San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts is one of the city’s most captivating landmarks, if not for its stunning design then for its cameos in movies and TV. How much do you know about this free attraction in the Marina?
History and design
The Palace of Fine Arts was built as a temporary exhibition space for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, which gave the city a chance to celebrate the construction of the Panama Canal as well as SF’s recovery from the 1906 earthquake. Artworks and pieces on display included the Southern Pacific Railroad’s first steam locomotive, the Liberty Bell on loan from Philadelphia, and the 435-foot-tall Tower of Jewels, which was adorned with thousands of sparkling glass gems.
The 9-month exhibition also provided an interesting snapshot of the public’s attitudes towards indigenous populations at the time, which had begun to change from “savage vanishing Indians” to “doomed noble ‘first Americans,'” as explained by ethnohistory researcher Abigail Markwyn. One famous artwork on display was a plaster version of James Earle Fraser’s The End of the Trail, a statue which depicts a weary Native American man slumped over his horse. It’s meant to represent the trauma and exhaustion suffered by indigenous people in the United States, while staying in line with fair organizers’ rhetoric that the native population was destined for extinction.
Architect Bernard R. Maybeck designed the Palace of Fine Arts as a decaying Roman ruin situated in a semicircle around a manmade lagoon. The Neoclassical structure’s most prominent feature is a 162-foot-tall open rotunda which is flanked on each side by large colonnades. The colonnades are topped with statues of weeping women with their backs turned, meant to evoke a sense of melancholy and contemplation among the hustle and bustle of the fair.
When the fair ended, prominent philanthropist Phoebe Hearst helped to preserve the beloved Palace structure and saved it from demolition. It went on to house a continuing art exhibition; eighteen lighted tennis courts; WWII military trucks; city department supplies including tents and flags; a telephone book distribution center; and a temporary fire department.
The original structure was composed of a metal frame, wooden reinforcements, and a plaster and burlap mix – Maybeck intended for it to naturally fall into ruin, which it eventually did in the 1950s. However in 1964 the palace was completely rebuilt as a permanent concrete structure thanks to a $2M donation from philanthropist Walter S. Johnson.
This iconic building made famous cameos throughout the years in films like Vertigo (1958), The Rock (1996), and Bicentennial Man (1999), and The Room (2003); and in series including Monk and Sense8.
Visiting the palace
Many visitors to the Palace enjoy taking a picnic to eat on the grass surrounding the lagoon, watching Blanche the swan as she glides through the palace’s magnificent reflection. She’s one of many swans who have lived at the Palace ever since it was first constructed.
The palace is known to host a variety of art exhibitions and events year-round. The Palace of Fine Arts Theatre brings a variety of exciting events including dance performances, live music, and comedy. It’s also a popular spot for photoshoots, and can be rented out as a wedding venue.
There is parking available on-site, and you can find additional nearby lots at Crissy Field and Marina Green. The palace is open night and day, and is free to visit.
Find the Palace of Fine Arts at 3601 Lyon Street on the eastern edge of the Presidio.
Featured image: @ga_drone_god via Instagram