THE PALACE OF FINE ARTS: AN APPRECIATION
I have always enjoyed visiting San Francisco. Ever since attending college there, I’ve been enchanted by the city by the bay. Of all the historical landmarks and other points of interest found throughout the city, my favorite place to pass the time is The Palace of Fine Arts. This much admired structure is one of the last remaining remnants associated with The 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Much like popular world’s fairs, previously held in Chicago and St. Louis, this exposition promised to draw millions of visitors to a city still rebounding from the devastation of The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Initially conceived to commemorate the recent opening of The Panama Canal, The Panama-Pacific International Exposition instead became a celebration of the rebirth of the city and a declaration to the world that San Francisco was alive and well. Featuring classically styled buildings, like The Tower of Jewels and The Palace of Horticulture, the exposition was universally acclaimed for its architecture. The Palace of Fine Arts was deemed the most beautiful building of the fair.
Noted architect Bernard Maybeck, known locally for his design of the First Church of Christ, Scientist in Berkeley in 1910, was awarded the commission for The Palace of Fine Arts. Despite being given an undesirable site on the grounds to work with, Maybeck accepted the challenge of turning what was essentially a water-filled bog into an aesthetically pleasing building set alongside a beautifully landscaped lagoon. Having studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which was known for its doctrine of pure classicism, Maybeck took his inspiration from ancient Roman architecture. His conception for the palace featured a rotunda and colonnade behind the art pavilion which were designed to evoke ruins. This plan was intended to be a gradual transition from the race track and other exciting influences of the fair to the quiet serenity of the art galleries beyond. In the end, The Palace of Fine Arts was an enormous popular success and is now acknowledged as one of Bernard Maybeck’s architectural masterpieces. It is listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Mostly constructed of temporary stucco-over-wire-lath exteriors, virtually all of the buildings at the location were scheduled for demolition at the conclusion of the exposition. Yet even before the fair closed, citizens had successfully petitioned the city for the preservation of this particular palace. After the exposition had run its course, The Palace of Fine Arts continued for a time as an art exhibit space. Over the years the pavilion also functioned as a warehouse, tennis courts, and a temporary fire department headquarters, among other uses. By the 1950’s, the structure was crumbling and in dire need of restoration. Finally, in the mid-1960’s, the original “temporary” structure was demolished and reconstructed in concrete. Original sculptures, friezes, and other carved decorations were faithfully reproduced down to the last detail. A few years after restoration, the old art pavilion became the long time home of the Exploratorium. Today it serves as a venue for a variety of events. The Palace of Fine Arts remains a beloved San Francisco landmark and my favorite place to pass the time.