Defending a Museum

San Francisco's cherished antique arcade moves next month.

The museum's circus model, which measures 17 feet by 7 feet, was part of Playland at the Beach.

Credit: Ed Zelinsky, Musee Mechanique

What seemed like a straightforward renovation of San Francisco's Cliff House (see Cliff House To Be Renovated, Jan. 11, 2002), triggered an emotional protest recently when the National Park Service announced its plans to relocate the 80-year-old Musée Mécanique to a temporary home on Pier 45 at Fisherman's Wharf, a popular tourist attraction.

"It's all about childhood memories," says Peggy Vincent. "When you visit the Musée, it's like walking through a time tunnel," she says. "And now they want to take that away. We're losing all of our San Francisco Heritage. They're moving it all to Fisherman's Wharf."

French for "mechanical museum," the Musée Mécanique opened in the 1920s. Inside lies a collection of 160 mechanical music boxes, love testers, fortune-telling grandmas, and Laughing Sal, a six-foot-tall red-haired lady who cackles maniacally for coin-touting spectators. More than 100,000 visitors a year walk through its doors for free but lose their nickels, dimes, and quarters in its coin-operated machines. Owner of the last remaining vestiges of Playland at the Beach—which was the largest year-round amusement park in the United States during the 1950s—the Musée moved to its current location in 1972, when the park closed.

The Cliff House

Credit: NPS photo

Now, as part of the $14 million restoration, decades of shabby additions to the Cliff House, including modified balconies that house the museum, are slated for removal. Pending the availability of funds, the National Park Service, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and museum-owner Ed Zelinsky plan to relocate the museum in two years to a new facility and visitors center slated for construction at the nearby Merrie Way parking lot.

The issue of relocation turned out to be an emotional debate fueled by misunderstanding, semantics and, more than anything, simple nostalgia. The Save The Musée Mécanique Coalition circulated on the Internet a petition protesting the closure of the museum. The group collected more than 12,000 signatures.

Vincent, who signed the petition, has been a vocal opponent of the relocation. "Thirty years ago, San Francisco's Playland at the Beach closed. Now the last operating attraction from that era will be closing," she says. "There's no money right now for the construction of the Merrie Way visitor center. The people who signed the petition are all telling the park service to leave the Musée where it is."

"To be honest, the passion of the debate took us by surprise," says Rich Weideman, spokesperson for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which owns the Cliff House and rents space to the museum. In the early 1990s, the park service held a series of well-attended public meetings to outline restoration plans for the Cliff House and discuss the future of the museum. The more uncertainty that arose over the new location for the museum, he says, the more confusion. "You say the word ‘museum' and people immediately think ‘nonprofit.' So suddenly you have the big, bad government kicking out the little guy," he says. "That's not the case at all. Ed Zelinsky is a wealthy businessman; the museum is a for-profit entity; and we were working hard with him to find a new site." People called to donate money to help keep the museum open, Weideman says. "We had seniors on fixed incomes who wanted to donate money to him, but how do you donate to a for-profit business?"

World Series Baseball game, made in 1927.

Credit: Ed Zelinsky, Musee Mechanique

The debate also focused on the question of historic-landmark status. "The Cliff House I have always known and that San Francisco has known for over 50 years is the same structure we see today," Vincent says. She opposes relocating the museum in part because she is against the entire Cliff House restoration. "The Cliff House is historical and shouldn't be changed," she says.

Weideman acknowledges the innate problems of historic renovations, but points out that, in fact, the Cliff House has been severely remodeled over the years. Some people remember how a building or place looked in their lifetimes, he says, but those memories don't necessarily resemble the original structure. "When we do historic structure restoration at places like the Presidio or Alcatraz, we go back to the old blueprints, oral interviews and even movies," Weideman says. "We want to find out how much of the original structure is there. If it's changed through history, we usually pick a single era to restore it to." In the case of the Cliff House, the park service decided to restore it to the 1920s; this meant the balconies—and the museum—had to go.

What Weideman regrets most about relocation is that the public never really understood that the recreation area was working with Zelinsky to help him in the transition, not just acting as a cold-hearted landlord. The recreation area, he says, has spent thousands of dollars helping Zelinsky catalogue his collections both at the museum and in warehouses around the Bay Area. The nonprofit partner organization, Golden Gate National Park Association, is actually leading fundraising efforts for the new visitor center and museum facility.

The museum's 1929 Grandma fortune teller

Credit: Musee Mechanique

Zelinsky's son, Dan, who currently manages the museum, says he is excited about the move to Fisherman's Wharf, but he knew that the nature and history of the collection was bound to make the move an emotional one. "You have to understand that people grew up with these kind of machines," he says. "To the generation before, these were the video games. Many visitors haven't been here since childhood," he says. "But when they walk through that door, they are going back in time."

Nonetheless, the museum will leave its seaside perch at the Cliff House on Sept. 10, move temporarily to Fisherman's Wharf, and reopen in its new location in 2004, when construction is completed.

Even though, for the moment at least, the future of the Musée Mécanique seems secure, Weideman also understands the fear and nostalgia that powered opposition to the move. "When you look at that end of San Francisco, everything was in its grandeur at the turn of the century and during the teens, 20s and 30s. And it's almost all gone," he says. "With the Musée Mecanique, people are remembering the heyday of their lives, the time of their youth. They want Playland back; they don't want another Six Flags. And the Musée is it, the last of Playland. There's nothing else really left, and I think that's what upsets people the most."

Jad Davenport is a writer and photographer who lives in Colorado.  

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