Second San Francisco Mint
“The Old Mint” or “The Granite Lady”
88 Fifth Street, San Francisco
Architect: Alfred B. Mullett
National Register ID #: 66000231
A California Mint
On July 8, 1852, President Millard Fillmore signed an act authorizing a branch mint in California. Within a short time, Treasury Secretary Thomas Corwin chose San Francisco as the site.
The Treasury Department signed a contract with Joseph R. Curtis in April 1853 to construct the mint by February 1, 1854. Mint Director James Ross Snowden, who had taken office in 1853, was in charge of putting the mint into operation. However, slow communication plus the problems of acquiring suitable building materials prevented speedy completion. A building on Commercial Street owned by Moffett & Company was acquired in the interim and modified, probably at a cost of at least $93,000.
Birth of the Granite Lady
By 1869, Congress had appropriated $300,000 to acquire a new site at Fifth and Mission Streets and construct a building. Plans were drawn under the supervision of Alfred B. Mullet, Supervising Architect of the Treasury Department from 1866 to 1874. Mullett's design was Classical Greek Revival, Doric columns and Roman scale and proportions. Sandstone from Newcastle Island in British Columbia was shipped in by three schooners for the facing of the upper floors and for the six colossal columns on the portico. The basement walls were of granite from the Griffith Quarry in Penryn, Placer County, California. On May 26, 1870, the cornerstone of the Mint was laid. The building opened on a rainy Saturday, November 5, 1874.
The Architect: Alfred Bult Mullett (1834-1890)
Alfred B. Mullett was born in England in 1834. His family immigrated to Glendale, Ohio in 1845. A couple of years later he began work in the Cincinnati office of architect Isaiah Rogers. Mullett later moved to Washington, D.C. and in 1863 began work for the Treasury Department. He rose to be Supervising Architect in 1866 and for eight years oversaw the design and construction of over forty federal buildings across America. Many are still standing, including the Mint in Carson City, NV, the Mint in San Francisco, CA, and the State, War and Navy Building (now the Old Executive Office Building) in Washington, D.C.
Granite Lady Saved
Mullett knew well that the Pacific Coast was subject to earthquakes, and with remarkable foresight he designed the Old Mint to “float” on its foundations in an earthquake, rather than shatter. His vision was validated when the mint rode out the severe earthquake of Wednesday, April 18, 1906, practically undamaged. Heroic efforts by Treasury Department employees, using only a one-inch hose connected to wells that had fortunately been built just weeks earlier, saved the mint, and $200 million in gold in its vaults, from the fire that destroyed commercial San Francisco after the earthquake. With the downtown area and its banks destroyed, the San Francisco Mint was the only financial institution able to open for business in San Francisco and it became the depository and treasury for the city's relief fund.
By 1934, one third of the United States' gold reserve was stored in the vaults of the San Francisco Mint.
Preserving the Old Mint
After minting operations were transferred to the new San Francisco Mint on Duboce Avenue in 1937, the Treasury Department and other government agencies occupied the building. In 1961 the “Old Mint,” as it became known locally, was designated a National Historic Landmark.
By the spring of 1969, the Old Mint was declared a government surplus building and San Francisco State College asked to be given the building so that it could use the property for a new campus. However, on January 22, 1970 a Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) Commission recommended preserving the Old Mint for court offices and a museum.
Following restoration work in 1972, the Old Mint Museum opened in the eastern half of the building, while Treasury Department offices continued to occupy the rest. In 1988, the Old Mint was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The Treasury Department planned to close the building permanently in 1994 due to its operating as a museum at a deficit and the need to make seismic upgrades and security improvements, but Senators Boxer and Feinstein arranged a reprieve and it continued as a museum until December 30, 1995. The building then became property of the General Services Administration.
New Life for the Granite Lady
On August 1, 2001, Mayor Willie Brown established the San Francisco Old Mint Task Force to address the rehabilitation and reuse of the building. The Task Force proposed to gather public input and opinion from the diverse communities of the City and to advise the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors regarding rehabilitation and reuse of the Old Mint.
In January 2003, The San Francisco Museum and Historical Society's plan to renovate the building and establish a permanent home for the San Francisco Museum won unanimous support from the Mayor's Old Mint Task Force. On January 29th the Old Mint Task Force unanimously recommended that the City enter into exclusive negotiations with the Society for a 66-year lease. In June, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to allow the city to take possession of the vacant property from the federal government and to enter into exclusive negotiations with the Society to turn the building into a city museum.
On January 15, 2003, U.S. Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer introduced federal legislation to authorize a commemorative coin honoring the San Francisco Old Mint, and to help raise money required for the new restoration project.
On August 5, 2003, the U.S. General Services Administration turned over the key to the Old Mint to City of San Francisco. Mayor Willie Brown bought the national landmark with a borrowed silver dollar that was minted in the Granite Lady 124 years earlier.