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A Guide to S.F.'s Offbeat Museums

March 27, 1988|STAN OLD | Old is a Hayward, Calif., free-lance writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Most visitors know about San Francisco's major museums, the ones in Golden Gate Park, the Presidio and along San Francisco's North Shore, from Fisherman's Wharf to Ft. Mason. They all show insights into the city's history.

Events at these museums are noted in the newspapers and at the San Francisco Visitors Information Center in Hallidie Plaza at Powell and Market streets.

But there are more than a dozen excellent smaller, offbeat museums throughout the city that focus on a variety of subjects. The following guide is organized by area.

Financial District: Various businesses support these overlooked gems, most of which are open during normal business hours, and with no admission charge.

Pacific Heritage Museum--The modern building of sponsor Bank of Canton engulfs the brick-and-iron facade of San Francisco's first U.S. Branch Mint. The Subtreasury was here from 1854 to 1874 when operations were moved to the "Old Mint" on 5th Street.

The museum displays artifacts from the Gold Rush era and changing exhibits for its Life in Gold Mountain theme showing the history of Chinese immigrants to California. A cutaway in the floor shows the vault area where gold bullion was stored. The museum is on Commercial Street just west of Montgomery Street, open Monday through Thursday, 1 to 4 p.m.; closed holidays.

Public Viewing Area

A short block north stands the Transamerica Pyramid. It's public viewing area on the 27th floor has a smashing view of the north waterfront, the bay and counties beyond.

Bank of America--The museum is in the plaza level of the bank office at California and Montgomery streets. It displays photos and equipment of early banking associated with the bank's founder, A. P. Giannini.

A visual history traces the bank from its origin as a storefront service for Italian settlers through its leadership in rebuilding San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and in developing California industries.

Next door, accessible from the plaza, is the 52-story tower built by Bank of America. The Carnelian Room at the top opens to the public at 3 p.m. weekdays for cocktails and dinner. The views west, east and north are sensational, particularly when the fog comes rolling over the hills or through the Golden Gate.

Trading Hall--The great hall is now part of the main branch of First Interstate Bank in the Merchants Exchange Building, 465 California St.

The Trading Hall was the center for grain and maritime trading at the turn of the century. It was restored to grandeur by Julia Morgan, who was Hearst's architect for the construction of his castle in San Simeon.

Walls Hold Murals

The lofty ceiling is done in gilt-covered carvings and the walls hold 18-foot-high murals of old-time sailing ships by marine artist William Coulter. The lobby entrance to the hall displays eight elegantly detailed models of sailing ships.

The Museum of Money of the West, lower level of the Bank of California at California and Montgomery streets. The bank traces its lineage to July 5, 1864 at this site, and its handsome building dates from 1907.

The museum holds a $1-million collection of gold quartz, silver and gold ingots and old currency. The lives--and sometimes the violent deaths--of pioneer bankers are recalled along with their contributions to the city's growth.

Nearby is the popular History Room of Wells Fargo Bank, 420 Montgomery St., with its collection of weapons, a Concord stagecoach and paraphernalia from the time when Wells Fargo moved the gold of the West. You can try your skill on a vintage telegraph key.

The Joseph Dee Museum of Photography, a private collection, has grown to more than 500 cameras displayed on a rotating basis.

Camera Collection

The cameras range from the 1891 Kodak box, the early folding Brownie and the classic Graflex press camera to the Oberland Magic Lantern and more modern cameras, covering the history of photography from its start in 1839.

The wall space of the museum is used as a gallery of modern and historical photographs, including reproductions of Mathew Brady's 1860s work.

Questions are welcomed and a reading library is available, covering technical and historical aspects of photography. At 47 Kearny St. in the Brooks Cameras store, the museum is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; closed holidays.

The Jewish Community Museum--Established three years ago to present an artistic interpretation of Jewish culture and tradition, this one combines a gallery to showcase Jewish painters of the Bay Area and an exhibit area for Jewish cultural themes that are changed to match the season.

The museum is at 121 Steuart St. near the foot of Market Street, open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., except Saturdays and Jewish holidays. Donation.

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