Palace Of Fine Arts – There's Life After Expo

The iconic Palace of Fine Arts is one of the most photographed and haunting locations in the San Francisco. Situated proudly near the Marina district, the Greco-Roman style rotunda and colonnades stand next to the water's edge, where majestic white swans drift across the lovely, man-made lagoon. Originally built for the 1915 Panama Pacific Exhibition, the urban temple is a much-loved city treasure.

Considered the most beautiful building at the 1915 exhibition, the Palace of Fine Arts was the creation of California visionary architect Bernard R. Maybeck. Since 1970 the palace has been used as an active live theater, for many visitors to SF, it's an essential place to see, to remember the grandeur of a bygone era.


The Palace of Fine Arts


The 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition was a time of turmoil for the world and for the City of San Francisco. The city was still recovering from the earthquake and fire of 1906 when civic leaders envisioned a plan to bring together world leaders to encourage trade. They also wanted to show that San Francisco had risen from the ashes to be a truly an international city.

The architect for the Palace of Fine Arts was Bernard R. Maybeck (1862-1957), a San Franciscan who had studied at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. His design reflects a Roman ruin, with a soaring colonnade, a grand rotunda, and the lonely lagoon. The overall design evokes the feeling of quiet sadness and solemnity.

Maybeck always acknowledged that his design was influenced by the painting, Isle of the Dead, by Swiss Symbolist Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901). That dark work depicts a small island with towering rocks that are surrounded by water as a boatman with a mysterious passenger approach a mysterious inlet. Maybeck also cited inspiration from a Giovanni Battista Piranesi engraving that depicts a Roman ruin reflected in a pool.


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The Swans & Lagoon

Palace of Fine Arts

When Maybeck created his plans for the Palace of Fine Arts, he believed it would be the water and the trees that would attract visitors. The natural elements were integral to his design, including the swans, which were in his original drawings. But there's more than just swans that the lagoon supports. As the closest freshwater habitat to the SF Bay, the lagoon provides food and shelter to a myriad of migrating birds. The island is a safe refuge for black-crowned night herons, Muscovy ducks, and songbirds.

Did you know that Whooper swans mate for life and court with a romantic dance that ends with the pair's necks entwined into the shape of a heart? The swans are easily recognized and are loved for their graceful neck and snow white feathers. They are truly the royalty of avian life. And their name? Whoopers are noisy and when they cry out it sounds like a loud whooping.

The 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition

Panama Pacific International Exposition

Although the Expo was held for many reasons, a primary goal was to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, a feat so remarkable that it was called, "the 13th labor of Hercules."

Work on the Exposition started in 1911, with President Taft breaking ground on the future site. There was a lot to be done. 635 acres had to reclaimed from the Bay, and eleven exhibition palaces needed to be built. The exposition's palaces exhibited objects from around the world, including 1,500 sculptures commissioned from artists all over the world; sixty-five acres of amusements & concessions; and an aviation field. It was a global event with twenty-one countries, all forty-eight US states, and fifty California counties exhibiting in the pavilions.

February 20, 1915 was opening day. The atmosphere was electrifying as 255,000 visitors gathered to witness the first world event of the 20th century. When the exposition closed nine months later, more than eighteen million people had visited. At the closing ceremonies replete with fireworks, a solitary bugler played taps, bringing the crowd to tears.

After the fair, most of the buildings at the Expo were torn down. The exception was the Palace of Fine Arts — San Franciscans felt it was just too beautiful to destroy. Phoebe Apperson Hearst ( yes, of that Hearst family) formed the Palace Preservation League to save it from demolition.

Maybeck had originally intended the Palace to fall into ruin, and it did in time. In the following years the palace was used for many strange things — during World War II it was a used as a storage for the military then as a warehouse for the Parks Department, and even a telephone book distribution center.

In 1959 a campaign to restore the Palace was led by politician Caspar Weinberger. Even though there was a drive for public and private funding, the necessary funds were hard to raise. It was Walter S. Johnson, a wealthy philanthropist, who donated the additional $2 million necessary to restore the Palace into a permanent structure. In 1964, the dilapidated rotunda and colonnades were completed demolished and rebuilt with permanent materials.

The Palace of Fine Arts League, a non-profit organization, was established in 1962 with the goal of restoring the building and surrounding grounds. In 1970, the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre opened and the league continues to manage the theater today.


Palace of Fine Arts Resources

  • It cost $622,000 to build the Palace in 1915
  • The Palace covers 148,00 square-feet on seventeen acres of land
  • Thirty Corinthian columns frame the wide walkway of the colonnade
  • The original color palette was a rich bronze with a copper patina, terra cotta and travertine marble. In 2005, the palace was restored to this original color scheme.
  • 3301 Lyon Street
  • Palace of Fine Arts Theatre Website

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