$7-Million Renovation : Cultural Center Calls Fort Home

United Press International

Ft. Mason, a major embarkation port for troops going to the Pacific in World War II, is engaged in a $7-million campaign to upgrade its peacetime status as the flagship of San Francisco’s thriving cultural community.

In waterfront buildings that once served as Army barracks, there now hang the shingles of 52 diverse nonprofit groups that offer 15,000 activities this year, ranging from plays and poetry readings to martial arts classes and legal aid workshops.

An avant-garde sculpture by the late Benjamin Bufano looks protectively over a free parking lot and the rows of piers and buildings that some San Franciscans affectionately dub “Ft. Culture.”

Since being turned over to the National Park Service for use as a cultural center that opened to the public in 1977, the number of visitors to the 13-acre site near Fisherman’s Wharf has grown from fewer than 100,000 to 1.7 million. They are drawn by fairs, festivals and exhibits and by resident organizations such as California Tomorrow, Bay Area Lawyers for the Arts, Media Alliance, Friends of the River, Artists in Print, Western Public Radio, Greenpeace, Children’s Art Center, Oceanic Society and the Magic Theater.


Marc Kasky, director of the Ft. Mason Foundation which manages the center, said $2.4 million has already been donated in a two-year fund-raising drive chaired by Mayor Dianne Feinstein. The initial funds will be used to start the first four of 10 projects involving the interior renovation of buildings and piers.

Kasky said Ft. Mason is a national model on how unused or decommissioned military bases can be retrofitted for peacetime cultural activities to benefit an entire community.

The Ft. Mason Foundation operates the center on a $1-million annual budget and is entirely self-sufficient, getting its money from the rents and by hosting such annual events as the San Francisco Fair and the city’s Blues Festival.

The $7-million fund-raising drive, Kasky said, will be the first and last of its kind and is needed because many of the aged buildings and piers are simply wearing out. The renovation will give Ft. Mason a new 400-seat theater, a modern music hall, increased exhibition space, a media center, a maritime education building, a fine arts studio and creative landscaping.

The Magic Theater, which has premiered experimental works by such resident playwrights as Sam Shepherd, Joseph Chaikin and Michael McClure, will gain restrooms, an elevator and a little more space from the renovation funds.

Currently operating with two 130-seat theaters, the Magic Theater became one of Ft. Mason’s first tenants in 1977 and found the ambiance of the former military post “very much in keeping with the kind of work we do,” said General Manager Marsha O’Dea.

“What makes it fun is being here by the waterfront,” said O’Dea. “The experimental nature of the theater and the experimental nature of Ft. Mason is part of the reason for our success.”

She said 45,000 people a year attend Magic’s productions, some season subscribers coming from as far away as Los Angeles and New York. Fall productions now in rehearsal include Wallace Shawn’s “Aunt Dan and Lemon,” “Visions of Beckett,” and “The Beard,” by McClure.


Kasky said representatives of dozens of cities in the United States, Europe, Asia and Latin America have visited Ft. Mason in recent years to look at what has become a national model for the community use of surplus military land. Projects that may use a similar approach include an empty Navy pier in Chicago, a Sydney Harbor military base in Australia, and unused Army property in downtown Los Angeles.

500 Organizations Helped

“One of the true accomplishments is that the place works,” said Kasky. “We’re operating in the black and helping 500 organizations a year.”

The location of Ft. Mason is a big factor in its success as a cultural center, said Kasky. He said it is also important to have a self-sufficient and independent nonprofit foundation in charge of the facility. “We treat all the groups equally. Fairness is important.”


David de la Torre, director of the Mexican Museum, said the rapid growth of the museum took place after it moved to Ft. Mason three years ago. It can now stage major shows in a well-lighted gallery with 14-foot ceilings and has secure storage for a huge permanent collection of art objects.

“Ft. Mason has worked for us,” said De la Torre. “It’s really a national model for the re-use of excess government property. And, the location has broadened our focus to include an audience outside the Hispanic community.”

One of the latest additions to the cultural center, the Museum Italo-Americano, chose the location because of the potential for visibility, said President Modesto Lanzone, who owns a restaurant bearing his name on Ghirardelli Square.

“Museums are not just places to hang art, they are much more, and to be connected to everything that’s happening at Ft. Mason is helpful to our growth.”