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Image of the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco.
The original Palace of Fine Arts Building in San Francisco.

How Art Shapes Our Lives: The Palace of Fine Arts

By Sal Maccarone

Palace of Fine Arts Current Picture

It is fascinating once realized how the discovery of gold here in California had such a profound impact 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.

Historic Panama Canal

About twenty-five years after that accomplishment 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, (8.5 billion in 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 fifty-one mile long canal in 1914, and that entire endeavor is now considered to be one of the seven-wonders of the modern world.

Panama Pacific Fair

After a long competition between many potential host cities, the bid for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition was awarded to the city of San Francisco. President Taft, Roosevelt’s successor, made that announcement personally in 1911. The 1915 Panama Pacific world’s fair was conceived 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 hosting the fair represented much more. After having survived the one-two punch of a devastating earthquake and fire in 1906, the world’s fair was to be a great financial and psychological boost.

Palace of Fine Arts

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 side, and sprawled for miles 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; many exhibition buildings; extensive fountains and gardens; a lagoon stocked with swans, and of course, a great view of the ocean. As things turned out, the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition was a great success which did in fact help the whole San Francisco Bay Area recoup in many ways.

The Tower of Jewels

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 wrapped in wire, and then coated with colored plaster to create the 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, along with many other civic minded individuals stepped in to save one of the buildings. As a marvelous result of their efforts, the Palace of Fine Arts, designed by Bernard Maybeck (1862-1957), is now the only building from the 1915 world’s fair to survive in its original location.

The Fine Arts building, (one of the eight domed buildings mentioned above) is a whimsical combination of Roman and Greek architecture. Executed in what is known as the Beaux-Arts style, the building was not an easy one to reinstate. The long awaited restoration finally took place during the 1960’s. It was an exhaustive process which entailed taking the building down, numbering the pieces, then reconstructing everything – this time with the use of steel and concrete. This beautiful building is now complete and includes a one thousand seat theater, (palaceoffinearts.org). Recently the grounds, which include a beautiful Lagoon, were renovated and expanded to include more of the original landscape. The Fine Arts Building and surrounding grounds are now a favorite spot for photo sessions, especially wedding parties.

Sal Maccarone


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