Words by Erin Lyndal Martin
When musician Jill Tracy moved to San Francisco in the early 1990s, the Presidio was still closed to the public.
Tracy quickly became curious. The gates and chains at every entrance were literal barriers to mysteries within. Tales of hauntings and secret cemeteries on the Presidio grounds were abundant, though actual information was scarce. The place was irresistible.
Tracy recalls the sense of possibility she felt as the Presidio became more accessible. “When it went open to the public it was a very slow opening, like, little establishments started opening up, but still all the houses where they had housed military personnel were empty, all these buildings were empty. That’s when I felt like, ‘Wow, I would just love to be able to go in and tour some of these buildings and do a project before that energy is lost, because the Presidio is a living time capsule,’” says Tracy, who has long been inspired by uncanny places to make her darkly refined, piano-based music.
Tracy soon immersed herself in the history of the Presidio and received permission to tour buildings. Between her old experiences and her archival research, it was undeniable that there were ghost stories to be told about the Presidio. “I started looking at old newspaper articles and whatnot, and then I thought it would be interesting if I could interview some people, and I was thinking two or three people that worked there and maybe they had a ghostly experience. So I put out this interdepartmental email saying, Have you had an otherworldly experience?’ I was hoping to get two or three responses, and I got over a hundred.”
Tracy interviewed around 50 people and found that their stories often overlapped, even when her subjects had worked in different departments in different decades. “You talk to a guy that worked there in the ’80s, and then you talk to someone that worked there in the 2000s, and they would tell you the same exact story and they didn’t know each other. When I first presented this in 2015, I invited all of the people that I interviewed to come. What was so beautiful is they had not met the other people that I interviewed, and it was like a reunion,” Tracy recalls. “I would say, ‘Here’s the guy and he saw this spirit in the kitchen, and here’s the guy I want you to meet, Eddie, he saw the spirit in the kitchen in 2004.’ All these people came together and they had never talked about this before because it’s kind of, as you can imagine, sort of a no-no with working for the Presidio Trust to go around and talk about, ‘Oh, I saw a ghost.’”
Tracy has long performed special nights of music that she calls “sonic séances.” These events feature songs, storytelling, and often beautifully eerie moments for Tracy and her audience alike (Her sonic seance scheduled for tonight at the Botanical Gardens has been cancelled due to poor air quality). She has an uncanny ability to tap into the energy of a place and translate it into music, which she put into action as an artist-in-residence at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum and, currently, working on music composed in the Spiritualist community of Lily Dale in upstate New York.
It’s not surprising that the Presidio holds such inspiration for her, and Tracy now has some favorite ghosts of her own there, composing themes for them when inspired. “I will indeed be playing a theme for the Lady Ghost in the Presidio Ballroom,” she says of her October 27 show at the purportedly haunted Presidio Officers’ Club. “She is the ghost seen in formal dress alone waiting for her lost love in the ballroom. I composed the piece inside, and it is riveting to perform it in the actual space in front of an audience!”
A historical photo of the Officers’ Club.
Tracy has performed a number of times at the Officers’ Club. Performing in that space offers plenty of earthly delights in addition to the ghostly ones. “I love that piano. It’s a 1903 Steinway. And the room is so beautiful and ornate because they’ve kept the antique chandeliers. They did do some renovations on the space, but they kept the old character of what it was like, and it’s just a huge, vast room and there’s a fireplace and it’s very elegant. I think for my purposes it’s my favorite place to play because the atmosphere, the aesthetic, I think is really conducive to what I do there.” The visible history of the venue is also a powerful muse. “What’s really cool is there’s a little wing in the entranceway that you can visit. It’s pulled the walls away, like it’s a little museum exhibition where you can see the actual walls from 1776, and then the next one is, like, 1830, and then 1920, and you see the actual building material that was stripped away and how it changed through the years.”
Jill Tracy returns to the Presidio Officers’ Club on October 27 to play music and tell some of her best Presidio stories. There won’t be any spirits conjured, but she will surely cast her spell.
Presidio Officers’ Club
October 27, 2017
Erin Lyndal Martin is a writer whose music journalism has appeared in Salon, Bandcamp, The Week, No Depression, and elsewhere.