to 1972. So, we'll be celebrating his father, but we'll also be celebrating Reino's birthday. So, I will have homemade cupcakes in the house and as well as some other snacks. And of course, light refreshments. So, those are our announcements for this week.

Our preview for next week will be, maybe you'll hear about Laguna Honda Hospital, if I have [00:52:00] time to research it more. Or maybe you'll get Great Highway Part 2. Maybe you'll get both. I don't know. Tune in to find out. And thank you for being with us listeners. Just remember that WNP loves you.

Ian: Outside Lands San Francisco is recorded by Ian Hadley. Content creation and media production at ihadley.com.

Nicole: To learn more about the Western Neighborhoods Project and more on San Francisco history, go to Outsidelands.org. You can also find us on social media at Facebook, which is outsidelands with an S, at Twitter, which is outsidelandz with a Z, and on Instagram, which is outsidelandz, also with a Z. And check out our historic San Francisco images website at OpenSFHistory.org.

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