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Palace of Fine Arts

Coordinates: 37°48′10″N 122°26′54″W / 37.80278°N 122.44833°W / 37.80278; -122.44833
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Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts, 2020
Palace of Fine Arts is located in San Francisco
Palace of Fine Arts
Palace of Fine Arts is located in California
Palace of Fine Arts
Palace of Fine Arts is located in the United States
Palace of Fine Arts
Location3301 Lyon St., San Francisco, California
Coordinates37°48′10″N 122°26′54″W / 37.80278°N 122.44833°W / 37.80278; -122.44833
Area17 acres (6.9 ha)
ArchitectWilliam Gladstone Merchant; Bernard Maybeck
Architectural styleBeaux-Arts
NRHP reference No.04000659[1]
SFDL No.88
Significant dates
Added to NRHPDecember 5, 2005
Designated SFDL1977[2]

The Palace of Fine Arts is a monumental structure located in the Marina District of San Francisco, California, originally built for the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition to exhibit works of art. It was constructed from concrete and steel, and the building was claimed to be fireproof.[3] According to a metal plate at the rotunda,[4] it was rebuilt under B.F. Modglin,[5] local manager of MacDonald & Kahn, between 1964 and 1967. In the years 1973 and 1974, the columniated pylons were added.[1] It is the only structure from the exposition that survives on site.[6]

The most prominent building of the complex, a 162-foot-high (49-meter)[1] open rotunda, is enclosed by a lagoon on one side and adjoins a large, curved exhibition center on the other side, separated from the lagoon by colonnades. As of 2019, the exhibition center (one of San Francisco's largest single-story buildings) is used as a venue for events such as weddings or trade fairs.[7]

Conceived to evoke a decaying ruin of ancient Rome,[1] the Palace of Fine Arts became one of San Francisco's most recognizable landmarks.[8] Early 2009 marked the completion of a renovation of the lagoons and walkways and a seismic retrofit.


Aerial view of the Panama–Pacific International Exposition, directed southeast. The exposition buildings have been colored to distinguish them; the Palace of Fine Arts can be seen on the lower right.
Painting of the Palace of Fine Arts by Edwin Deakin c. 1915

The Palace of Fine Arts was one of ten palaces at the heart of the Panama-Pacific Exhibition. The exhibition also included the exhibit palaces of Education, Liberal Arts, Manufactures, Varied Industries, Agriculture, Food Products, Transportation, Mines, and Metallurgy, and the Palace of Machinery.[9] The Palace of Fine Arts was designed by Bernard Maybeck. He was tasked with creating a building that would serve as a quiet zone where exhibition attendees could pass through between visiting the crowded fairgrounds and viewing the paintings and sculptures displayed in the building behind the rotunda.[6] Maybeck designed what was essentially a fictional ruin from another time. He took his inspiration from Roman and Ancient Greek architecture[10] (specifically Piranesi's etching of the remnants of the so-called Temple of Minerva Medica in Rome), and also from Böcklin's symbolism painting Isle of the Dead.[6]

While most of the exposition was demolished when the exposition ended, the Palace was so beloved that a Palace Preservation League, founded by Phoebe Apperson Hearst, was founded while the fair was still in progress.[11]

For a time the Palace housed a continuous art exhibit, and during the Great Depression, W.P.A. artists were commissioned to replace the decayed Robert Reid murals on the ceiling of the rotunda. From 1934 to 1942 the exhibition hall was home to eighteen lighted tennis courts. During World War II, it was requisitioned by the military for the 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. From 1947 on, the hall was 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.[12]

While the Palace had been saved from demolition, its structure was not stable. Originally intended to only stand for the duration of the Exhibition, the colonnade and rotunda were not built of durable materials, and thus framed in wood and then covered with staff, a mixture of plaster and burlap-type fiber. As a result of the construction and vandalism, by the 1950s the simulated ruin was a crumbling ruin.[13]

In 1964, the original Palace was completely demolished, with only the steel structure of the exhibit hall left standing. The buildings were then reconstructed until 1974[1] in permanent, light-weight, poured-in-place concrete, and steel I-beams were hoisted into place for the dome of the rotunda. All the decorations and sculptures were constructed anew. The only changes were the absence of the murals in the dome, two end pylons of the colonnade, and the original ornamentation of the exhibit hall.

