The Palace of Fine Arts is one of San Francisco’s most photographed landmarks, and only exists today thanks to an array of San Francisco advocates who rallied against its destruction and disrepair. Built in the mid-1910s by architect Bernard Maybeck, the Palace of Fine Arts was constructed as part of the Panama Pacific International Exposition and, like all structures built for the event, was not intended to be a permanent part of the cityscape.
True to its name, the Palace showcased modern art during the festival, offering a wonderful contrast of old-world architecture and of-the-moment artwork. Once the exposition ended, most of the structures built for the event were torn down as planned, but the Palace of Fine Arts was deemed too aesthetically pleasing to meet a similar fate.
Avoiding destruction by a hair did not guarantee the Palace of Fine Arts would be saved, however. The structure fell into rapid disrepair, and the United States military even briefly used it to store weaponry and other supplies at the start of the Cold War. In a cruel twist of irony, the Palace started to look increasingly similar to the Roman ruins that had so inspired Maybeck.
The ending of story is somewhat spoiled by the effortless beauty the Palace of Fine Arts exudes today. Of course, the Palace was saved, thanks to a community-wide effort on the part of San Franciscans during the early 1960’s. A dedicated group of locals managed to privately fundraise enough money to restore the palace and make it a permanent part of San Francisco’s cityscape.
The Palace of Fine Arts sits on the fringes of one of my favorite neighborhoods in San Francisco: the Marina District. Just minutes away from the Bay and the Golden Gate Promenade, the Marina District is home to an array of colorful shops and cafes; this eclectic neighborhood is precisely what one pictures when thinking about San Francisco, and the Palace is its most recognizable feature. Scenically set along a small pond, photo opportunities are aplenty at the Palace – which is completely free to stroll around.
Who would believe the above photo was taken in San Francisco, as opposed to Rome or Athens? The Palace certainly isn’t what one expects when visiting the uber-modern Bay Area, which, as a tourist, adds to its intrigue.
The Palace of Fine Arts is truly the result of a grassroots campaign, and I find this makes the structure all the more appealing, especially given San Francisco’s decade-long battle against gentrification. The palace is a wonderful reminder of what happens when communities band together and fight for the preservation of a historical icon and cultural treasure. After all, the Palace was built only a few years after the great San Francisco fire of 1906, which wrought unprecedented destruction upon the blossoming city. Maybeck’s Palace, and the Panama Pacific International Exposition, were San Francisco’s first steps towards rebuilding.
If you’re visiting San Francisco and looking for a picnic spot on a wonderful weather day, the Palace of Fine Arts would be my top recommendation. It’s quieter than most other attractions in the city, and feels secluded even though the financial district is a mere bus ride away. Plus, there’s swans! Who doesn’t love swans?
While trying to photograph this fellow I kept thinking about the children’s book The Trumpet of the Swan by E.B. White. I had to do a diorama of a scene from this particular novel in the fourth grade, but I can’t, for the life of me, remember what the book was about. Besides swans. I do remember there being swans, but real-life swans, like at the Palace, are certainly preferred over fictional swans.
Side note: I think I just set a record for the number of times “swan” can be penned in an article on a travel website.
I visited the Palace of Fine Arts in the early morning as a photographer obsessed with San Francisco’s rare sunshine, but part of the palace remains, in fact, a working theatre where travelers can catch a show. Practical and impeccably beautiful, am I right? If you’re interested in seeing a performance, please visit the official website of the Palace of Fine Arts.