San Francisco City Tour – The Palace

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A San Francisco city tour would not be complete without visiting the Palace of Fine Arts.  Of course, there’s no royalty in residence. However, the architecture is fit for a monarchy, with a style that borrows freely from Bernini’s (1598-1680) neoclassical Saint Peter’s Square.

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The Palace is introduced with a lagoon, fountains, swans and a processional colonnade, in a generous welcome to visitors. The rotunda was inspired by a Piranesi engraving that featured a Roman ruin reflected in a pool. According to Bernard Maybeck, the architect who designed it in 1915, this ruin existed not for its own sake but to show “the mortality of grandeur and the vanity of human wishes.”

This fascinating work of art, in its own right, was designed for an exhibit at thePanama Pacific Exposition,held in 1915, to celebrate the restoration of the city after the devastating 1906 earthquake and the opening of the Panama Canal.

A favorite San Francisco tourist spot, it has welcomed thousands of visitors to the city’s Presidio Park to enjoy an array of events, exhibits and a parade of weddings. With an exposure to a grand bygone era of architecture, no effort was spared in its homage to beauty.  Maybeck, true to his inspiration, left no surface untreated, gracing them with garlands, dentil moldings and double cornices in a rich blend of textures.

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The original map of the Palace clearly shows its intention as an exhibition hall for the occasion.   It continues to contain what is called an Exploratorium, a hands-on scientific exhibit for families and children to experience scientific displays.

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Many couples choose the lagoon as a backdrop for their wedding.

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Composed of less than durable materials, the Palace was originally meant to last for the short time the exhibit was scheduled.  As it began to deteriorate, it took years before the city acted on the idea of restoring it as a permanent feature of the Park.

Restoration began in 1965, when the old Palace was razed, removed, and a new building erected.  Today it stands as a tribute to Bernard Maybeck’s imagination and skill.   Continuing to offer exhibits, performances and idyllic wedding settings, it is cherished by the residents of San Francisco and visitors who are enjoying city sightseeing in San Francisco.

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Blog-7-Image-4-300x198Pageants, concerts, children’s musical theater, music festivals and national foundations all find their way to this 962-seat hall.  Wide and shallow, it became an audio problem as time went by and audiences commented on the sub-standard sound.  Curiously, the audience portion of the space is filled with sound-deadening materials, while the stage is quite ambient—just the opposite of most performance facilities.  It took a series of engineers and sound techs to finally solve the problem.  Robert Williams, Jr. , Head Sound Engineer at Lincoln Theatre, now pronounces it as “pristine and clear a rig as I’ve heard.”

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Blog-7-Image-5-300x200The exhibition hall is a grand space, with banks of skylights between steel girders.  In contrast with the exterior design, the space is a masterful example of modern structural techniques.  In the middle of the hall, an observation deck gives onto a view of the entire space—quite spectacular and a convenient orienting device for lost parents.  The facility provides anywhere from a generous 200 square foot “small” space to a large space that may cover an entire end of the building.

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Although the buildings and grounds hold the fine art of a modern city, it’s interesting to note that the Palace was meant to represent a decaying Roman ruin.  In the words of Maybeck, his building gave a sense of “sadness modified by the feeling that beauty has a soothing influence.”  Perhaps so, but as a set piece, it is also a major contribution to visitors’ having an enjoyable day, with A Taste of San Francisco and Beyond’ San Francisco City Tour, as one of the city’s most memorable landmarks.


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