In 1969, the former Exhibit Hall became home to the Exploratorium interactive museum, and, in 1970, also became the home of the 966-seat Palace of Fine Arts Theater.[14] In 2003, the City of San Francisco along with the Maybeck Foundation created a public-private partnership to restore the Palace and by 2010 work was done to restore and seismically retrofit the dome, rotunda, colonnades, and lagoon. Within January 2013, the Exploratorium closed in preparation for its permanent move to the Embarcadero.

In 1992 and 1996, the popular U.S. game show Wheel of Fortune taped shows at the Palace for broadcast in November.[15]

In April 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic, plans were announced to convert the Palace of Fine Arts into a temporary shelter for 162 homeless people.[8] The decision was reversed shortly afterward, following protests by local residents and concerns that the lodging conditions would be inadequate.[16]

Panoramic view Palace of Fine Arts: 1919


Underside of the rotunda

Built around a small artificial lagoon, the Palace of Fine Arts is composed of a wide, 1,100 ft (0.34 km) pergola around a central rotunda situated by the water.[17] The lagoon was intended to echo those found in classical settings in Europe, where the expanse of water provides a mirror surface to reflect the grand buildings and an undisturbed vista to appreciate them from a distance.

Ornamentation includes Bruno Zimm's three repeating panels around the entablature of the rotunda, representing "The Struggle for the Beautiful", symbolizing Greek culture.[18] While Ulric Ellerhusen supplied the weeping women atop the colonnade[19] and the sculptured frieze and allegorical figures representing Contemplation, Wonderment, and Meditation.[20][21]

The underside of the Palace rotunda's dome features eight large insets, which originally contained murals by Robert Reid. Four depicted the conception and birth of Art, "its commitment to the Earth, its progress and acceptance by the human intellect," and the four "golds" of California (poppies, citrus fruits, metallic gold, and wheat).[22]

The Palace at night, reflected in the water
Emblem plaque for the Lucasfilm Foundation (on the floor underneath the dome)

In popular culture[edit]

The Palace of Fine Arts has been seen in films such as Vertigo (1958),[23] Time After Time (1979),[24] Bicentennial Man (1999), The Room (2003),[25] and Twisted (2004).[26] It also served as the backdrop for set pieces in So I Married An Axe Murderer (1993)[27] and The Rock (1996).[28] Additionally, the Palace has appeared in the Indian films My Name is Khan (2010)[29] and Vaaranam Aayiram (2008).[30] It also appears in Season 7, Episode 2 of Mission: Impossible, and in Season 8, Episode 7 of Mannix. It was incorporated into the imagery of the Sept of Baelor in Season 1, Episode 9 of Game of Thrones.[citation needed]

Lucasfilm headquarters was constructed near the Palace of Fine Arts, which has been noted for its similarity to the city of Theed on Naboo as it appears in the film Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999).[31]

