San Francisco Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts is an important part of San Francisco’s rich history and a symbol of the spirit that makes San Francisco “the city that knows how”.

The Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina District of San Francisco, California, is a monumental structure originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in order to exhibit works of art presented there. One of only a few surviving structures from the Exposition, it is the only one still situated on its original site. It was rebuilt in 1965, and renovation of the lagoon, walkways, and a seismic retrofit were completed in early 2009.

In addition to hosting art exhibitions, it remains a popular attraction for tourists and locals, and is a favorite location for weddings and wedding party photographs for couples throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, and such an icon that a miniature replica of it was built in Disney’s California Adventure in Anaheim. The location has been featured in many TV shows a

Here comes the History of the Palace of Fine Arts: After the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire, San Francisco was anxious to show the world that it had risen from the ashes. So in 1910, business and civic leaders gathered to discuss making San Francisco the site of the century’s first great world’s fair — a grand exposition that would honor the completion of the Panama Canal. In just two hours, they raised $4 million — and beat out competitors New Orleans and Washington, D.C., to host the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition.

Built on 635 acres reclaimed from San Francisco Bay, the exposition featured 11 great exhibit palaces showcasing objects from every corner of the globe, more than 1,500 sculptures commissioned from artists all over the world, 65 acres of amusement concessions, and an aviation field. 21 countries, 48 U.S. states, and 50 California counties mounted displays in the exhibition’s grand pavilions.

The Palace of Fine Arts was one of 1 palaces at the heart of the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, which also included the exhibit palaces of Education, Liberal Arts, Manufactures, Varied Industries, Agriculture, Food Products, Transportation, Mines and Metallurgy and the Palace of Machinery. Widely considered the most beautiful structure at the exhibition, the Palace of Fine Arts — housing art from Renaissance to Modern — was the work of California architect Bernard Maybeck. Maybeck’s fantastic creation, inspired by a Piranesi engraving, featured a Roman ruin reflected in a pool. According to Maybeck, this ruin existed not for its own sake but to show “the mortality of grandeur and the vanity of human wishes.” Like other features of the fair, the Palace was intended as ephemeral; at the close of the exposition, it would come down.

On opening day, February 20, 1915, 255,149 people walked through the entry gates to experience the first world event of the 20th century. By the time the exposition closed nine months later, more than 18 million people — about 20 times the population of San Francisco at the time — would visit the exposition. And when this spectacular festival came to a close with fireworks and a solitary bugler playing taps, by all accounts, the crowds wept.

While most of the exposition was demolished when the exposition ended, the Palace was so beloved that a Palace Preservation League, founded by Phoebe Apperson Hearst, was founded while the fair was still in progress. The popularity of the Palace of Fine Arts resulted in a movement to preserve it even before the fair ended. Philanthropist Phoebe Apperson Hearst, mother of newspaper owner William Randolph Hearst lead the effort collecting public and private funds to maintain the structure.

For a time the Palace housed a continuous art exhibit, and during the Great Depression, W.P.A. Artists were commissioned to replace the decayed Robert Reid murals on the ceiling of the rotunda. From 1934 to 1942 the exhibition hall was home to eighteen lighted tennis courts. During World War II it was requisitioned by the military for storage of trucks and jeeps. At the end of the war, when the United Nations was created in San Francisco, limousines used by the world’s statesmen came from a motor pool there. From 1947 onwards, the hall was put to various uses: as a city Park Department warehouse; as a telephone book distribution center; as a flag and tent storage depot; and even as temporary Fire Department headquarters.

While the Palace had been saved from demolition, its structure was not stable. Originally intended to only stand for the duration of the Exhibition, the colonnade and rotunda were not built of durable materials, and thus framed in wood and then covered with staff, a mixture of plaster and burlap-type fiber. As a result of the construction and vandalism, by the 1950s the simulated ruin was in fact a crumbling ruin.

In 1964, the original Palace was completely demolished, with only the steel structure of the exhibit hall left standing. The buildings were then reconstructed in permanent, light-weight, poured-in-place concrete, and steel I-beams were hoisted into place for the dome of the rotunda. All the decorations and sculpture were constructed anew. The only changes were the absence of the murals in the dome, two end pylons of the colonnade, and the original ornamentation of the exhibit hall.

In 1969, the former Exhibit Hall became home to the Exploratorium interactive museum, and, in 1970, also became the home of the 966-seat Palace of Fine Arts Theater. The Exploratorium museum is a hands-on museum designed to spark curiosity in visitors of all ages as it features hundreds of exhibits, Tactile Dome and much more. In 2003, the City of San Francisco along with the Maybeck Foundation created a public-private partnership to restore the Palace and by 2010 work was done to restore and seismically retrofit the dome, rotunda, colonnades and lagoon. In January 2013, the Exploratorium closed in preparation for its permanent move to the Embarcadero. The Palace of Fine Arts theatre can be rented for concerts, shows, lectures and community events.

The construction and design of the Palace of Fine Arts is amazing. Built around a small artificial lagoon, the Palace of Fine Arts is composed of a wide, 1,100 ft pergola around a central rotunda situated by the water. The lagoon was intended to echo those found in classical settings in Europe, where the expanse of water provides a mirror surface to reflect the grand buildings and an undisturbed vista to appreciate them from a distance. William G. Merchant, a young architect in Maybeck’s office, designed many of the decorative elements on the Palace of Fine Arts and spent the last ten years of his life planning its restoration. Ornamentation includes Bruno Louis Zimm’s three repeating panels around the entablature of the rotunda, representing “The Struggle for the Beautiful”, symbolizing the Greek culture while Ulric Ellerhusen supplied the weeping women atop the colonnade and the sculptured frieze and allegorical figures representing Contemplation, Wonderment and Meditation. Plants were never added to the boxes and redwood trees Maybeck wanted on the site were never planted because of insufficient funds.

The underside of the Palace rotunda’s dome features eight large insets, which originally contained murals by Robert Reid. Four depicted the conception and birth of Art, “its commitment to the Earth, its progress and acceptance by the human intellect,” and four the “golds” of California (poppies, citrus fruits, metallic gold, and wheat).

The Palace of Fine Arts was not the only building from the exposition to survive demolition. The Japanese Tea House (not to be confused with the Japanese Tea House that remains in Golden Gate Park, which dates from an 1894 fair) was purchased in 1915 by land baron E.D. Swift and was transported by barge down the Bay to Belmont, California where it has served as a private residence, speakeasy, saloon and, most recently, a restaurant. The Wisconsin and Virginia buildings were relocated to Marin County. The Ohio building was shipped to San Mateo County, where it survived until the 1950s. The Column of Progress stood for a decade after the close of the Exhibition, but was then demolished to accommodate traffic on Marina Boulevard. Although not built on the exhibition grounds, the only other structure from it still standing in its original location is the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, known now as the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

Today, Australian eucalyptus trees fringe the eastern shore of the lagoon. Many forms of wildlife have made their home there, including swans, ducks (particularly migrating fowl), geese, turtles, frogs, and raccoons. Today the Palace of Fine Arts is the last reminder of a great gathering that welcomed the world back to San Francisco, and it continues to hold a special place in the hearts of Bay Area residents and visitors. As one of San Francisco’s most popular attractions, it has likely achieved its goals. The Palace is truly a landmark to love.

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