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Treasure Island, San Francisco’s Buzzing Neighbor With a Rich History

Treasure Island, San Francisco’s Buzzing Neighbor With a Rich History

Memorable stories distinguish several islands that dot the San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz, of course, had notorious prisoners and daring escape attempts. Angel Island’s former immigration station processed thousands of immigrants between 1910 and 1940; today, the rugged playground accommodates hikers and cyclists. On compact Yerba Buena Island, teams tunneled through shale to connect sections of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge more than 80 years ago.

Treasure Island, a 400-acre artificial island linked to Yerba Buena by road, has its own rich history. It was home of the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE), a planned base for Pan Am Clipper seaplanes, and a U.S. Navy installation from 1942 to 1997.

Treasure Island Bay
Treasure Island is known for its prime bay and city views. (Courtesy TreasureFest)

These days, Treasure Island hosts the monthly TreasureFest market (formerly Treasure Island Flea), and it’s a hub for sailing, rugby and youth sports. Artists operate in warehouses here, and individuals gain work experience through island-based job training organizations.

Tucked between San Francisco and Oakland, the destination also boasts sweeping Bay Bridge, Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco skyline views. Across Treasure Island, new restaurants are joining mainstays like Aracely Cafe. And, long-term redevelopment plans are slowly reshaping the landscape.

Shoppers persuse locally made gifts and vintage goods at TreasureFest
Shoppers persuse locally made gifts and vintage goods at TreasureFest. (Courtesy Treasure Fest)

“During decades of military use, Treasure Island was hidden in plain sight. People knew it was there, but you couldn’t just visit without a reason,” says Treasure Island Museum vice president Anne Schnoebelen. “Now, we’re on a forward-moving path. We look to the inspiration and innovation of Treasure Island’s past to understand this movement toward a wonderful future for residents and visitors.”

Founded in 1975 as a military museum and later expanded to chronicle the island’s wider story, the Treasure Island Museum closed when Naval Station Treasure Island shut down in the late 1990s. For the past decade, museum administrators have maintained temporary exhibits in Treasure Island’s Building 1; they also organize an annual lecture series exploring the island’s heritage. Fundraising efforts to reestablish permanent galleries are currently underway.

Deals on local merchandise at TreasureFest
Deals on local merchandise at TreasureFest (Courtesy TreasureFest)

Building 1, a horseshoe-shaped Art Moderne structure, served as the administrative center for the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition. Before jet engines transformed modern travel, it was slated to be a Pan Am Clipper terminal for a planned regional airport on Treasure Island. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s one of three remaining GGIE buildings.

Two hangars set behind Building 1, along Clipper Cove Way, also date back to the world’s fair. Woods Island Club, a weekend taproom and beach bar from Woods Beer Co., moved into the Building 2 hangar two years ago. The team brews some signature beers and special releases here during the week. On Saturdays and Sundays, visitors can taste beers in the barrel room or take pints out to the sand, where fire pits, picnic tables and lounge chairs sit in the shadow of the Bay Bridge.

Beach with beach kiosk
(Courtesy Wood Beer Co.)

Choosing an under-the-radar location was a leap of faith for founder Jim Woods, who opened his four other beer bars in more walkable neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Mission District and Uptown Oakland. “We weren’t sure how people would react to Treasure Island, since this is really a destination spot, but we’ve been floored by the response,” says Woods. “And, the views over here are second to none.”

Casual outdoor dining at MerSea
Casual outdoor dining at MerSea (©Sarah Chorey)

Grand vistas also appealed to the owners of MerSea, a playful, all-day comfort food spot that opened a mile up the island in early 2018. Co-founders MeeSun Boice and Parke Ulrich, executive chef of San Francisco’s Waterbar and Epic Steak, crafted the restaurant using 13 shipping containers outfitted with reclaimed and recycled items. Used military doors and lanes from the former Treasure Island Bowling Alley top communal tables. Herbs grow in salvaged wooden pallets. Empty metal cans are repurposed as silverware holders.

Spread at MerSea
Spread at MerSea (©Sarah Chorey)

MerSea’s outdoor seating area features bocce courts, putting greens and yard games, creating a family friendly and dog-friendly destination that buzzes with activity. But, food and fun aren’t the only draws. “One of the most captivating aspects of the restaurant is the view,” says Boice. “It’s a spectacular bridge-to-bridge span, with the San Francisco skyline in between.”

“Along Clipper Cove, you’ll find the best Bay Bridge views available on land, and Treasure Island’s eastern waterfront offers a unique look at the East Bay hills and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge,” adds Treasure Island Development Association director Robert Beck. “We’re in the middle of it all here.”

Beck leads the agency formed in 1998 to oversee economic development and operations on the former Naval Station Treasure Island. Crews are working on remediation projects, geotechnical improvements and infrastructure updates in advance of a redevelopment venture that will establish new homes, hotel rooms and commercial space on the island in the coming years. Public transit enhancements will better connect the destination to San Francisco and Oakland, and development plans also call for approximately 300 acres of trails, parks and recreational sites on Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island.

“The setting here is already quite striking. As we move forward, we’ll develop more open spaces and more public amenities that will add to the island’s appeal,” says Beck. “Treasure Island is central in the bay, and if you’re looking for a great shot of the sunset behind the city, this really is the place to be.”

The Winery SF
(Courtesy The Winery SF)

Treasure Island Wine Walk

For a fresh take on the urban winery experience, explore the tasting rooms clustered on Treasure Island’s southern waterfront. They overlook the San Francisco Bay and are tucked into unique venues that range from petite nooks to sprawling industrial spaces to a World War II-era submarine training unit.

“We’re kind of a hidden escape. Unless you’re local, you don’t really know that this is out here,” says Bryan Kane, winemaker for The Winery San Francisco. The facility, which has earned accolades in the San Francisco International Wine Competition and American Fine Wine Competition, welcomes guests in a rustic, 3,000-square-foot barrel room.

Nearby, three tiny tasting rooms with a shared outdoor bocce court form the Winemaker Studios collective. Sol Rouge Winery produces wines using California-grown varietals from France’s Rhone and Bordeaux regions and pours samples in a cozy, barn-style space. Vie Winery shares its small-batch blends in an industrial-cool interior with beamed ceilings. Sottomarino focuses on Italian varietals and offers its tastings in a former U.S. Navy training vessel that honors Treasure Island’s military history.

The Winery SF
(Courtesy The Winery SF)

Treasure Island’s Famous Fair

The Army Corps of Engineers constructed Treasure Island in 1936-1937, using sand dredged from the bay. Elegant Art Deco structures, statues, fountains and gardens covered the island during the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition, billed as “A Pageant of the Pacific.”

Today, three world’s fair buildings remain: the horseshoe-shaped Building 1, along Avenue of the Palms, and two hangar buildings tucked behind that structure. The Treasure Island Museum Association restored six of the fair’s Pacific Unity sculptures now displayed in front of Building 1, adding QR codes that link to information about each piece. Some GGIE plants still grow on the island, too.

“Scores of olive trees date from the time of the exhibition. They were barged up the bay as mature trees from a Santa Clara ranch and then replanted. Avenue of the Palms is also lined with palms propagated elsewhere and replanted for the fair,” says Anne Schnoebelen of the Treasure Island Museum. “During the Golden Gate International Exposition, Treasure Island was gorgeous. It was a landscaper’s dream.”