The Walt Disney Family Museum has no amusement park rides. Instead, the museum, which opens tomorrow, is devoted to the life and times of the man synonymous with so many of those rides, and the approach is appropriately more academic. From the design standpoint, the $110 million project is a chance to see what architects and designers can get away with inside the historic sanctum that is San Francisco’s Presidio—it is the largest preservation project in the park to date—especially in light of recent setbacks.
The Walt Disney Family Museum is the product of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, hence the name—it is not meant to be a place expressly for families. The museum is in an 1890s barracks building right off the main parade ground. Behind it, the old Post gymnasium houses the museum offices, extra exhibition space, and the archives. The front façade of the barracks has been meticulously preserved: Per the Presidio Trust’s decree, original windows and glass are in place, with a secondary pane installed behind to block noise.
In back, a two-story glass curtain wall catapults the building into the modern age. Created by walling off the courtyard that separates the barrack’s two wings, it houses the largest gallery, adding an additional 15,000 square feet of space. The move shows that even if Don Fisher’s vision of a glass box on the Main Post was not to be, the Presidio is still open to some architectural creativity.
“It was very tricky to make everyone happy,” said Jay Turnbull of Page & Turnbull, the firm that renovated of the building. Among the challenges, the exhibit designers wanted the new addition to be a blank slate inside, but the Trust wanted the old exterior walls to be visible. In the end, the brick walls of the wings are exposed within the glassed-in gallery.
The building is also notable for being the Rockwell Group’s first go at an entire museum. The New York design firm is known for creating slick interiors for hotels and restaurants, and some of that razzle-dazzle shows up here and there. The elevator is designed to look like a vintage train car, with pull-down shades and red velvet curtain; the bathrooms forgo historical context with brightly colored sinks set in white curved Corian countertops; and the lower level is exuberantly tiled with a pattern based on an Disney illustration. The showpiece gallery, inside the addition, has a long walkway that curves around a scale model of Disneyland as Walt originally envisioned it. Suspended above is an immense “video ball.”
For the most part, though, the museum is a fairly straightforward recount of Disney’s past. (For those wondering why the Walt Disney Family Museum is here in San Francisco instead of LA, Orlando, or Disney’s hometown of Marceline, Missouri, it’s largely because his surviving daughter, Diane Disney Miller, has lived here for the last 20 years.) The displays, alas, do not include animatronics a la Country Bear Jamboree. The most newfangled element at the museum is the “touch tables,” which allow visitors to navigate video and images by touching icons projected onto wide tables.
After all the display cases set in rooms with exposed brick, one of the last galleries provides a welcome dose of Tomorrowland. Interior and exterior design come together in a narrow space with a sculptural white wall on one side and all glass on the other—a sky box with a panoramic view of the Golden Gate Bridge. On the wall, the nature documentaries that Disney produced are playing. But the real star in this gallery is the architecture of San Francisco, past and present.