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Crowds Celebrate Transfer of Presidio to Public's Hands

October 03, 1994|RICHARD LEE COLVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In military-speak, a force of "civilian personnel" numbering in the tens of thousands "invaded" the U.S. Army's venerable Presidio over the weekend, marking the moment when the seaside promontory that is the nation's oldest military base fell into the hands of the public.

After four years of planning and discussions, the Army retreated to occupy about a third of the sprawling, largely forested facility at the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge on Friday. The site has been a military installation since Spanish soldiers founded it in 1776, and the Presidio had been in continuous use longer than any other in this country.

Celebrating the change in stewardship, bike riders, joggers and sightseers visited the park over the weekend, warmed by midday sunny skies. About 20,000 people stopped off at the park's military and civilian visitor facilities, which include a museum, Civil War-era fort and park headquarters, spokeswoman Mallory Smith said.

The park's new visitor center "was mobbed . . . all day long" both days, she said.

The Army will continue to occupy about a third of the 1,480-acre site, paying rent to the National Park Service for at least five years.

The impact of the change in ownership on the public will be subtle, at least at first. The public had always been allowed to visit much of the Presidio, which is unusual for military bases. Acreage includes beaches, hiking and biking trails, a war memorial and a dense forest of 400,000 pine, cypress and eucalyptus trees dating to the 1880s.

Now, however, the Park Service has installed signs explaining points of historical interest in the park, and soon rangers and docents will offer guided tours and walks. Smith said that already, 250 rangers and volunteers were kept busy by the curious throughout the weekend.

Although the facility is now one of the nation's largest urban parks, its new stewards want to preserve its military history. As an example, Smith said, the park service will continue the traditional practice of firing a cannon in the Presidio's Pershing Square at 5 p.m. each day.

The Presidio is one of 80 bases being converted to other uses by the Pentagon to save money.

Friday's ceremony to mark the hand-over was solemn, and some officers and enlisted personnel were moved to tears, said Sgt. Donald Banks, a spokesman for the 6th U.S. Army.

The weekend's large number of visitors to the park seemed "like an invasion from all directions," he said Sunday, and was "somewhat awkward to many of the military who still live on the Presidio."

About 380 6th Army uniformed personnel will continue to live and work on the base, occupying more than half of the Presidio's buildings.

But, Banks said, "the change has come" and "this has gone from a place where many people trained for war to a place where people are training their eyes for beauty."

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