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History of the "Heart of the Presidio"
A black and white historic photo of troops marching south on Montgomery Street next to the brick barracks in the 1930s.
The Main Post is the Presidio’s most historic district and is often referred to as the “birthplace of San Francisco.” Every period of the Presidio’s history is reflected in the buildings, landscapes, and archaeology sites that make the Main Post such a rich and important place. From the fort’s humble beginnings at El Presidio in 1776, the park we know today has evolved.
The following is a brief summary describing how the Main Post grew and physically expanded over time, reflecting the growing influence of the Army - and America itself - in the world.
The Main Post Audio Walking tour, available via cell phone and download, also reveals the layers of history and architecture that are found here. Enjoy a stroll through time and place in “the heart of the Presidio.”
1776 to 1792: The Spanish Arrive
In 1776, more than 200 men, women, and children led by Captain Juan Bautista de Anza established a small fort for Spain on what is today known as the Main Post. Named El Presidio de San Francisco, the garrison defended the nearby harbor from foreign attack. El Presidio was built by sailors, soldiers, and their families as a series of barracks, warehouses, and a chapel around an open space called the plaza de armas. Though it was an important secular site, by 1792 it was uncompleted and in poor condition.
1793 to 1845: Spanish and Mexican Community
An influx of funds, more soldiers, and help from Native laborers allowed El Presidio to be expanded in 1796. During the ongoing Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821) Commandante Arguello nearly doubled its size. In 1821, when Mexico won independence from Spain, the strategic importance of El Presidio declined. Eventually, General Mariano Vallejo moved the garrison north to be closer to the Russians at Fort Ross. A detachment of artillerymen was left behind, but El Presidio was effectively abandoned and partially in ruins when the U.S. Army arrived.
1846 to 1860: The U.S. Army Arrives
John C. Fremont took control of the Presidio in 1846, claiming California for the United States. In 1847, the U.S. Army arrived, reusing the adobe structures for shelter and the plaza de armas as a parade ground. The adobe Officers’ Club was reused as officers’ quarters, and other adobes and hastily constructed wood-frame buildings were built to support the Army’s growing presence.
1861 to 1870: Civil War Expansion
With the Civil War, the Main Post grew. Quaint wood-frame officers’ homes were constructed in 1862 along Funston Avenue (today the oldest intact streetscape in San Francisco). A formal entrance to the post - known as “the Alameda” - was created at the intersection of Presidio Boulevard and Funston Avenue. A parade ground was established just to the west. Storehouses for supplies and corrals for animals were constructed at the foot of the post above Crissy Field Marsh.
1871 to 1890: Division Headquarters
Between 1878 and 1887, the Army began to make the frontier post a more permanent and imposing military reservation. Landscapes were improved, taking their inspiration from both the City Beautiful and parks movements that were reshaping urban America in the late 19th century. To distinguish the Presidio from the growing city, the post’s entrances were formally planted. In the 1880s, the Army began an ambitious tree planting program.
1891 to 1908: A Grand Post
The Spanish-American War in 1898 increased the Presidio’s national importance. The Main Post was greatly expanded to accommodate the growing ranks. The red-brick barracks along Montgomery Street were built between 1893 and 1897, with a large Main Parade Ground created to the east. The Main Parade Ground shifted the center of activity away from El Presidio and the Civil War-era parade ground, or Old Parade.
1909 to 1920: World War I
As the United States prepared for war, there was an intense buildup at the post. In 1917, the first firehouse on an American military base was constructed on the Main Post after General Pershing’s family perished in a house fire. Pershing Square, near the Officers’ Club, where the family home had stood, was named to commemorate the tragedy. In 1912, Building 35, a large three-story barracks, introduced a new architectural style to the Main Post. It was from this building that the order to inter Japanese Americans was issued during World War II.
1921 to 1940: Peacetime
The Golden Gate Bridge was built in 1937, along with Doyle Drive, the western approach to the span that severed the Main Post from Crissy Field waterfront. Also at this time, the Works Progress Administration built the School for Bakers and Cooks (later used at the Post Headquarters), the Presidio Theatre, and two large barracks.
1941 to 1945: World War II
During World War II, the Presidio was the command center for Army operations in the Pacific. Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt commanded the Ninth Corps Area, the Fourth Army, and the Western Defense Command from headquarters at the Main Post.
1946 to 1994: The Cold War and Base Closure
While the Presidio played a role in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, as well as in the Cold War, its importance diminished after World War II and the Main Post became largely an administrative center. As the Main Post shifted to office uses, the need to accommodate an increasing number of cars resulted in the Main Parade and El Presidio being paved. The Presidio was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1962. The Officers’ Club was expanded and renovated in 1972. The Bowling Center was built in 1989. Herbst International Exhibition Hall  and the Main Post Gym (today’s YMCA) were also built in this era.
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 Main Post Audio Tour

Narrow image of red brick Montgomery Street barracks with the Golden Gate bridge behindExperience the Main Post via an audio walking tour that reveals the history and evolution of the “heart of the Presidio.” Explore 18 special destinations using a cell phone or MP3 player.

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