Religious ceremony and the Presidio have gone hand in hand since Native Americans held this land sacred.
Two Catholic priests were among the small troop of Spanish explorers who came to the Bay Area from Phoenix in March 1776. They erected a cross and conducted religious ceremonies on the windswept Punta de Cantil Blanco - the point where the Golden Gate Bridge now meets land at Fort Point.
A tiny chapel was among the first buildings raised on the Presidio, where Mass was said. The official dedication of the Presidio as a Spanish fort on September 17, 1776, was primarily a religious ceremony.
The activities of the soldiers and the priests at the Presidio were closely intertwined in both the Spanish and the Mexican occupations. One of the first soldiers from the United States to occupy the Presidio was a chaplain, Thaddeus Leavenworth, in 1846. He later became mayor of San Francisco.
In 1864, the U.S. Army built a small wooden chapel near the site of the former Spanish/Mexican chapel. This interfaith chapel served the religious needs of the Presidio community through the turn of the century.
For years thereafter, post commanders urged the construction of a larger chapel. The Army Appropriations Acts of 1930-31 finally provided the $40,000 to build the Presidio's Main Chapel. The Army held regular services there until they vacated the building on September 30, 1995.
The Interfaith Center went in the next day with a Gathering of Blessings ceremony where representatives from numerous faith families commemorated the transition in Chapel stewardship from military to civilian hands. The following March, the Center was invited to occupy the building on a temporary basis and make it available to the public.
Three years later the tenancy went from temporary to long term. The Interfaith Center was awarded the right to negotiate a long-term lease for the care and custody of the Main Post Chapel. The lease is contingent on raising the funds for a renovation, bringing the building up to code, and making it accessible to all. Leading the renovation team is J. Gordon Turnbull, FAIA, of Page and Turnbull, one of the nation's most distinguished restoration architectural firms.
Built in the early 1930s, this cruciform-shaped sanctuary is a fine example of Spanish Colonial Revival style architecture, with features that embellished early mission churches. Stained glass windows depict virtues of military character, and a large wall mural by Victor Arnautoff (famed Coit Tower muralist) depicts the peacetime activities of the Army.The cruciform shaped two-story sanctuary, with attached three-story bell tower, measures roughly 57' x 84' in plan. It is reinforced concrete with a low gable, mission tile roof. The stucco-finished walls are heavily textured. The building is a fine example of Spanish Mission Revival, with the same baroque features that embellished the architecture of early mission churches.
The bell tower received a fine bronze bell in 1933. The same year, an arched stained glass window was installed over the entrance and dedicated to the 30th Infantry Regiment. It shows a Union and a World War I Soldier and contains dates significant to them.
There are eleven more arched stained glass windows in the sanctuary. They were designed by Willemina E. A. M. Ogterop and contributed by various veterans organizations. Their themes depict virtues typifying military character - Courage, Mercy, Martyrdom, Loyalty, Justice, Truth, Reverence, Honor, Sacrifice, Motherhood, and Daring. Courage was contributed by the American Legion; Loyalty was contributed by the Grand Army of the Republic; Justice was contributed by the Spanish American War Veterans; and Truth, Reverence, Honor, and Sacrifice, were presented by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The three chancel windows represent Hope, Love, and Faith.
Memorial plaques adorn the walls of the sanctuary, marking the passing of soldiers who served at the Presidio. A granite memorial to Army chaplains was erected in front of the Chapel in 1973. Two years later, a Memorial Garden was dedicated. In 1986, a memorial to Vietnam Veterans was dedicated adjacent to the garden.
A notable artistic feature of the Main Post Chapel is a large fresco painted in 1935 by Victor Arnautoff and his assistants. With St. Francis at its center, the mural depicts a historical pageant related to the founding of the Presidio and the peacetime activities of the Army. Recognized as a leading artist of the period, Arnautoff painted the murals at Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill and in Washington High School, and taught graphic arts at Stanford.
