Saturday, August 18, 2012

Palace Of Fine Arts, 3301 Lyon Street, San Francisco, CA


Capacity 1000

Architect: Bernard Maybeck(1)
There are several minor discrepancies evident in this 1912 preliminary drawing, evidently used for pre-fair promotion since construction was not started until the following year. The most noticable "error" is in the design of the Fine Arts Palace on the left which shows the building with incorporated rather than separate columns.

The Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915 was an event dedicated to progress, the celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal, and the rebirth of San Francisco following the disastrous 1906 earthquake.
Palace Of Fine Arts 1915

The original columns and Rotunda were framed in wood, and covered with "staff", a mixture of plaster and burlap-type fiber. It was the largest building ever to be made of that material.

Many of the decorative elements were designed by a young architect in Maybeck's office, William Merchant. Beneath the dome of the rotunda were eight panels in low relief by Bruno L. Zimm, symbolizing Greek culture and its desire for poetic and artistic expression. The weeping figures surrounding the boxes on the colonnade were the work of the sculptor Ulric Ellerhusen. Some say they were intended to express Contemplation; others, the melancholy of life without art. These lachrymose ladies were to have been partially shrouded by vines watered by their tears, but funds were insufficient to provide all the greenery that Maybeck had wanted. Therefore the boxes at the top of the columns were never planted. Nor were the redwood trees which were to have surrounded the Palace, to add to the romantic atmosphere.(2)

For a while the Palace housed a continuous art exhibit, and when the Depression came, W.P.A. artists were commissioned to replace the deteriorated murals on the ceiling of the rotunda.
During this period, the Palace, without proper maintenance and as a result of vandalism, was gradually crumbling into a genuine ruin. Then during World War II it was requisitioned by the Army for storage of trucks and jeeps. At the end of the war, when the United Nations was created in San Francisco, limousines used by the world's statesmen came from a motor pool there.
Two years after the war's end, the Palace was returned by the Army to the city. By now it had been declared unsafe for public use. Then began a forceful attempt to preserve it as it was -- designed as a ruin, it should remain one. But the building was not strong enough to last. When Maybeck's opinion was solicited, he had this to say:
"I think the main building should be torn down and redwoods planted around--completely around -- the rotunda. Redwoods grow fast, you know. And as they grow, the columns of the rotunda would slowly crumble, at approximately the same speed. Then I would like to design an altar, with the figure of a maiden praying, to install in that grove of redwoods. I should like my Palace to die behind those great trees of its own accord, and become its own cemetery."
But before his death (at age ninety-five, in 1957) there was again a concerted movement to save the Palace, a movement which he fully supported. In a telegram sent by Maybeck to Governor Knight on July 12,1957, he said:
"The Palace of Fine Arts is probably the last of the traditional pieces of architecture to survive the modern age. Because of its beauty it has become a tourist attraction for the State of California. Kindly sign the bill for its restoration and I will be thankful. I have the honor to remain, Very truly yours, Dr. Bernard R. Maybeck, Architect."(2)

When the ashes of the Exposition were cleared, all that was left was the Palace of Fine Arts.
in 1934, the Recreation and Park Department installed eighteen lighted tennis courts that operated until 1942. During the Second World War, the Palace was used by the Army as a motor pool.
The Palace slowly crumbled from the ravages of the weather and ill-use. Finally, the structure had to be fenced off as it was a public hazard.
In the meantime, from 1947 on, the hall continued to be put to various uses: as a city Park Department warehouse; as a telephone book distribution center; as a flag and tent storage depot; and even as temporary Fire Department headquarters.
Then, in the late 1950's, a group of dedicated citizens, led by philanthropist Walter S. Johnson, initiated a drive to rescue the Palace from planned demolition and restore it to its former glory.

The work of demolition and reconstruction began in 1964. The rotunda and the columns were toppled to the ground. Nothing was left but the steel structure of the gallery itself. Preparation for rebuilding, at a cost ten times the original and on a permanent basis, was under way. 
The rotunda, half demolished.
A bystander watches as the original columns come crashing down during demolition, 1964.
The new rotunda takes shape.
By 1966, when 20,000 people visited the unfinished Palace during a public "walk-through," the new structure was close to completion. It had been solidly rebuilt by the best engineers available, the "staff" work being cast, stratified in the casting like stone, and proof against peeling off. Nevertheless, at the end of the restoration of the Palace, its gallery was still a hollow shell. Though there had been many suggestions for its use, no practical plan had been established. And then, at last, the right solution presented itself.






In 1965, University of Colorado physics professor Frank Oppenheimer was in Europe where he visited science museums such as the one in South Kensington, London, and the Deutsches Museum in Munich. The following year he was invited to a conference in Burlington, Vermont, on the role of museums in education. It was then that an idea of his began really to crystallize. He was convinced that there was an increasing need to develop public understanding of science and technology, and that a museum could be a place where people come to learn and to participate and to explore natural phenomena—in short, an Exploratorium.
The Press-Courier, September 29, 1967


The Park and Recreation Commission formally approved the plan to house a museum in the Palace in August of 1969, and with a grant of $50,000 from the San Francisco Foundation, the Exploratorium was under way. Dr. Oppenheimer established his office in a trailer in one corner of the great exhibition hall, and the first exhibits—the Montgomery Glider, the Stanford Linear Accelerator, and the Lockheed Box (now called “Touch the Spring”)—were set up. In September of 1969, with no fanfare and little publicity, the Exploratorium opened its doors. The first visitors discovered the museum largely by accident. 
Starting with a few temporary exhibits, the museum grew rapidly.

Schenectady Gazette June 14, 1971

In 1980, cramped for space by its collection of exhibits, the museum built a mezzanine within the exhibition hall, adding another 15,000 square feet of exhibit space. 

By 1983, the Exploratorium had more than 500 exhibits on light and color, sound and music, patterns of motion, language, and other natural phenomena. 

In February of 1985, Dr. Oppenheimer died. The Exploratorium, having gained an international reputation for excellence and creativity under his guidance, became his lasting monument, and continued to thrive. 

By 1991, the staff had grown to almost 200; the exhibit collection to more than 650. Under the direction of French scientist and educator Dr. Goéry Delacôte, the museum entered a new phase of development intended to carry it into the 21st Century.(2)

The Palace's gallery also houses the 1003-seat Palace of Fine Arts Theatre. The theatre, which was added in 1970, is available as a public rental facility. It is operated for the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department by the Palace of Fine Arts League, Inc., a nonprofit corporation.(2)




Jerry performed here on
11/28/73 Mickey Hart and Seastones
11/1/86 Mickey Hart and Joseph Campbell





1.)^Fine Arts Palace Rebuilt, The Press-Courier, 1967-09-09, pg 5.
2.)^Palace Of Fine Arts, A Brief History Of The Exploratorium's Home, http://www.exploratorium.edu/palace/palace_7.html

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