What’s Up With The Palace Of Fine Arts? Is The San Francisco Landmark About To Become ‘Cirque Du Soleil’?

One hundred and one years ago, the Palace of Fine Arts opened for what was intended to be a nine-month run. Built for the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition of 1915 and slated for destruction in 1916, the handsome colonnaded structure has been rescued more than once.

Recently, a petition boasting some 24,000 signatures was delivered to the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department with the hope that the handsome Beaux-Arts building can be rescued yet again.

The first save of the Palace of Fine Arts occurred within months of its grand opening.

During the height of the Pan-Pacific festivities, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, American suffragette and mother of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, founded the Palace Preservation League. The sole goal of the PPL was to spare the beloved structure from the wrecking ball. The plan worked, and the temporary, albeit elegant, edifice became the City’s first art museum, and has been an icon of San Francisco architectural style ever since.

Unlike Hearst’s drive to preserve the palace from post-exhibition demolition, the recently submitted petition seeks to save the iconic structure from perceived misuse.

According to Kirsten Selberg, the San Francisco resident who started the popular petition, two of the three development plans currently under consideration by the Recreation and Park Department propose turning the site into a luxury hotel with what she referred to as a “small nod to the arts.” The third plan under consideration proposes the construction of a high-end restaurant on the site of the Palace of Fine Arts.

An excerpt from the petition follows.

“Once again, our officials are preparing to sell out from under us another piece of San Francisco heritage, a heritage that belongs solely to the citizens of this City and to those who share a love for it.”

According to the San Francisco Examiner, the Operations Committee of the Recreation and Park Commission selected the three development plans currently under consideration from a field of seven based on factors such as “compatibility with the neighborhood” and “proposed uses.”

World Arts West executive director, Julie Mushet, disagrees with the Rec and Park’s choice of possible development plans. World Arts West proposed a Center for Global Arts and Cultures that would keep the property public and dedicated to artistic endeavor. The proposal was promptly denied. World Arts West performances have been regular features at the Palace of Fine Arts for more than 25 years. When the performing arts organization’s proposal was denied, Mushet filed a formal letter of protest.

“The arts are under enormous stress for survival in San Francisco. It [the proposal] really is the only proposal that preserves the original purpose of the Palace of Fine Arts.”

Mushet told KQED Arts the following.

“One of the proposals that’s a finalist said that they’ll make $9 million in profit a year off of the theater. So it really raises the question that if there’s a hotel and a theater, is this Las Vegas? Is this going to be Cirque Du Soleil?

One of the problems that locals seem to have with the Palace development plan is the monumental bank account required to be considered as a future tenant. According to the San Francisco Examiner, anyone who is awarded the 55-year lease on the Palace of Fine Arts will have to shell out around $20 million for seismic retrofitting and other property improvements right off the bat.

The search for a moneyed tenant began two years ago. Said Rec and Park representative Sarah Ballard, “Our goal is to find a tenant that increases public access, that has an economic engine in place that allows for the $20 million necessary to bring the building up to code, and that continues to enhance the cultural fabric of San Francisco.”

City Supervisor Mark Farrell represents the Marina District. He agrees that parts of the property are in need of repair.

“We have spent a great deal of effort over the past few decades ensuring that the lagoon and the core structures are built for the future, and now we need to focus on the rear building where the Exploratorium once lived, which is seismically unsafe, and look towards the future.”

A very brief history of the Palace of Fine Arts

Designed by architects Bernard Ralph Maybeck and William Gladstone Merchant, the wood-framed rotunda, dome, and colonnade of the original Palace were covered in a lightweight, quickly applied substance called “staff.” Comprised of burlap and plaster, staff was stuff used to rapidly erect temporary structures. It wasn’t meant to last very long.

At the time of its debut, The Palace commemorated two important occurrences: the construction of the Panama Canal, and the rebirth of San Francisco in the wake of the great earthquake and conflagration of 1906. Built to resemble a Greek ruin, the Palace of Fine Arts was never scheduled to stand for a century.

Truth be told, it hasn’t.

The replica ruin was close to becoming a real ruin in the middle of the 20th century. In 1959, the citizens of San Francisco approved a $1.8 million bond to refurbish and reconstruct the well-loved Palace with permanent materials, such as poured-in-place concrete and steel girders.

As reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Palace of Fine Arts was partially demolished and then rebuilt in 1964. In 1993, much of the property was seismically retrofitted. The grounds and rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts underwent an extensive renovation in 2010.

Whether for or against potential commercial use of the property, San Franciscans seem to agree on one thing: The Palace of Fine Arts is as impressive today as it has been for the past century.

San Francisco Landmark Poised To Become The Next Cirque Du Soleil?
[Photo via Rhyman007/Getty Images]

Longtime Bay Area architect John L. Stewart called the Palace of Fine Arts “the most beautiful building ever created.” Stewart’s respectful sentiment is echoed by many.

The City could choose a new tenant this month, or the non-profit group that’s currently presenting a Hunger Games exhibit at the Palace may be allowed to extend their short-term lease for an indefinite time.

As of today, there are no plans to turn the venerable Palace of Fine Arts into a Vegas-style circus or an upscale hotel and restaurant. A change toward commercialism may be on the way, however, and a lot of locals are not loving the idea.

[Photo via Lingbeek/Getty Images]