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CityPASS Home  »  City Traveler Blog  »  The Palace of Fine Arts: A San Francisco Original

City Traveler Blog

The Palace of Fine Arts: A San Francisco Original

Photo Credit: Mike Martin

Classical, colossal and monumental, The Palace of Fine Arts has stood for 98 years in the Marina District of San Francisco. This Classical Greek and Roman-influenced outdoor structure is one of the more photographed sites in San Francisco, especially as it is reflected in its surrounding pond with swans, ducks, a walking trail and a park with benches. It remains a popular attraction for tourists and locals, and is a favorite location for weddings.

The Palace of Fine Arts also is the best place in the City to see shows. There are no bad seats, the venue is intimate and the acoustics are exceptional. Upcoming events in May include the Annual Human Rights Awards featuring Noam Chomsky, DancEsteem’s annual performance, Brit Floyd, New Edges dancers, Shaping Sound dance company, and San Francisco Boys Chorus. See the full schedule here.

Located at 3301 Lyon Street, it is pretty easy to get to — although visitors might have trouble finding parking in the Marina area. One suggestion is to park within Presidio and walk or take the free shuttle that makes loops around the whole park. Once there, visitors enjoy the smell of the eucalyptus trees lining the lagoon, as well as many forms of wildlife living around the property. These include swans, ducks, geese, turtles, frogs and raccoons.

Built to show off the City
In 1910, San Francisco was anxious to show the world that it had risen from the ashes following its devastating earthquake and fire in 1906. Business and civic leaders raised money to win the right to host the century’s first World’s Fair — a grand exposition that would honor the completion of the Panama Canal.

The 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition was built on 635 acres reclaimed from San Francisco Bay, the exposition featured 11 exhibit palaces showcasing objects from every corner of the globe. The Palace of Fine Arts was the work of California architect Bernard Maybeck, and showcased art from Renaissance to Modern. It was supposed to come down at the conclusion of the exposition.

By the time the exposition closed nine months later, more than 18 million people — about 20 times the population of San Francisco at the time — would visit the exposition. However, when the exposition ended, the Palace lived on — saved from demolition by the Palace Preservation League, founded by Phoebe Apperson Hearst. Today the Palace of Fine Arts is the last reminder of a great gathering that welcomed the world back to San Francisco.

A variety of uses
The Palace has seen a variety of uses during its near-century of existence. It has housed a continuous art exhibit, lighted tennis courts, and, during World War II, it was requisitioned by the military for storage of trucks and jeeps. After the war, the hall served as a city park warehouse; as a telephone book distribution center; as a flag and tent storage depot; and as temporary a fire department headquarters.

Unfortunately, by 1950, the Palace resembled a crumbling ruin. In 1964 the original Palace was completely demolished and then reconstructed. In 1969, the former Exhibit Hall became home to the Exploratorium interactive museum (a CityPASS attraction), and in 1970 also became the home of the 966-seat Palace of Fine Arts Theater. In January 2013, the Exploratorium made a permanent move to the Embarcadero.

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