In the 2000s, a smaller replica of the rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts was built in Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim, serving as the entrance to a theater showing the film Golden Dreams about the history of California.[32] The attraction closed on September 7, 2008, and was demolished in 2009 to make way for The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel's Undersea Adventure dark ride. The rotunda entrance remained, but it was repainted and serves as an entrance to the ride.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e "National Register Information System – (#04000659)". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. March 13, 2009.
  2. ^ "City of San Francisco Designated Landmarks". City of San Francisco. Archived from the original on March 25, 2014. Retrieved October 21, 2012.
  3. ^ Circular of information: Panama-Pacific International Exposition. San Francisco: San Francisco: Department of Fine Arts. 1915. p. 5. The Palace of Fine Arts is a fireproof building of steel and concrete construction.
  4. ^ "Plaque in honour of B.F.Modglin". Wiki Commons. Retrieved October 29, 2023.
  5. ^ "Ready for the 'biggest job in history of west (Davis–Bacon Act of 1931)" (PDF). Bureau of Reclamation. Retrieved October 29, 2023.
  6. ^ a b c Kamiya, Gary (April 15, 2015). "The Temple". Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Retrieved October 15, 2020., excerpt from: Kamiya, Gary (2013). Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco (1st U.S. ed.). New York: Bloomsbury. ISBN 978-1-60819-960-0.
  7. ^ "What's Happening With That Giant Building Behind the Palace of Fine Arts?". SF Weekly. January 17, 2019. Retrieved April 6, 2020.
  8. ^ a b Ting, Eric; Dowd, Katie; Amanda; Bartlett, a; SFGATE (April 4, 2020). "Bay Area coronavirus updates: SF's Palace of Fine Arts will be temporary homeless shelter". SFGate. Retrieved April 6, 2020.
  9. ^ The Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco: Panama-Pacific International Exposition, San Francisco, 1915
  10. ^ McCoy, Esther (1960). Five California Architects. New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation. p. 6. ASIN B000I3Z52W.
  11. ^ The Palace of Fine Arts: A Short History
  12. ^ The Palace of Fine Arts: Rebuilding Archived October 12, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ "A Short History". The Maybeck Foundation. Retrieved April 8, 2012.
  14. ^ Palace of Fine Arts, Official Website, background Archived January 1, 2011, at the Wayback Machine
  15. ^ "'Wheel of Fortune' Spins for Bay Area". October 4, 1996.
  16. ^ "SF City Hall was ahead of the curve in its coronavirus response. So why is it now failing the homeless?". SFChronicle.com. April 8, 2020. Retrieved May 6, 2020.
  17. ^ "A Treasury of World's Fair Art & Architecture: Palace of Fine Arts". Archived from the original on April 15, 2012. Retrieved August 17, 2010.
  18. ^ "Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco Marina Neighborhood". Archived from the original on October 1, 2013. Retrieved August 17, 2010.
  19. ^ The Architecture and Landscape Gardening of the Exposition, A Pictorial Survey of the Most Beautiful Architectural Compositions of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition by Louis Christian Mullgardt
  20. ^ Exhibition of American Sculpture Catalogue, 156th Street of Broadway New York, The National Sculpture Society 1923 p.55
  21. ^ Macomber, Ben (1915). "The Palace of Fine Arts and its Exhibit, With the Awards". The Jewel City: Its Planning and Achievement; Its Architecture, Sculpture, Symbolism, and Music; Its Gardens, Palaces, and Exhibits. San Francisco and Tacoma: John H. Williams, Publisher.
  22. ^ The Art of the Exposition by Eugen Neuhaus
  23. ^ "Vertigo – Palace of Fine Arts". Reel SF. December 11, 2011. Retrieved November 11, 2018.
  24. ^ "Time After Time – Film Locations". Movie-Locations.com. Retrieved November 11, 2018.
  25. ^ Scarlett, Jackson (September 23, 2012). "On Location: "The Room"". 7x7. Retrieved November 11, 2018.
  26. ^ Rosenbaum, Dan (March 19, 2018). "Palace of Fine Arts – San Francisco, CA". San Francisco Travel. Retrieved November 11, 2018.
  27. ^ Donat, Hank (2001). "San Francisco in Cinema: So I Married an Axe Murderer". MisterSF.com. Retrieved November 11, 2018.
  28. ^ "The Rock – Film Locations". Movie-Locations.com. Retrieved November 11, 2018.
  29. ^ "A Tribute to Shah Rukh Khan: My Name Is Khan". SFFILM. Retrieved November 11, 2018.
  30. ^ "Vaaranam Aayiram". Where Was It Shot. Retrieved November 11, 2018.
  31. ^ Hill, Angela (September 15, 2015). "A 'Star Wars' Bay Area tour". The Mercury News. Retrieved November 11, 2018.
  32. ^ "Golden Dreams". Disney's California Adventure. Walt Disney Company. Archived from the original on April 6, 2007. Retrieved May 11, 2007.

External links[edit]