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The Old Mint Building in San Francisco

by Larry See

City Guide Larry See recently joined the San Francisco Museum & Historical Society’s members-only tour of the Old Mint and shares this report:

Built in 1874, at one time the Old Mint held about one-third of all of the gold in the nation. It sits on bedrock just ten feet below the surface. The foundation is four feet thick, with two-inch reinforcing iron bars interlaced all though it. The walls are a combination of very thick sandstone on the outside with granite and brick in the interior. Huge heavy iron shutters protect the windows. The ceilings are approximately 20 feet high, with graceful brass lighting hung from the ceiling.

There was only one "slightly" successful known incident of theft, from a janitor who worked at the Old Sub-Mint on Commercial St. One of his duties was killing and disposing of rats, so he loaded the dead bodies of some of the rats with gold coin. He was caught!

The Old Mint’s ground level floor has a central hallway running the length of the building with beautiful continuous massive vaults on both sides. These vaults were used mostly for coin and gold/silver storage, as currency was rarely used west of the Mississippi. The colorful large stamping mill on this floor was not operational here, but was brought here when the building was a museum in the 1930s.

The upper floors include the Gold Vault, Gold Ingot Room, the Stamping Room (coin stamping), and, at the top of the stairs in the center of the building, the Pubic Office of The Mint, once the only place the public was allowed to enter. Miners, dentists, and business people entered here to drop off their gold or silver to have it assayed and weighed, and later picked up their equivalent coin/currency. This was all done under the watchful eye of armed guards looking down from a narrow catwalk, a la Alcatraz.

This same floor also contains what I call the "Mystery Room." No one knows what went on in this large room on the Jessie Street/Mint Alley side of the building beginning in the 1960s. We saw where all the interior columns were removed and replaced by immense steel I beams in the ceiling. All glass windows were completely frosted over. An electrical panel was installed in the wall that, according to our guides, is big enough for "two small towns." Theories abound, but the room was enlarged enough to fit an extremely large early mainframe computer. The Russian Embassy on Green Street and the Pac Bell building on New Montgomery were mentioned as possible "connections" – or maybe Howard Hughes and his ship the Glomar Explorer? All was very hush-hush. Two years ago when I went on a private tour of the Mint led by Charles Fracchia, we did not see the Mystery Room as it was sealed off at the time.

In the earthquake and fires of 1906, the Old Mint was spared through the heroic efforts of 50 Mint employees plus 10 men from the Army, all led by Superintendent Leach, with no help from the Fire Department. The glass windows got so hot they melted like butter, flames licked through window holes, and the sandstone exterior began to flake off with explosive noises like the firing of artillery. There was an artesian well directly under the inner court of the Mint providing it with its own independent water system. Just ten days before the earthquake, the roof water tanks and hydrants had been installed. This incredible luck, coupled with the hard-fought battles of the tight band of employees, saved the Mint, while all other building around them burned to the ground. The fact that there was very little flammable wood in the primarily stone and iron building was also an important factor in its survival.

The Old Mint, currently undergoing a complete facelift, is scheduled to reopen in 2012. The Mint Project, which has set a goal of a little over $90,000,000, now has about $30,000,000 "in the bank." The renovation of Mint Alley, the old Jessie Street, is now done. Both our US Senators, among others, are working very hard on this project. The Mint can now be rented out for events for $6,000 to $8,000 per event, with individual vaults potentially available for much less. When completed, the new Old Mint’s residents will include the San Francisco Visitors Center, eating establishment(s), and a coin shop.

Photos courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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Line of people wating to cash in at the Old Mint Building on its first day of operation in 1874. Larry See describes the history he learned about this building, including a visit to its “Mystery Room.”

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Reducing room in Old Mint building.

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