Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Golden Gate Vertigo

No matter how much ground I try to cover, there always seems to be more to explore in San Francisco's Presidio. People often think of Golden Gate Park as San Francisco's largest park, and it is definitely large, just slightly besting New York's Central Park in terms of overall area (and number of bison). The Presidio is larger still and, while not a park in the traditional sense, it has miles of hiking trails, historical buildings to explore, a log cabin, a pet cemetery, George Lucas, and some of the most famous and breathtaking views in the state.

The Golden Gate Bridge from Battery East

I had set out to explore unfamiliar parts of the Presidio, but I got drawn in by a glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge emerging from the fog and had to stop at Battery East to take some photos. I don't think it's possible to tire of the sight of the Golden Gate Bridge, and I doubt I'm alone in thinking that the fog only increases its beauty. Walking out along the ridgeline to get a view, I found that I was directly above Fort Point, one of my very favorite places in the Presidio, so I threw novelty out the window and opted for a long-overdue return visit to one of my all-time favorite places.

The approach to Fort Point

Fort Point sits directly on the south side of the Golden Gate overlooking narrow strait from the Pacific Ocean into San Francisco Bay. [Total nerdy factoid: Did you know that the Golden Gate refers to the land on either side of the strait, not the strait itself? Impress your friends.]

After the 1849 gold rush made San Francisco populous and wealthy, Fort Point was built by the US Army in the 1850s as a key point of defense along the Pacific coast for an invader that never materialized. In some ways, the Gate was an unfortunate choice of location, as it meant the soldiers manning the fort were constantly buffeted by harsh cold winds, and also it turned out to be the logical place to build a bridge to cross the strait some years later. The fort was thankfully spared during the building of the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1930s by the foresight of the bridge engineer Joseph Strauss who admired the building and altered the bridge design to accommodate it, despite the fact that Fort Point was not declared an official National Historic Site until 1970.

Even if you haven't visited Fort Point before, you might recall it as a setting for a famous scene in Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller Vertigo. Jimmy Stewart, tailing Kim Novak around San Francisco, follows her to Fort Point and sees her try to commit suicide by throwing herself into the water, and he rushes in to save her.

The Jimmy rescue, heels and all

It looks just about the same today

A lot of visitors, locals and tourists alike, will come to Fort Point for the views of the bridge and Alcatraz, to watch waves crash over the road during storm swells, or to say "Ooh, this is where that scene in Vertigo took place," but then dismiss the fort itself, which is a big mistake. There's really no downside: entry is free; it's much prettier and atmospheric inside than you would perhaps imagine from outside; and unlike many historic buildings, you can go nearly anywhere you want in Fort Point unguided, including four stories up to the open roof with incomparable views. If you go early in the day, especially on week days, you can have the place almost entirely to yourself.

Eastern hallway in morning light

Fort Point in the morning—no crowds

From the roof the bridge seems almost close enough to touch

Hitchcock did what many tourists do: treat Fort Point as a mere backdrop. If he had wanted to, Hitchcock could have taken advantage of some the vertigo inducing aspects of Fort Point itself - the steep castle-like spiral staircases and ladder-like ones from the inner courtyard, views over the ramparts to crashing waves, a lighthouse precariously perched on the roof - all with good movie potential.

The combination of the fort's history and architecture, the dramatic setting, and the bizarre juxtaposition of the towering bridge and the Gold Rush era fort make Fort Point a truly unique landmark and one of my favorite spots in San Francisco. If you go, go early to avoid crowds and slow traffic that crawls through the small Presidio roads on busy days. If you don't mind a walk (and a lot of stairs) and want a few more views of the bridge, park at Battery East and walk down the trail to Torpedo Wharf and west along the bay to Fort Point (~10 minutes). And if you decide to jump in the water with your heels on, make sure Jimmy Stewart is nearby.

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