With the discovery of gold in California in the late 1840s, a huge amount of newly-produced gold was converted into coinage. However, with no US Mint facility west of the Mississippi, and no transcontinental railroad links yet constructed, the process of transporting all of this gold across the country was highly inefficient. In lieu of adequate circulating coinage, the boomtown of San Francisco used gold dust for commerce. Once California became a state in 1850, Congress was petitioned. In 1852, President Millard Fillmore approved a plan for a new mint facility in San Francisco, which opened in 1854. The new San Francisco Mint worked at full tilt, converting more than $4 million worth of gold into coin by the end of 1854 alone.
The humble brick facility that was initially constructed was replaced in 1874 with a much more impressive Greek Revival building. This structure, at Fifth and Mission Streets, is the most famous building in the history of the San Francisco Mint; many references to the San Francisco Mint in fact refer to this building in particular, rather than the institution. The building’s nickname, the “Granite Lady,” is somewhat inaccurate: most of the structure is in fact sandstone, while the foundation is made of granite and concrete.
The 1874 “Old Mint” building was one of the few in that part of the city to survive the Earthquake of 1906 and the resulting firestorm. The San Francisco Mint’s Superintendent, Frank A. Leach, was instrumental in saving the building from destruction. The morning of the earthquake, he crossed the bay into the city from his home in Oakland and persuaded his way past a line of soldiers with shoot-to-kill orders from the Mayor to discourage looting. Upon reaching the Mint, he found most of its employees already there. With fires advancing towards them, Leach and the Mint’s employees successfully utilized an artesian well in the Mint’s enclosed courtyard to run a bucket brigade. At the time, more than $300 million – a third of the nation’s gold reserves – was stored in the building’s vaults. After the earthquake, the San Francisco Mint played a significant role in reestablishing financial services to the devastated city.
The Old Mint was replaced by a new, more modern facility in 1937. The New Mint was designed in a late art deco style by Gilbert Stanley Underwood, who is best known for his National Park lodges. Production at this building ceased in 1955 but was resumed in the 1960s. Since then, the San Francisco facility has produced proof coinage consistently and circulation coinage intermittently. Silver Eagles were produced here in 2011 through mid-2014, when demand for these coins outstripped the production capabilities of the West Point Mint.
The San Francisco Mint has also specialized in the production of commemorative coinage since the establishment of the US Mint’s modern commemorative program in the 1980s. The Old Mint building itself was honored on two commemorative issues in 2006, the 100th anniversary of the earthquake: a $5 gold coin and a $1 silver coin.
The Old Mint building was sold to the City of San Francisco in 2003. It is largely vacant, but has been utilized as dramatic special event venue in recent years. In 2016, the California Historical Society received a $1 million grant to study the building in preparation for potential renovations.