Victor Mikhail Arnautoff was born in the Ukraine in 1896. He served as Cavalry officer in Czar Nicholas II's army, received the Cross of the Order of St. George for valor, and escaped to Manchuria to avoid the Bolshevik Revolution.
Once in San Francisco, Arnautoff was appointed technical director of the Coit Tower fresco mural, a project of the Works Progress Administration, which was completed in late 1934. In December 1934, Arnautoff was appointed to do a fresco for the east wall of the Presidio Chapel under the State Emergency Relief Administration (SERA). A December 30 Examiner article reports:
“The design will measure approximately 13 feet by 34 feet,” Arnautoff informed me. “In the central panel (B), which will be devoted to religion, will be the figure of St. Francis surrounded by trees. On the left side (A) will be depicted the early history of California; on the right (C), the Army today occupied in the development of science, the radio, (D & E) Army engineers examining the project of the Golden Gate Bridge, and approving the construction."
Arnautoff is a product of the California School of Fine Arts. His foundation in fresco painting came from Ray Boynton. Then he went to Mexico where there are large spaces to paint, and studied with Diego Rivera. This was before Rivera left his footprints, metaphorically speaking, in San Francisco.
“When Rivera came to San Francisco,” Arnautoff added, “he left me in charge of the wall decoration in the National Palace. I also worked with him in the Palace of Cortez at Cuernavaca. With practical experience, under his guidance, I became familiar with the chemical composition of plaster and the principles of mural painting.”
(San Francisco Examiner, December 30, 1934)
The public and the press were delighted with the mural. A June 23, 1935, Examiner article reports, “Arnautoff has done admirable work. His design is sound both in detail and in the large. His decoration is bright, interesting, appropriate. The fresco is ideally located. It is easily visible from end to end. It looks over a vista of Presidio and bay. People will be visiting it for many a day.”
The mural was sponsored by the officers of the Thirtieth U.S. Infantry, according to the State Relief Administration Review of Activities 1933?35, where it is listed as Project Number 2-F3-100 - public works of art.
Historical figures are depicted in the mural. In the upper left we see Maria de la Concepcion Marcela Arguello, born in the Presidio in 1791 and betrothed at the age of 15 to Russian Chamberlain Nikolai Rezanov. Her father, Presidio Commandante Don Jose Arguello, stands behind them. Theirs is a story of romance and tragedy, as Nikolai died riding horseback across Siberia to obtain royal and ecclesiastical permission for their marriage. A locket he wore was eventually returned to Concepcion, proving he died loving her. She was the first native daughter to become a nun, entering the Dominican Order in 1851. She died in 1857 and was buried Christmas Eve at St. Catherine Convent in Benicia.
The right side of the mural shows some of the peacetime activities of the Army - developing radio communications, fighting forest fires, and through its Corps of Engineers, designing the locks at the Panama Canal. Planning the Golden Gate Bridge is depicted with the officer showing great disdain on his face. We see the bridge design calls for the removal of Ft. Point. The bridge was built five years later in 1938 with an arch over Ft. Point, saving the historic site for the enjoyment and education of many generations to come.
Twenty-five stained glass windows were created around shards of stained glass collected from the rubble of World War II by U.S. Army Chaplain Frederick Alexander McDonald in 1944-45. See the story and windows . . .
In everything at the Interfaith Center, the hope is that we respect each other and the Spirit so that the time and space we share is held safe and sacred. The words below suggest our intuitions about creating sacred space.
Space becomes sacred...
When it honors those who came before us and provides safe harbor today,
When it reminds us of larger realities and leads us to inner truths, When it cradles the musician's prayer and the poet's melody, lifting our hearts,
When being there proves healing, nourishing and satisfying. Sacred space for all peoples and faiths is secured...
When the door is open to all, in mutual respect and good will,
When every sacred symbol and spiritual story is welcomed,
When the truths that nurture us do not hinge on making others wrong,
When - bridging culture, race, and faith to be human with each other - We creatively appreciate life's blessings and
Work collaboratively to improve life for all.