THE PALACE OF FINE ARTS: A SAN FRANCISCO ICON SURVING NUMEROUS DEMOLITION THREATS


Following the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire, San Francisco was inspired to show the world how it had risen from the ashes. In 1910, business and civic leaders convened to discuss making the city the site of the century’s first great world’s fair, a grand exposition to honor the completion of the Panama Canal. In 1915 the Panama-Pacific International Exposition opened to great fanfare. The exposition was constructed on an expansive 636 acres in the Marina District, stretching all the way from Fort Mason to the Presidio.

Widely considered one of the most beautiful buildings at the exhibition, The Palace of Fine Arts, now a treasured and protected San Francisco icon, is one of few remaining structures to survive. While most of the Exposition’s buildings were to be demolished, the Palace was so beloved that a Palace Preservation League, founded by philanthropist Phoebe Apperson Hearst (mother of famed publisher William Randolph Hearst) was formed to save this Beau-Arts wonder while the fair was still in progress. In 1925, Mayor James Rolph declared that the Palace of Fine Arts would be permanently preserved and maintained as an Exposition and a Museum of Fine Arts.

Constructed of low-quality plaster, wood and burlap building materials, the Palace was only intended to last the duration of the Exposition. Predictably over time the structure slowly crumbled and fell into ruin. By the 1950’s the Palace was in need of extensive repairs. In 1952 Mayor Elmer Robinson called for tearing down the building rather than spending the $3M needed to restore it. Thanks to a $2M donation from philanthropist Walter Johnson and funding from other public and private sources, a restoration project was launched. In 1964 the original Palace was completely demolished and was re-constructed in permanent, light-weight, poured-in-place concrete, and steel I-beams were hoisted in place for the dome of the rotunda. All decorations and sculpture, including tis signature weeping women, were constructed anew. The completed project ended up costing $7.6M and taking 3 years to complete. In 2009 the building was seismically retrofitted.

Over the years the Palace of Fine Arts has been home to many eclectic tenants. For a time the Palace housed a continuous art exhibit. From 1934- 1942 the exhibition hall was home to 18 tennis courts. During World War II it was requisitioned by the military for storage of trucks and jeeps. From 1947 on the hall was put to various uses such a limousine storage facility for the United Nations, as a city Park Department warehouse, telephone distribution center, flag and tent storage depot, and even as a temporary Fire Department headquarters. In 1969 the Exhibit Hall was home to the Exploratorium, followed in 1970 by the 1000 seat Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, which is still open to this day.

The Palace of Fine Arts Exhibit Hall, which includes 140,000 sq ft of indoor space, and a 5000-person capacity, is available for corporate events, trade shows, and galas. For more information go to www.palaceoffinearts.com/info