The Palace of Fine Arts

How Art Shapes Our Life

Sal MaccaroneAugust 1, 2012 

It is fascinating to realize how the discovery of gold here in California had an impact in many places worldwide. For instance, as a direct result of the 1849 gold rush, leaders in this country began thinking more seriously about connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This of course was to facilitate commerce by moving goods -- and people -- efficiently from one side of the continent to the other. Within a few short years a railway was constructed and began to operate (in 1855), across the narrow isthmus of land that joins the continents of North and South America.

About 25 years later the French government began construction of a canal that was to follow along the same route as the American railroad. After much frustration, loss of life, and ultimately a $300 million dollar bankruptcy, (two billion of today's dollars), the undertaking was abandoned. It was President Theodore Roosevelt who resurrected the project, and in 1904 the United States began work on its own version of what is now known as the Panama Canal. Work was completed on the 51 mile long canal in 1914, and it is now considered to be one of the seven wonders of the modern world.

After a long competition between many potential hosts, the bid for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition was awarded to the city of San Francisco. It was President Taft who personally made the announcement in 1911. This world's fair was officially designed to celebrate both the 400th anniversary of Balboa's discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the completion of the long awaited Panama Canal. But to San Franciscans the fair represented much more. After having survived the one-two punch of a devastating earthquake and fire of 1906, the prospect of building and then hosting a world's fair was to be a great economic boost. Ironically at the time, San Francisco just happen to have a level 600+ acre location in an area now known as the Marina.

As things turned out, all aspects of the 1915 exposition were a great success and really did help the whole San Francisco Bay Area recoup in many ways. After taking three years to build, the fair was open for a total of eleven months. It was a marvelous city within a city which was bordered by the bay on one long side as it sprawled neatly from Fort Mason all the way to the Presidio.

Among many other attractions, the fair boasted a forty-story building named the Tower of Jewels that was covered by thousands of colored pieces of glass which reflected light from every angle. There were eight domed palaces each with their own courtyard, extensive exhibition buildings, fountains and gardens, a lagoon stocked with swans, and of course, a view of the ocean.

Unfortunately, like many other world fairs the buildings and exhibits were constructed just like a Hollywood set; that is, they were never intended to last. For the most part the structures were simply built of wood that was then wrapped in wire and ultimately coated with colored plaster to create a desired effect.

Most of the exhibition was torn down in early 1916 because of perceived vandalism and safety issues. Fortunately, and with great foresight, William Randolph Hearst's mother, Phoebe, stepped in to save one of the buildings. As a wonderful result of her efforts, the Palace of Fine Arts, designed by Bernard Maybeck (1862-1957), is now the only building from the 1915 fair to survive in its original location.

A combination of Roman and Greek architecture, the building and its elements were torn down and reconstructed with the use of steel and concrete in the 1960's. In 1970 the Palace became the home of the Exploratorium museum which is complete with a one thousand seat theater, Most recently, during 2008-09 the grounds and lagoon were renovated and expanded to include more of the original landscape. The grounds are now a favorite spot for photo sessions, especially for wedding parties.

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