San Francisco man with Gold Rush roots mints a spankin new museum

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Forty-six million dollars.

It could be the capital campaign for any Jewish institution, but instead it's the sum needed to re-open the old San Francisco U.S. Mint as a local history museum and visitors' center.

While almost $100,000 was raised at a benefit at the end of June, an estimated $46 million is needed to realize the goal of opening in April 2006, on the 100th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake. And at least $2 million of that has to be raised in the coming year.

Shepherding the plan to turn the mint into the museum is Jim Lazarus, interim executive director of the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. Lazarus is best known for his involvement in city and state politics.

Most recently, Lazarus was state director of Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office, and he was also Feinstein's chief of staff when she was mayor. The attorney, who lives in San Francisco, is married to Ann Lazarus, who is not only CEO of the Mount Zion Health Fund but president of Congregation Emanu-El.

Lazarus, 54, described his upbringing as nondenominational "with a Jewish understanding." When in college at American University, many of his classmates and many of his friends were Jewish, and therefore, "Judaism came to play more of a role in my later life."

Lazarus' lineage gives him a personal interest in old San Francisco.

His father's ancestors were French Jews who came to St. Helena in 1850, and then moved to San Francisco in the 1880s. His great-grandfather worked for the predecessor of Wells Fargo. His father's mother's family, Jews from Austria, were clothing merchants who arrived in the 1850s.

Lazarus, who grew up in Ross, described his father's family as "Western European Jews who were here since the time of the Gold Rush. My father was confirmed at Emanu-El, and sang in the choir, but they also celebrated Santa Claus — not as a Christian holiday but as a nonsectarian holiday. It was part of celebrating wintertime."

Lazarus' mother was not Jewish; in fact, she was the descendant of a Spanish soldier who married a Native American who converted to Catholicism, but she was raised Episcopalian.

Now, though, Lazarus is faced with a gargantuan task, raising funds for the museum's capital campaign.

"We think of that $46 million, we need to raise $12 million privately, and will probably have a long-term loan of $10 million, which will put us at $22 [million]."

The rest, hopefully, will come from the federal government, through a variety of avenues, including tax credits, and an allocation from monies gotten through a bond issue voters approved for museums and parks. Feinstein has also introduced legislation to mint a commemorative coin, for which the proceeds would go to the project.

"We believe it's doable," said Lazarus.

Earlier this month, federal authorities handed over the keys of the historic mint to the city, with Mayor Willie Brown handing over a silver dollar minted there in 1879 as payment.

Built in the years between 1869 and 1874, the building at Fifth and Mission streets once held nearly half the U.S. gold reserve and minted $20 gold pieces and other coins, making it one of the busiest mints in the country. In 1937, the mint ceased operating, and was turned into a museum in 1973, and then shut down in 1994.

As has been written in countless articles about the project, from then until last year, the only recent occupants have been the rats. The rundown building is badly in need of overall repairs and earthquake-proofing.

When the new museum is completed, it will become the City of San Francisco Museum, and home to the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau. The current bureau, located at the cable car stop at Market and Powell streets, is hardly suitable, said Lazarus.

"This will play a huge role in the revitalization of that area," Lazarus said.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."