It was truly an honor for those of us who served here. I learned a great deal from my experiences at Letterman. I learned of the incredible resilience of the Army Medical Department and its people. I reaffirmed that we are an organization of people who care deeply about what we do, who accomplish things far beyond one’s expectations. For those of us who had the privilege of serving at the Presidio, we were truly blessed.
~ Major General Leslie Burger, last commander of Letterman Army Medical Center
Letterman Hospital was founded with the Spanish-American War, and closed following the Cold War. In the intervening century, the original wood-frame campus expanded to meet the needs of an emerging world power and to serve its wounded with compassion and advanced medical care.
The First Letterman Hospital
The original Letterman Hospital was constructed in 1898 in the northeast corner of the Presidio. It served soldiers returning home from the Spanish-American War in the Philippines. The campus included a 300-bed pavilion-style hospital with wards, administrative buildings, and mess halls around a centrally planned quadrangle. By 1904, additional buildings were added. Letterman Hospital initiated a new era of modern sanitation and treatment. Before these improvements more soldiers died of diseases than wounds.
The hospital stood face-to-face with the City of San Francisco boundary. Business and public resorts were located just outside the gate and offered recreation to the general public as well as Army personnel. Rail service connected visitors to these sites, and with the establishment of the hospital, a cable car line was brought into the Presidio, connecting the post to the City.
During and after World War I, Letterman expanded eastward with a new ancillary hospital and support buildings. The hospital then had a focus on orthopedic medicine. During World War II, Letterman was one of the busiest military hospitals in the country, serving casualties from the Pacific Theater. The facility treated 73,000 patients in 1945, the height of its activity. The campus operated like a self-contained city within the Presidio.
In these years the hospital earned a reputation for innovation, including advances in orthopedics, tropical medicine, and pathology. Its motto, Labor Gratia Humanitatis (work for the sake of mankind) was a point of pride for hospital staff.
Letterman Army Medical Center
After World War II, the military started planning for a more modern hospital at the site. Between 1965 and 1976, many of the original buildings on the east end of the campus were removed to make way for a new structure.
In 1968, the Letterman Army Medical Center, a new 550-bed, 10-story hospital was constructed. Between 1971 and 1976, the Army also constructed the Letterman Army Institute of Research immediately adjacent. Letterman continued to treat American casualties through the Vietnam War. Later, its role changed from serving wounded soldiers to serving the military community as a regional medical center.
Just before the Army departed the Presidio in 1994, the hospital closed its doors, ending a century of service at the Letterman campus.
A New Era Begins
As the Presidio began its next chapter as a national park site, the Letterman Campus evolved yet again to meet the new needs of the community. The remaining buildings of the original wood-frame hospital became home to the Thoreau Center for Sustainability, which houses 60 non-profit organizations.
In the late 1990s, the Presidio Trust also began planning for replacement of the non-historic, 10-story hospital with a new campus more in keeping with the architecture and contemporary mission of the park. In 2005, the Letterman Digital Arts Center, a pedestrian-friendly campus devoted to innovation in the digital arts, opened its doors. The Center, home to Lucasfilm, features beautiful gardens designed by the late landscape architect Lawrence Halprin.
Did You Know?
The first women in uniform at the Presidio were the Army Medical Corps nurses attached to Letterman Army Hospital in 1901.