Lessons of the Mints

Bullion scales used in the New Orleans Mint
�The Mint will speak to future generations of our commitment to recognize our past as an important part of our own world. It is a significant legacy that we leave to those who will follow.�
��Preservation architects about the New Orleans Mint


The role of the Mint buildings has been seen as marginal in both the financial and architectural histories of the United States. As we have seen, however, the Mints at San Francisco, Carson City, Denver, and Philadelphia�all designed by the Supervising Architects Office (SAO)�and those at New Orleans, Charlotte, and Dahlonega, have played important roles in their community�s history and have been partly cause and partly consequence of the changing fortunes of the nation�s economy. A study of the Mints from an architectural history perspective should encourage greater understanding of the SAO�s role in American architecture. Only recently have efforts been made to place its work within the architectural-historical discourse, but the SAO still remains understudied.
Section drawing of the Carson City Mint
Transverse section of the Carson City Mint, cutting through the smokestack. (National Archives)


Foremost among the lessons for preservation that the Mints can teach us is the role of the building itself in defining a new function. The most successful examples of reuse, in terms of public appreciation, use the building as an �historic palimpsest��that is, where the accretions and changes over the building�s lifetime are visibly evident. New Orleans and Carson City have done this admirably. (However, some of the interior renovations at New Orleans, as shown below, are less than sympathetic to the existing structure because of the exposed ductwork running throughout gallery spaces). Nonetheless, when a building is converted to a museum and is used as a document to demonstrate its own history, the community gains an important resource for insight into its past.
San Francisco mint, 1927


Because the Mint buildings were built to house both office and manufacturing spaces, reuse challenges owners and designers to balance the expression of these functions with new demands. In fact, a central question preservationists face with the Mints is to what extent this dichotomy of original functions will be expressed and celebrated or suppressed and neglected. Where the Mints have been converted to museums, the challenge is resolved in favor of expression of this dichotomy, since a museum by its nature is capable of integrating the building�s past into its new function. It will be worth following the upcoming renovation at the San Francisco Mint to learn how that city deals with this question since the new use will most likely not be a museum. If the city chooses to disregard the dual functions of the original building it would still be possible achieve a vital reuse; but what a greater achievement it will be if traces of these original uses are physically present and accessible to the public.

Adjusting Room of the San Francisco mint 


Museum space in the former New Orleans Mint
Last Updated: 4/19/2011 1:28 PM