Palace of Fine Arts

The Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina District of San Francisco, California, is a monumental structure originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in order to exhibit works of art presented there. One of only a few surviving structures from the Exposition, it is the only one still situated on its original site. It was rebuilt in 1965, and renovation of the lagoon, walkways, and a seismic retrofit were completed in early 2009.

It remains a popular attraction for tourists and locals, and is a favorite location for weddings and wedding party photographs for couples throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, and such an icon that a miniature replica of it was built in Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim.


The Palace of Fine Arts was one of ten palaces at the heart of the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, which also included the exhibit palaces of Education, Liberal Arts, Manufactures, Varied Industries, Agriculture, Food Products, Transportation, Mines and Metallurgy and the Palace of Machinery. The Palace of Fine Arts was designed by Bernard Maybeck, who took his inspiration from Roman and Greek architecture in designing what was essentially a fictional ruin from another time.

While most of the Exposition was demolished when the Exposition ended, the Palace was so beloved that a Palace Preservation League, founded by Phoebe Apperson Hearst, was founded while the fair was still in progress.

For a time the Palace housed a continuous art exhibit, and during the Great Depression, W.P.A. artists were commissioned to replace the deteriorated Robert Reid murals on the ceiling of the rotunda. From 1934 to 1942 the exhibition hall was home to eighteen lighted tennis courts. During World War II it was requisitioned by the Army for storage of trucks and jeeps. At the end of the war, when the United Nations was created in San Francisco, limousines used by the world's statesmen came from a motor pool there. From 1947 on the hall was put to various uses: as a city Park Department warehouse; as a telephone book distribution center; as a flag and tent storage depot; and even as temporary Fire Department headquarters.

While the Palace had been saved from demolition, its structure was not stable. Originally intended to only stand for the duration of the Exhibition, the colonnade and rotunda were not built of durable materials, and thus framed in wood and then covered with staff, a mixture of plaster and burlap-type fiber. As a result of the construction and vandalism, by the 1950s the simulated ruin was in fact a crumbling ruin.

In 1964 the original Palace was completely demolished, with only the steel structure of the exhibit hall left standing. The buildings were then reconstructed in permanent, light-weight, poured-in-place concrete, and steel I-beams were hoisted into place for the dome of the rotunda. All the decorations and sculpture were constructed anew. The only changes were the absence of the murals in the dome, two end pylons of the colonnade, and the original ornamentation of the exhibit hall.

In 1969 the former Exhibit Hall became home to the Exploratorium interactive museum, and in 1970 also became the home of the 1,000 seat Palace of Fine Arts Theater.

Today, Australian eucalyptus trees fringe the eastern shore of the lagoon. Many forms of wildlife have made their home there including swans, ducks (particularly migrating fowl), geese, turtles, frogs, and raccoons.


Built around a small artificial lagoon, The Palace of Fine Arts is composed of a wide, 1100 foot pergola, an arch formed by rows of Corinthian columns framing a wide walkway, around a central rotunda situated by the water. The lagoon was intended to echo those found in classical settings in Europe, where the expanse of water provides a mirror surface to reflect the grand buildings and an undisturbed vista to appreciate them from a distance.

Ornamentation includes Bruno Louis Zimm's three repeating panels around the entablature of the rotunda representing "The Struggle for the Beautiful" symbolizing Greek culture. while Ulric Ellerhusen supplied the weeping women atop the colonnade and the sculptured frieze and allegorical figures representing Contemplation, Wonderment and Meditation.

The underside of the Palace rotunda's dome features eight large insets, which originally contained murals by Robert Reid. Four of the murals depicted the conception and birth of Art, "its commitment to the Earth, its progress and acceptance by the human intellect," and four depicted the "golds" of California (poppies, citrus fruits, metallic gold, and golden wheat).

Other survivors of the exhibition

The Palace of Fine Arts was not the only building from the exposition to survive demolition. The Japanese Tea House (not to be confused with the Japanese Tea House that remains in Golden Gate Park, which dates from an 1894 fair) was purchased in 1915 by land baron E.D. Swift and was transported by barge down the Bay to Belmont, California where it stands to this day. The Wisconsin and Virginia buildings were relocated to Marin County. The Ohio building was shipped to San Mateo County, where it survived until the 1950s. The Column of Progress stood for a decade after the close of the Exhibition, but was then demolished to accommodate traffic on Marina Boulevard. Although not built on the exhibition grounds, the only other structure from it still standing in its original location is the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, known now as the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium.

In culture

The dome of the Palace of Fine Arts just outside the Exploratorium and the adjacent lagoon have often been used as backdrops.


  • Vertigo (1958) - Alfred Hitchcock's classic psychological thriller about a police detective who has acrophobia.
  • Time After Time (1979) - Several scenes including one between (Malcolm McDowell) and (Mary Steenburgen) as well as the climax stand off with (David Warner).
  • Jagged Edge (1985) - Briefly seen in a scenic view out a window in a home.
  • Kuffs (1992) - Christian Slater begrudgingly leaves a taxi in the city's Marina neighborhood, a prominent shot of the Palace of Fine Arts behind him.
  • So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993) - Mike Myers and Nancy Travis take a scenic walk on their first date, where they encounter Russian sailors at the Palace of Fine Arts.
  • The Rock (1996) - FBI agent Stanley Goodspeed (Nicolas Cage) goes to confront John Mason (Sean Connery) during daylight, who is speaking with his estranged daughter (Claire Forlani) in the dome.
  • The Other Sister (1999) - Juliette Lewis has a conversation with mother Diane Keaton near the dome before running off to feed the ducks on the palace's lake shore.
  • The Bachelor (1999) - With a helpful priest (James Cromwell) by his side, reluctant groom Jimmy Shannon (Chris O'Donnell) has an epiphany while sitting in a canoe on the palace's lake.
  • The Room (2003) - Shots of the Palace of Fine Arts are used in the film's opening and as transitions

between scenes. This location is otherwise not featured in the film and is seemingly unrelated to the plot but for a brief scene in which Johnny (Tommy Wiseau) is seen to walk past it.

  • Twisted (2004) - Police officer Ashley Judd finds herself being stalked in a foggy scene throughout the dome.

My Name Is Khan (2010 Bollywood Film)


  • The Streets of San Francisco - In the episode, The Set-Up, a hit-man leads a blind bar owner through the grounds at night as Stone and Keller trail behind.
  • Monk - In the episode Mr. Monk Goes to the Ballgame, Adrian Monk and his trusty assistant Sharona take a casual walk through the Palace of Fine Arts.
  • Nash Bridges - The landscape and its surrounding neighborhood were occasionally featured in episodes of the Don Johnson cop series.
  • Journeyman (TV series) -- In the episode Game Three, Dan Vasser winds up at the Palace of Fine Arts many times when he travels back in time to the day of the Loma Prieta earthquake
  • Late Show with David Letterman -- Show travels to San Francisco May 6-10, 1996 for a week long broadcast from the Palace of Fine Arts Theater.

Video games

  • Sim City 2000, Sim City 3000 Unlimited, and Sim City 4 feature this building as an optional landmark.
  • Midtown Madness 2 shows the Palace of fine arts nearly to Golden Gate Bridge.


  • In S.M. Stirling's alternate history book, Conquistador, the Gate Control Commission headquarters contains an exact replica of the rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts—but constructed in stone, or at least faced in stone.