When gold was discovered in 1848 atSutters Millin Coloma, California, the great gold rush began, and with it, a need for financial institutions. A mint was necessary to convert the miners gold into coins. Without a mint in California, all gold was shipped to Philadelphia for coining, a dangerous and expensive effort. On July 8, 1852, President Millard Fillmore signed an act authorizing the building of a mint in the state of California. The California legislature approved a resolution on April 9, 1852, that this new institution, The Federal Mint, be placed in San Francisco.
On February 5, 1867, the lot at the corner of Mission and Fifth streets was purchased for $100,000. An additional $300,000 was allotted for the building, but the actual final cost of the building was $2.1 million.
Supervising architect of the Treasury Department,Alfred B. Mullett, designed the building in the Greek Revival Style-often used for federal buildings. Greek Revival structures are characterized by architectural elements reminiscent of classic Greek temples.
The foundation of the Mint consists of four-foot thick granite blocks from theGriffith Quarryin Penryn, California. The granite is interlaced with 2-inch iron bars. This not only gives the mint a sound footing for earthquakes but also deters any would-be tunnel-digging thieves. (The cornerstone of the building is still a mystery. Reportedly laid during a Masonic ceremony and filled with gold coins struck at the Mint, neither the stone nor the coins have ever been found.)
When entering the building you walk through six sandstone hexastyle Doric columns holding up a simplified entablature with an undecorated pediment and a frieze with triglyphs: all elements that typify the Greek Revival Style.
The vaults are on the ground floor. They line both sides of a central corridor and were used to store coins made of gold and silver. In the late nineteenth century, paper currency was a rarity this far west.
The main floor holds the only room the public was allowed to enter. This was the Public Office of the Mint. Here business was transacted under the watchful eye of guards patrolling above on a highly ornamented catwalk. This floor also housed the Gold Ingot Room, the Gold Vault and the Stamping Room (where the coins were made).
The San Francisco Mint held a highly esteemed place in the United States Treasury. In 1877 alone, the San Francisco Mint produced $50 million worth of coins. During the 1930s, more than one million came through the receiving rooms, and in 1934 one third of the entire countrys gold was housed in the San Francisco Mint.
The Mint underwent a small restoration in 1972, and the Treasury kept a small office there. In 1998, the Mint was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1994, the U.S. Treasury closed the building for seismic and security reasons. The Granite Lady sat empty, her sandstone slowly eroding.
In 2003, the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society was granted a 66-year lease and began a drive to restore the Granite Lady. It is estimated that the renovation will take $90 million. Phase I, at a cost of $13 million has been completed, and funds are being raised for Phase II. At the end of Phase II, the building will be partially open to the public.