McDowell Hall is today (1981)the Officers' Open Mess or Officers' Club at Fort Mason serving the Military Traffic Management Command. But it is also well known as the historic Commanding General's residence, although its history has been clouded by oversimplification and misconception down through the years, the whole building often being said to have been built in the 1850s. Research by National Park Service historian Erwin Thompson has at last revealed its true history.
Although President Millard Fillmore had set aside land on November 6, 1850 for a military reservation at Punta de San Jose, which the Americans called Black Point, numerous squatters laid claim to the ground in the years that followed, and the small army garrison at the Presidio of San Francisco was unsuccessful in repeated efforts to drive them off.
It was not until 1863, when pressed by the threat of Confederate naval attack on San Francisco during the Civil War, that the army occupied this military reservation and constructed artillery batteries at the tip of the point. Southeast of these batteries in the heart of the reservation stood six buildings that had been erected and occupied by squatters during the 1850s. Between 1863 and 1865, the army succeeded in evicting the squatters and seizing the six structures, three of which it turned into officers' quarters, three of which it demolished.
The first demolished was the northernmost, its site needed for batteries. This was the so-called "Porter's Lodge" which had been acquired by John C. Fremont in 1859. South of this was a small building of unknown origin, soon demolished also. Third in the row-was the so-called Palmer House; today greatly enlarged and modified extensively, this is now the northernmost surviving structure, and still serves as officer's quarters. Next to the south was the Haskell House, built by a Commodore Moody and later sold to Leonidas Haskell. The fifth building was built by George Eggleton, taken over by the army in September 1865, and demolished in 1912. It is the sixth building that is of interest here.
The sixth and southernmost building on the east side of Black Point Ridge was on the site now occupied by McDowell Hall. Built by George Brooks, editor of the Golden Era, in the 1850s, it was a rambling one and a half story structure which in later years passed through several owners to a wool merchant named Emil Grisar. On August 30, 1865, Major General Henry W. Halleck of Civil War fame arrived in San Francisco and took command of the newly formed Military Division of the Pacific. Although the Presidio of San Francisco, about three miles west of then-small San Francisco city, was the principal garrison, Division Headquarters were in downtown offices, and Halleck considered the Presidio too far a commute in that horse and buggy era. Consequently, the army seized Grisar's house, repaired and enlarged it, and in November 1865 Halleck moved in. Thus the site of McDowell Hall did house the commanding general of the Division beginning in-1865. It subsequently was occupied by Major General George H. Thomas, Major General John M. Schofield and Brigadier General E.R.S. Canby, all of Civil War fame, the latter murdered by a Modoc Indian while under a white flag of truce during the Indian war in the Lava Beds of northern California in 1873; and also by Major General Irwin McDowell.
In 1876, McDowell, also of Civil War fame, who had commanded the Department of the Pacific and its successor Department of California in the mid-1860s, returned to San Francisco to command the Division. McDowell decided he needed a newer and larger house, one that provided a better place for his official and semi-official entertainment of visiting dignitaries and San Francisco society By July 7, 1877, the Daily Alta California newspaper was reporting construction of a new residence for the Commanding General at the Post of Point San Jose.
Army records show that what actually happened is that the old Brooks-Grisar house was moved a short distance to the north, except for its old kitchen and a one-room wing left at the original site. Then an entirely new residence was* built next to the kitchen and room from the old house. The room served as the general's office and library, and the kitchen remained a kitchen. The old Brooks-Grisar house was remodeled at its new site to serve as the new quarters for commanding officers of the post, which was renamed Fort Mason in 1882. Thus two small portions of an 1850s residence were combined with an entirely new 1877 structure to form the new quarters for the Commanding General.
The first occupant of the new quarters was naturally Major General Irwin McDowell. His home contained on the first floor a reception hall, library, drawing room, conservatory, dining room, storeroom, laundry, wood room, and two rooms probably for servants. The-second floor had six bedrooms and four bathrooms. Over the kitchen wing was a small room and space for storing trunks. The basement was largely unfinished, but did house a coal room, ash room and, later, a boiler.
During the ensuing 66 years the residence housed one colonel and 44 general officers, including 16 brigadiers, 25 major generals, and four lieutenant generals; among them were four officers who each served two different tours there, and two of them served in different ranks. Many of them are obscure today, but among them were men famous in the Civil War (McDowell, Schofield, Pope, Howard, Miles and Gibbon), the-later western Indian wars (again Pope, Howard, Miles and Gibbon, as well as Forsyth, Shafter, Merriam and Maus), the Spanish-American War (Shafter), the Philippine Insurrection (Funston and Arthur MacArthur, father of Douglas), and World War I (Hines and Hunter Liggett), as well as officers of note in exploration and army modernization such as Adolphus W. Greely of Arctic fame and famed as an innovative Chief Signal Officer for many years. Even Douglas MacArthur lived there briefly as a major general in 1930. But while Lieutenant General Philip Henry Sheridan is listed on the bronze plaque installed in 1927 (and still in the building) that distinguished officer never lived there, technically commanding the Division during two brief periods from his office in Chicago.
Over the years the residence experienced some modification and modernization, but its front facade and some interior spaces remain relatively unchanged, so that the building possesses considerable historical integrity today. It probably housed more illustrious residents than any other single house in San Francisco. Two Presidents of the United States were entertained there, Ulysses S. Grant in 1879 and Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880. The newspapers covered the reception given for Hayes in the house in great detail.
Lieutenant General John DeWitt, in charge of the Fourth Army and the Ninth Corps Area, was the last commanding general to live in Officer's Quarters No. 1, as it was called officially. When he transferred in September 1943 his successor, Major General Kenyon A. Joyce agreed on September 13 to turn the house over to Major General Frederick Gilbreath, commander of the San Francisco Port of Embarkation, for wartime use as an officers' open mess. And there was in Gilbreath's command a young lieutenant named Ronald Reagan who may have dined in McDowell Hall, as it was now named; he was destined to be elected President of the United States in 1980. As for McDowell Hall, it serves as an officers' open mess today.
On the ground floor, the foyer, reception room, drawing room and general's office are preserve( The east wall of the conservatory has been extended and the room has been converted to a cocktail lounge. A large one-story social hall, or ballroom, was added in 1948 to the southeast part of the building, and a large one-story dining room was added to the northeast. The former dining room is now part of the cafeteria and part of the kitchen. The old kitchen wing to the northwest has been reduced from one and a half stories with hipped roof to one story with flat roof. The stairway to the second floor has been relocated somewhat within its original stairwell. Upstairs modest modifications have occur-red, mainly concerning bathrooms and closets, leaving the floor plan of the second floor essentially intact. The generals' bedroom is still identifiable. Unquestionably, this handsome structure is one of San Francisco's most historic residences.