Tourism for Locals: Palace of Fine Arts Celebrates its 100th Anniversary

This week's Tourism for Locals breaks with tradition.

Since the inaugural post of this column in 2013, I vowed that we would never feature sites that were typical tourist attractions, in an effort to show a taste of the real San Francisco, a local's guide of our important and treasured sites. Along with Fisherman's Wharf and Golden Gate Bridge, The Palace of Fine Arts could be considered a part of this list, but we're making an exception because the Greco-Roman is celebrating its centennial birthday this month!

[jump] Built for the 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, this World's Fair (and the 20th century's first) honored the discovery of the Pacific Ocean and the completion of the Panama Canal. Moreover, it also celebrated San Francisco's own resurrection after the shattering earthquake and fire of 1906. According to archival records, the fair ground's buildings were built on 635 acres, claimed from San Francisco Bay, and featured 11 exhibition palaces showcasing objects from every corner of the globe, displaying more than 1,500 sculptures that were commissioned from artists around the world. Twenty-one countries, 48 U.S. states, and 50 California counties mounted displays in the exhibition’s grand pavilions.

The Palace of Fine Arts is the only surviving building of the World's Fair, and it housed art from the Renaissance to modern times during the exposition. The edifice was the work of California architect Bernard Maybeck; his creation, inspired by a Piranesi engraving, featured a Roman-ruin reflection in a pool. According to Maybeck, this ruin existed not for its own sake but to show “the mortality of grandeur and the vanity of human wishes.” Like other features of the fair, the Palace was intended to be temporary, and at the close of the exposition, it would come down.  

However, due to popular demand, and the conservation efforts by Phoebe Apperson Hearst (mother of William Randolph Hearst), the Palace remained. Now at 100 years old, the Palace of Fine Arts is not only popular with locals and tourists, but it's reached icon status — so much so that a miniature replica of it was built in Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim.

So let's celebrate our monument's birthday and endearing legacy with joy and jubilation. Although we'd like to see some fireworks at the site, we strongly discourage it because we can't have another Aston Martin blowing up in front of it.

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