Palace of Fine Arts

Like the Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower, the Palace of Fine Arts is an iconic San Francisco landmark; it is loved by locals and attracts visitors from around the world. Located near the bay in the Marina District, the Palace of Fine Arts is a beautiful public park, and it is also home to a performing arts theater and the ever-popular Exploratorium.

01) Palace of Fine Arts (Z28-11-908)

The Palace of Fine Arts was built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. This world’s fair celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal, and hosting the fair was San Francisco’s way of letting the world know it had recovered from the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. Built to emulate a Roman ruin, the Palace of Fine Arts, was one of ten palaces created for the fair; it was the signature structure and the only one that remains on the original site.

Because it was intended to be temporary, the original palace was constructed largely of burlap fiber, plaster, and chicken wire; and within a few years, this faux Roman ruin was pretty much a ruin itself. In the 1960s the structures were stripped down to their steel frames and rebuilt with poured concrete. But, alas, even that deteriorated over time, and the Palace has just undergone its second major renovation. Now it looks better than ever.

03) Swan (Z28-11-886)

The Palace of Fine Arts is a serene, dream-like public park with a Roman ruin reflected in a tranquil lagoon. The lagoon is a remnant of an ancient tidal wetland and still serves as habitat on the Pacific Flyway. There are ducks, coots, gulls, and sometimes herons in the lagoon along with three resident white swans.

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A winding path and grassy slopes surround the lagoon; the path loops through the ruin’s colonnades and under the rotunda’s 158-foot-high dome. Around the outside edge of the dome, there are eight low-relief panels by Bruno L. Zimm, which symbolize Greek culture’s “desire for poetic and artistic expression." Each of the 30 Corinthian columns is topped with four weeping maidens who, curiously, have their backs turned to the world. My favorite explanation for this is that the tears of the weeping maidens were intended, symbolically, to water vines planted to climb the columns. The vines were never planted, so I guess it doesn’t matter that the tears were never real. In any case, the maidens are the work of sculptor Ulric Ellerhusen.

This peaceful park is one of the most photographed sites in San Francisco. It has appeared in many movies and TV shows and even in a couple of video games. It’s a popular wedding location, a good bird-watching site, and a favorite subject for wannabe photographers like me.

But that’s not all. Barely visible behind the twin colonnades and rotunda is a ginormous, three-acre, crescent-shaped exhibition hall. This is where 11,000 works of art were on display during the 1915 world’s fair. Now the building is home to both the Palace of Fine Arts Theater and the Exploratorium.

08) Mary & Chris (10:05-4818)

The Exploratorium

The Exploratorium is a science museum with hundreds of hands-on exhibits. It’s oriented toward children and is a great place for families or school groups to explore, learn, and have fun. The Exploratorium has programs to help train science teachers, and it’s a very popular field trip for schools.

The Exploratorium opened in 1969; it was founded by physicist and professor Dr. Frank Oppenheimer. It was his dream to transform science education by making it more interesting and fun with hands-on tools and experiments. His vision evolved as he visited science museums in Europe; he was convinced that a science museum, where people could “explore natural phenomena,” was an effective way to increase the public’s understanding of science and technology.

For more details about the Exploratorium, click here for the fact sheet or here for the visitor’s brochure.

The Palace of Fine Arts Theater

The theater occupies the southern end of the cavernous exhibit hall. It’s available for rent and has a seating capacity of 962. It hosts numerous events like concerts, pageants, lectures, and film festivals. I’ve never been inside this theater, but from the looks of the event schedule, it’s pretty well booked.

The Architect, Bernard Maybeck

The Palace of Fine Arts was designed by Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck (1862-1957). According to the signage at the park, the Palace of Fine Arts contains three elements of Maybeck’s style. He liked blending “architecture and landscape”; he liked using classical motifs and proportions, and he wanted his works to elicit “specific emotional responses from the viewer.” He wanted the Palace of Fine Arts to “evoke the sadness and beauty of looking at a Roman ruin.” I think he succeeded.


Giving credit where credit is due:

New sense of power at restored Palace of Fine Arts - By John King, February 1, 2011

Website: The Palace of Fine Arts – a brief history …

Website: Bargain Travel West – The Palace of Fine Arts …


© Virginia E. Vail 2012