What’s Happening With That Giant Building Behind the Palace of Fine Arts?

The city has struggled to find a purpose the Exhibition Center, one of the largest single-story structures in San Francisco.

Next to the grand colonnade of the Palace of Fine Arts — one of the last standing structures constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition — is a 120,000-square-foot room, the Exhibition Center (also known as Exposition Hall). It’s an odd space. Walk in on any given weekday and you’ll find 55-foot ceilings rising above a miniscule coffee shop 100 paces from the entrance, plus two stern-looking rock angels, and a single set of cornhole boards covered in astroturf. Most tourists wander in looking for a restroom, buy a cup of coffee, and then walk out again. But for San Franciscans, well-aware of the value of a square foot, the first question as they walk inside is probably, “What the hell is this used for?”

The simple answer: events. Non Plus Ultra currently leases the Exhibition Center from the Recreation and Parks Department for the tidy sum of $20,000 a month, plus a 10-percent facility rental gross revenue fee and five percent of the ticket sales and concessions.

Non Plus Ultra manages an array of San Francisco’s larger historical venues, including the Old Mint and the Midway. Its website describes the Palace of Fine Arts site as “a versatile space for the Bay Area’s corporate events, private parties, trade shows, conferences, galas, weddings, and more.” All told, 5,000 people can fit inside, a fact Non Plus Ultra acknowledges — from a particular perspective.

“Yeah, it’s big,” they write. “If you want something a little smaller, ask about our other venues.”

It’s big for a reason. The 1915 fair drew millions of attendees from more than 35 nations, which gave civic boosters the opportunity to show off the newly rebuilt San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. It was a lofty goal: As San Francisco journalist Frank Morton Todd wrote in 1921, the mission was “to produce in San Francisco a microcosm so nearly complete that if all the world were destroyed except the 635 acres of land within the Exhibition gates, the material basis of the life of today could have been reproduced from the exemplifications of the arts, inventions, and industries there exhibited.” Too bad the Palace of Mines and Metallurgy didn’t survive along with the Palace of Fine Arts.

Photo by Nuala Sawyer

In the years since, the Exhibition Center housed art exhibits and 18 lighted tennis courts, stored military vehicles during World War II, held limousines for visiting delegates, and served as a temporary headquarters for the San Francisco Fire Department. At one point, it was even a telephone-book distribution center. But in modern history, it’s most memorable for housing the Exploratorium from 1969 until January 2013, when it moved to Pier 15.

Since the Exploratorium vacated the premises six years ago, Rec and Park has struggled to find a purpose for the vast space. It needs around $30 million in repairs — and since it’s a historical landmark, it can’t be renovated extensively. There are no windows, only skylights, and while the 20-foot doorways hint at something exciting inside, the actual interior falls flat, with its black-painted floors and dirty rafters. There’s no parking lot nearby, but there are a number of very wealthy and vocal neighbors, many of whom own multi-million-dollar homes just steps away from its entrance.

There have been some solid efforts to find a purpose for the Hall. In 2015, Rec and Park had narrowed it down to three finalists. The first was the Maybeck Center at the Palace of Fine Arts, which would break the space down into a number of multi-purpose spaces, including some for events and meetings, and others for historical displays of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, a full-service restaurant, a gym, and even a “small-scale, world-class hotel.”

The vision, described in a 203-page PDF submitted to the city by TMG Partners and Flynn Properties, was to provide a complementary but not competing collection of amenities that would serve residents of the Marina District, and draw tourists and people from the rest of the city in.

The second, created by SFMAP Consortium, offered to build “a large central hall that will be inserted into the heart of the building, taking advantage of the dramatic interior volume and beautiful light cascading in throughout the day.” Included in the plan was a world-class restaurant, a museum, retail, café kiosks, and to repurpose the existing theater.

Lastly, Equity Community Builders proposed art and sculpture exhibitions, artists-in-residence studios, interactive displays, and a market filled with local crafts.

In the end, despite enthusiastic media coverage and several hearings, not a single one of them moved forward.

“None of the proposals worked out for a variety of reasons, mostly due to financial and limitations,” Rec and Park spokesperson Tamara Aparton tells SF Weekly. “We have continuing conversations about possible uses but are patiently waiting for the right tenant.”

So, if you’re looking for a 120,000-square-foot room that costs $20,000 a month, you know where to go. Or, we could just build a Navigation Center on the site to house some of our city’s homeless population, and call it a day.


Read more from SF Weekly’s Marina issue:

The Marina: The Neighborhood Everyone Loves to Hate
But is that fair?

Have a Cow, Man, at Marlowe’s Newest Spinoff
Sneak away for a bit of opulence at Cow Marlowe, which fits the neighborhood hand-in-glove.

Fort Mason Is Really Two Institutions in One
With half a century left on its leas, the future of the arts is bright — and eventually, all the piers may be restored.

Yacht Rocks: The Unsung History of the Marina District Lighthouse
A stone landmark that doesn’t get the respect it deserves.

Will the Marina Say Yes to Muni This Time?
Neighbors have opposed several transportation projects, but they’re hearing out preliminary plans to extend the Central Subway their way.

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