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History

A self guided history tour is available with this PDF. Booklets are also available through the National Park Service (NPS) office in upper Fort Mason or the Fort Mason Center Main Office in Building A. A new NPS page about historic railroad tracks offers more information, too.

Fort Mason Center, a nonprofit partner of the NPS, connects and engages people with arts and culture on a historic waterfront campus, inspiring and fostering creativity by providing a vibrant gathering place and a home for thought-provoking programs, events, and organizations.


Fort Mason, originally named the “Post at Point San Jose”, was a fortified military base established by the Spanish in 1776 and claimed by the US Army upon California’s entry to the union in 1850. The site was re-activated in 1863 to defend against potential Confederate attack. Following the Civil War, the post became the headquarters of the US Army 9th Infantry Regiment, and served as the military headquarters for the US Army on the West Coast.


In response to the Great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, Congress appropriated funds to construct the Army Supply and Transportation Depot just 90 days after the disaster. Built on land reclaimed from a tidal cove at the northwestern base of Point San Jose, Fort Mason served as the port of embarkation for military supplies and personnel from 1909 to 1962.


The three piers and four multistory concrete warehouses which remain today were constructed from 1908 to 1912. Designed by the architectural firm of Rankin, Kellogg and Crane and built in the Mission Revival style, they set the standard for the majority of military construction found in the Presidio and numerous other installations of the era throughout Northern California.


The U.S. Army’s San Francisco Port of Embarkation played a critical role in the emergence of the United States as a world power. One of its first missions was delivering supplies and personnel to the western portion of the Panama Canal construction. During World War II, Fort Mason commanded a vast network of personnel and shipping facilities that existed throughout the Bay Area. More than 1.5 million troops and over 23.5 million tons of cargo shipped out to the Pacific from Fort Mason’s piers. In recognition of the importance of Fort Mason during this period, the port site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985.


The advent of air transportation in the post-war era made Fort Mason obsolete for military use. In the 1960s, the Department of Defense closed the port and eventually decommissioned all of Fort Mason.


The future of Fort Mason, and other former military sites, was the focus of lively debate at the local and national level. In the early 1970s, under the leadership of Congressman Phillip Burton to protect historic sites and make national parks more accessible, Congress established the first urban national park, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), which includes Fort Mason Center.

Fort Mason Center, a nonprofit organization, partnered with the GGNRA and opened in 1977. Numerous events of significance have occurred at the Center. The Dalai Lama visited soon after the Center opened. Sam Shepard and Michael McClure began their careers at the Magic Theatre. Danny Glover, Boz Scaggs, Marcel Marceau and Spalding Gray appeared at the Cowell Theater. The Zen Center opened Greens Restaurant, the first gourmet vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco. An exhibition from the People’s Republic of China premiered at Fort Mason Center, as did the HIV/AIDS Names Project Quilt. Fort Mason Center became a hub of activity for nonprofit resident/partners and thousands of organizations which use the Center every year.