For $200 Million, You Can Change the World at the Presidio's Fort Scott

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Fort Winfield Scott was an active army base within the Presidio of San Francisco from 1912-1994. Now, the Presidio Trust is hoping to find a high-rolling do-gooder to renovate it as a "campus for change." (Ryan Levi/KQED)

Fort Winfield Scott overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge, nestled into the northwest corner of the Presidio in San Francisco.

Better known as Fort Scott, its 10 Mission Revival-style barracks surround a large, grassy parade ground in a horseshoe pattern. It was an active Army base until 1994, but the barracks and other historic buildings on site have been mostly unused and closed to the public since then due to the high cost of renovations.

Jean Fraser is the CEO of the Presidio Trust, which is looking for someone to renovate Fort Winfield Scott.
Jean Fraser is the CEO of the Presidio Trust, which is looking for someone to renovate Fort Winfield Scott. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

Now, the Presidio Trust, the organization that runs the national park, is looking for someone to come in and turn the 30-acre plot into "a place for change," says Trust CEO Jean Fraser.

"What we need to find is an organization that has the interest as well as the financial means to take on this project and renovate these buildings so that people who are working in the environmental or social justice areas would have a place to do great work in this magnificent setting," Fraser says.

And she is talking about some serious financial means. The Trust estimates it will cost around $200 million to renovate Fort Scott and its more than 20 historic buildings.

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Fraser knows not many environmental and social justice non-profits have that kind of money lying around, so the Trust is looking for foundations, individual philanthropists or a group of organizations who might have greater liquidity.

So what would a rich do-gooder be getting for their $200 million?

Fort Scott, which opened in 1912 to help defend the waters off of San Francisco, has seen its share of history.

The stockade at Fort Winfield Scott was the scene of a mutiny in 1968 after one of several soldiers who refused to fight in the war was shot by a guard. The Presidio has since lost the keys to the cells.
The stockade at Fort Winfield Scott was the scene of a mutiny in 1968 after one of several soldiers who refused to fight in the war was shot by a guard. The Presidio has since lost the keys to the cells. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

In 1968, the fort's stockade housed a group of soldiers who refused to fight in the Vietnam War. One of the soldiers tried to flee during a work detail and was shot by a guard, sparking a mutiny.

In the attic of one of the red-roofed barracks, hand-painted murals cover the walls. They were painted by Specialist 3rd Class Perren Gerber between 1956 and 1957, while he was stationed at Fort Scott.

Perren had been an artist before being drafted and convinced his commanding officers to let him and a few others paint murals on the walls of what was then being used as a classroom.

Specialist 3rd Class Perren Gerber and at least three other enlisted men painted a series of murals depicting civilian and Army life between 1956 and 1957 while stationed at Fort Scott.
Specialist 3rd Class Perren Gerber and at least three other enlisted men painted a series of murals depicting civilian and Army life between 1956 and 1957 while stationed at Fort Scott. (Ryan Levi/KQED)
Some of Gerber's murals, like this one, showed vivid scenes of military combat, while others showed more relaxing aspects of military life.
Some of Gerber's murals, like this one, showed vivid scenes of military combat, while others showed more relaxing aspects of military life. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

"When the Army left, those murals were essentially locked away in the attic and have been preserved somewhat as a time capsule to that period," says Rob Thompson, the Presidio's federal preservation officer.

Gerber and his collaborators painted colorful depictions of different aspects of Army life ranging from vivid combat scenes to soldiers preparing meals or playing baseball and basketball.

In the attic's other room, Gerber painted black and white scenes of civilian life, including religious life, family life and musical performances.

Gerber's black and white scenes of civilian life included images of family life, like this one.
Gerber's black and white scenes of civilian life included images of family life, like this one. (Ryan Levi/KQED)

The paintings are in clear need of restoration, and that will be just part of $200 million it will cost to reinvigorate Fort Scott.

Groups have until June 29 to submit their proposals for consideration by the Presidio Trust's board, and Fraser says if they don't get a proposal that works for them, they're comfortable waiting and reopening the process at a later date.

But Fraser is optimistic.

"There's really no place like Fort Scott in the country," she says. "You have both these beautiful buildings in a quiet somewhat secluded place, but we're in the middle of Silicon Valley and minutes away from downtown San Francisco. It's really a unique setting where you have the ability to contemplate and be reflective while also having access to some of the best minds in the world."

The Presidio is holding a public tour of Fort Scott on Saturday, April 28, where anyone -- even if you don't have $200 million -- can experience the fort's little-seen history.