San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts is sometimes overlooked in a city filled with famous landmarks like Coit Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island and Fisherman’s Wharf.
And that’s a mistake.
Originally built as part of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, which celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal, the Palace of Fine Arts is a magnificent edifice that continues to delight visitors who stroll the shaded grounds surrounding its scenic lagoon.
The structure was designed by famed California architect Bernard Maybeck, who said it was inspired by an etching depicting a Roman ruin reflected in a pool by 18th century Italian artist Giovanni Piranesi.
The domed palace housed art exhibits and was one of eleven pavilions constructed for the exposition, which was built on 635 acres of land reclaimed from the San Francisco Bay.
Like the rest of the structures, the Palace of Fine Arts was originally supposed to be a temporary building that would be removed once the exposition was over. However, a prominent San Francisco socialite, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, was so taken with its classical beauty that she founded the Palace Preservation League while the fair was still ongoing to save the building.
Her efforts were successful and for several years the palace housed art exhibits. During the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration commissioned several artists to replace deteriorating murals on the rotunda ceiling and, later, the building housed eighteen lighted tennis courts.
By the 1950s, however, it was clear that the Palace needed to be completely reconstructed. Built of wood covered with a mixture of plaster and a burlap-type fiber, the colonnade and rotunda had deteriorated over time and were considered unsafe.
In 1964, the original Palace was demolished with the exception of the steel structure of the exhibit hall. The buildings were carefully rebuilt in concrete with steel beams installed to support the rotunda dome. The structure was retrofitted in 2010 to ensure it would survive an earthquake.
Since it was built, the Palace has become a beloved San Francisco icon; in recent decades it has been particularly popular as a setting for weddings. It’s also a lovely spot for a picnic or a walk around its scenic lagoon, which is surrounded by towering Australian eucalyptus trees.
Additionally, a variety of wildlife have taken to living in and around the latter including ducks, geese, swans, frogs and snapping turtles that can be seen sunning themselves on partially submerged tree roots.
Not surprisingly, the Palace’s photogenic setting has served as a backdrop for a number of films and television shows, including “The Rock,” “The Bachelor” and “The Other Sister.”
The Palace’s exhibition hall became home of the Exploratorium from 1969 to 2013, a interactive hands-on science museum for children. In April of 2013, the Exploratorium relocated to Piers 15 and 17 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.
At the present time, the exhibit hall, which is in need of structural renovations (part of the reason the Exploratorium moved), is being rented out to a local private school.
The Palace of Fine Arts is located at 3301 Lyon Street near San Francisco’s Marina District. For more information, go to www.exploratorium.edu/history/palace/.
Rich Moreno covers the places and people that Nevadans love to see.