Palace of Fine Arts
San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts is the only surviving building in the Marina District from the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal and San Francisco’s recovery from the 1906 Earthquake and Fire. Now the home of the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, the several structures were considered by many to be the most beautiful of eleven great exhibit palaces built for the exhibition.
Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck chose the theme of a Roman ruin in the mood of a Piranese engraving along with Greek elements and a reflecting lagoon reminiscent of similar settings in Europe. Maybeck said the Palace of Fine Arts was designed to show “the mortality of grandeur and the vanity of human wishes.” The picturesque Palace of Fine Arts is a favorite location for weddings and a stop on several San Francisco tours. The location has been featured in many TV shows and movies from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo to The Rock with Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage. Disney’s California Adventure has a replica of the Palace of Fine Art’s rotunda.
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. Eight low relief panels around the rotunda symbolizing Greek culture are by Bruno L. Zimm. Weeping female figures at each corner of boxes above the colonnade designed to hold plantings “watered by their tears” are by sculptor Ulric Ellerhusen. Plants were never added to the boxes and redwood trees Maybeck wanted on the site were never planted because of insufficient funds.
Since the Palace of Fine Arts was expected to be dismantled after the exposition the original rotunda and columns were framed with wood and covered with a pliable mixture of plaster and burlap-type fiber known as “staff” with faux stone or marble finishes. The crescent-shaped exhibition hall behind the rotunda had concrete walls designed to protect the artwork—Renaissance to Modern including many Impressionistic works—that it was built to display during the exposition.
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. Lighted tennis courts were added then removed 8 years later in the 1930s and the Army used it as a vehicle pool during World War II.
Expensive upkeep of materials meant to be temporary resulted in deterioration so great that the area was declared unsafe in the 1950’s. Demolished and rebuilt with longer lasting materials beginning in 1964, the Palace of Fine Arts and reflecting lagoon require ongoing maintenance.
Palace of Fine Arts Theatre
Added in 1970 the 1,000 seat Palace of Fine Arts Theatre can be rented for concerts, shows, lectures and community events. Two other building constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition survive; the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in Civic Center and a Japanese Tea House, which was sold and transported from the Marina to Belmont, California where it has served as a private residence, speakeasy, saloon and, most recently, a restaurant.