'S' Mint Memories, Part Two

Posted on 5/14/2009

This month, David W. Lange continues his recollection of the San Francisco Mint, this time in honor of the Old San Francisco Mint Museum.

Last month I wrote about the role played by San Francisco Mint coins in my collecting experience. This culminated about 20 years ago in my goal to own every affordable 'S' mint coin from 1854 to date in Extremely Fine or better condition. When I began to do the math, however, I realized that there were simply too many expensive gold issues to make the project a realistic one for me. There would have to be some downscaling of my ambition. I had been collecting Seated Liberty half dollars for about 10 years, and it occurred to me that this collection could be the basis for a set of all the 'S' Mint halves 1855 to date. I already owned the key 1855-S and 1878-S issues, and all the remaining pieces would cost me less than these had. In a few years time, I did complete this collection, and it brought back memories of the Old San Francisco Mint Museum which, sadly, closed its doors around the same time.

One of the more compelling exhibits at the OSFMM when it opened in 1973 was Herb Bergen's collection of San Francisco Mint coins 1854 to date. Though these coins were sold at auction in 1979, they remained on display long enough to dazzle my imagination and make me want to emulate his achievement. As related above, this never came to pass, but the story shows how much this wonderful old building and its museum meant to me as a child and later as an adult. As this is written, a new museum is being planned for the 1874-vintage structure, though I suspect that numismatics will be represented by a relatively small display. The earlier museum never enjoyed very good attendance, and this lesson has not been lost on the current project managers.

The Old San Francisco Mint looked quite sad in my earliest recollections from the mid-1960s. Though still occupied by miscellaneous departments until 1968, it had not been a functioning mint since 1937. Over the years the structure was not well maintained, and its exterior had become an eyesore. The roofline's cornice was crudely hacked away when the government deemed it more cost effective to scar the building than to properly reinforce this important decorative element. The neighborhood was then quite run-down, with homeless people using the structure's impressive portico as a flophouse. There was a strong campaign by San Francisco State University to demolish the historic building and use its site for a downtown campus.

Coincidentally, the Old Mint was just around the corner from The Emporium. Last month I related how some of my earliest coin purchases were made within the latter's coin and stamp department, and these Saturday morning visits always provided an opportunity to gaze in wonder at the magnificent, shabby old building where my favorite coins had been struck.

Though I didn't know it at the time, the campaign to restore the mint building and rededicate it as a numismatic and regional history museum was largely the work of the California State Numismatic Association. Some 20 years later, as president of the CSNA, I would oversee its efforts to prevent closure of the Old Mint Museum that had been established amid such celebration in 1973. But, while it lasted, this attraction was a wonderful haven for me and many other numismatists. Less well known to tourists, most were deterred by its shabby environs, which only in recent years have become nicely redeveloped.

Working downtown in my previous career, I frequently walked to the Old SF Mint Museum at lunchtime to make my regular purchases of new proof sets, mint medals and other items that most collectors had to order by mail. It was great to look through a selection of sets and cherry-pick the nicest ones for my collection. Though the displays gradually diminished over the years, the fabulous Bergen and Kagin collections being removed at different times, this was still a place of wonder. Just to walk through its vast rooms with their high ceilings and beautiful plasterwork could transport me back in time to the Gilded Age.

During the 1980s and early '90s the Old Mint became a favorite research facility for me. As I began to write articles and then books, its vast collection of books, catalogs and unpublished documents were a real treasure trove. Especially prized by me was its collection of the annual mint director's reports complete from 1873 to date. Though at first my visits were supervised, I soon got to know the staff well enough that they more or less gave me the run of the place. While the individual pieces of this library still exist, they are no longer easily accessible to researchers, and this was just one of the many losses suffered when the Treasury Department closed the OSFMM in 1994, citing a supposed earthquake hazard.

The shock of that action (the first closing occurred at the end of 1993, followed by a few months reprieve) drove many individuals into action. As president of the CSNA, I found myself somewhat reluctantly involved in political and financial matters that had nothing to do with numismatics. The first movement to re-open the Old Mint and see to its seismic upgrading was a committee formed by concerned SF politicians, historians and developers. I served with MINT (Maintain and Improve a Numismatic Treasure) until my hiring by NGC prompted a move to New Jersey in the fall. Don Kagin took over as the numismatic community's representative thereafter, and he has stayed active in promoting this cause ever since.

David W. Lange's column, "USA Coin Album," appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.