When I said “yes” to the suggestion of visiting the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, honestly, I meant “yes” to being in San Francisco. But after seeing the Palace for the first time, exploring some of its wonders and reading about its historic and architectural significance, I have come to understand and appreciate it more.
Constructed in 1915 by Bernard Maybeck, the palace was intended as an exhibit to house famous works of art for the Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), a world’s fair held in San Francisco celebrating the completion of the Panama Canal.
Maybeck admired Roman and Greek architecture, and designed the monument to resemble a fictional ruin.
Picturing the palace beforehand, I envisioned an enormous, but unexciting white pantheon blending in with the black of the night sky while mosquitoes swarm around me restlessly.
But when my mom and I caught our first glimpse, I immediately envied all the residents in the neighborhood able to enjoy this magnificent view on a daily basis.
The Palace was simply a masterpiece; colored spotlights scattered along walkways illuminated the exhibit, making it appear as some sort of elegant circus. A glistening lagoon hugged the base of the palace, containing fountains that bursted ecstatically and a reflection perfectly symmetrical to the artwork above.
Standing prominently, the luminescent giant seemed to guard Lion Street and mysteriously watch over the day’s events. With fog horns sounding from a distant harbor and a crescent moon looming overhead, we continued to trace the perimeter of the exposition until we were faced with the Palace which, the nearer we got, began resembling a Roman rotunda.
Eight Corinthian columns supported a massive dome that roofed awestricken tourists underneath, and the multicolored spotlights beside each column pointed upward,
giving the Palace a rainbow glow. This modern, touched-up appearance must have evolved from something not as flamboyant.
Sure enough, the structure was initially modeled on a decaying Roman ruin, meaning that it intended to look old.
But the rotunda Palace was sturdy enough to serve several purposes in the 1900s: it served as a city Park Department Warehouse, a Fire Department, and a storage place for military jeeps and trucks. Maybeck might not have appreciated these glossy renovations, but the general format of his design remains today and attracts tourists nevertheless.
Drawn in by the festive streams of light, I bolted to the Palace’s center floor which sunk
slightly into the ground, and I stood there shouting obnoxiously in attempt to hear my echoes. Letting my head hang back, I stared up at the ceiling in amazement.
For a moment, I expected to get abducted by aliens because of how closely the ceiling resembled a flying saucer.
Before its remodeling, I learned, eight large insets existed underneath the dome (where I
stood) containing murals by artist Robert Read that represented “art’s commitment to the
Earth, its progress and acceptance by the human intellect” and “the golds of California” (wheat, fruits, poppies, etc).
Artist Bruno L. Zimm also symbolized the “Greek culture and its desire for poetic and artistic expression.” with decorative panels that surrounded me.
Features like these helped to create the pleasant, romantic atmosphere that allured curious visitors like me, and ultimately motivated the community to keep the Palace standing.
Upon my departure, I found my people; an area where photographers clustered,
competing with one another to capture the perfect snapshot of the Palace with their fancy cameras.
While taking pictures, I discovered the big picture that the Palace was simply one with nature. Before, I barely noticed the pergola along the walkway full of trees, plants and shrubbery. It then became clear that the outer forestry framed the palace, the windy pathways, the twinkling water, and everything else perfectly, as if it were a part of Maybeck’s design.
Some observers might presume that the nature contrasts with the Palace purposely to demonstrate human achievement, while others argue that the nature and Palace were intended as a union. Regardless of how you approach this interpretation, these intertwining facets of the Palace offer a beautiful accent to the artwork inside.