The main facade of the Old Mint building, San Francisco. (HABS/HAER, Library of Congress)
Click to enlarge image of the Old Mint building, San Francisco.
�No ornamentation has been attempted, but dependence placed on the magnitude and proportion of the building for its architectural effect. No pains have been spared to make it, when complete, not only the finest and best constructed building on the Pacific coast, but the best arranged mint in the world.�
�Alfred B. Mullett, Supervising Architect
SAN FRANCISCO'S OLD MINT
Originally constructed on the edge of the city�s downtown in a predominantly residential and commercial area. The desire for the building to be unencumbered by adjoining structures was a central part of Supervising Architect Alfred B. Mullett�s architectural philosophy. A fire at the Custom House in Portland, Maine, taught him the importance of keeping public buildings free-standing, �isolated by wide streets or open spaces.�
While the neighborhood around the Old Mint has changed dramatically�from low density dwellings and shops to high density office buildings and condominiums�the building has retained its prominence in the urban fabric. The Mint�s colorful history attests to its importance not only on architectural merits, but also as an icon of endurance for the city.
Click to enlarge the image of the interior of the Old Mint building, San Francisco. (HABS/HAER, Library of Congress)
Designs for the Old Mint were completed by Mullett and his staff in 1868. A site was purchased for $100,000 from the state of California. In his annual report of 1868, Mullett estimated the constructions costs would run $939,289.90. In 1875, Mullett�s successor, William A. Potter, wrote that the costs at completion�including construction, furnishing, and machinery�amounted to $2,201,198.32.
Mullett�s own conclusion about the building was straightforward: �The work on the building has been done in a substantial manner, and is undoubtedly a cheap as well as a permanent structure.� All along, the theme of permanency and strength had been foremost.
For Mullett, a public building such as a branch Mint was to be �convenient, durable, and creditable to the government.� He felt it should celebrate the strength and endurance of the institution it housed by presenting a public face of stability and grandeur. Inside the Mint, careful ornamentation and detailing provided major rooms with dignified settings for work. (Photograph is from the Public Room of the Old Mint, Curator's Office).
Click to enlarge the image of the Treasury Building, Washington, D.C. (HABS/HAER, Library of Congress)
Treasury Building: The Old Mint is designed in an architectural vocabulary known as Greek Revival. Much like our own Treasury Building, the Mint is dominated by a large entrance portico that spans the entire height of the building, and is capped by a pediment. The corners of the Mint are emphasized by stepping forward, and these �pavilions� are treated with pilasters, or flattened columns on the wall. The center, then, is clearly the most important feature, as is always the case with Greek Revival architecture. The Greek Revival, as its name implies, takes the architecture of Ancient Greece as the supreme model. This emulation was seen as especially fit for federal buildings, which proclaim the stability and strength of national institutions. In San Francisco the choice of this architectural idiom seemed especially appropriate for a major institutional building following the city�s 1868 earthquake, when the continuity and durability of the city�s institutions needed tangible proof.
Old San Francisco Custom House: Built in 1855, architect Gridley Bryant�s Custom House is often cited as the first major federal building on the Pacific coast. The building clearly demonstrates the same features of the Greek Revival that influenced Mullett�s Mint design and Robert Mill�s Treasury. In an obvious way, Mullet�s Mint is simply an expansion of the Custom House by the addition of the corner pavilions and two more columns on the portico. In addition, the Mint follows the Custom House�s distribution in two floors above a basement level. The Mint, however, adds a grand entrance stair to sweep the visitor above the basement level in a dramatic and appropriate gesture of the building�s public nature.
MULLETT'S GOVERNMENT ARCHITECTURE
Old St. Louis Post Office and Former State , Navy, and War Building: While Greek Revival architecture seemed appropriate for the Mint, many of Mullett�s other buildings were formed by a style known as Second Empire. The two examples shown here demonstrate the most salient characteristics of this architecture: mansard roofs, strict symmetry and repetition of windows, and a �crowded� effect due to the great extent of exterior ornamental features which are set close to each other both vertically and horizontally, and which are derived from French classicism. Because they originally combined industrial and ceremonial/public spaces�the latter generally much more elaborate and finely decorated than the former�the integration of both types of rooms with new uses poses a challenge to reuse.
The photograph of the former State, War and Navy Building, Washington, D.C. (HABS/HAER, Library of Congress)