When the San Francisco Exploratorium was located in The Palace Of Fine Arts Exhibit Hall, we visited the Palace almost as an afterthought. As a child, I just saw it as the fancy outdoor buildings next to the awesome interactive museum. When Natalie and Carter were young, we visited the Exploratorium again and tried walking through the adjacent park, but it was during the most recent restoration of The Palace Of Fine Arts and it was covered in scaffolding and tarps.
Since then, the Palace has always been a magnificent landmark seen in the distance, not a destination. But this last trip to San Francisco included visits to the Lyon Street Steps, Crissy Field, Fort Point, and the Wave Organ — all located in the Marina District and all close to the Palace Of Fine Arts.
Needless to say, we visited the Palace Park, walking under the enormous rotunda, down the wide walkways line with towering columns, and around the sunny Palace Lagoon.
It was super crowded! Two different wedding parties were vying for time in the Palace for photos, families were picnicking on the grass, couples were napping in the sun, and runners were dodging between groups of tourists snapping photos.
After spending the morning climbing stairs and walking almost six miles, we claimed an empty bench to relax in the sun, listen to the fountain splashing in the lagoon, and watch the ducks, the geese, and the people. Once rested, we walked back to the car and headed across the Golden Gate Bridge to explore Battery Mendell at Fort Barry and the Point Bonita Lighthouse in the Marin Headlands.
The Palace Of Fine Arts
Located in the Marina District of San Francisco, The Palace Of Fine Arts rises above the surrounding trees and neighborhood as a stunning visual landmark and beautiful gathering place. The beautiful 17 acre park features an expansive lagoon lined with grassy fields, park benches, and Australian eucalyptus trees. If you’re lucky, you’ll also see some of the wildlife that has made the park their home, including swans, ducks, geese, turtles, frogs, and raccoons.
The 148,000 square foot Palace Of Fine Arts consists of a 1,100 foot wide, 162 foot tall rotunda and 30 Corinthian columns that frame a wide walkway in the colonnade.
It is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike, a sought-after venue for engagement and wedding photos, and a fantastic place to relax in the sun and have a picnic. The Palace is so famous that a miniature replica now stands in Disney’s California Adventure, Anaheim.
Palace Of Fine Arts History
Originally built as one of ten palaces for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, The Palace Of Fine Arts was designed by Bernard Maybeck, who took his inspiration from Roman and Ancient Greek architecture. While most of the Exhibition was demolished, the Palace was so beloved that a Palace Preservation League was created during the exhibition to save it. Today it stands on its original site as one of the only surviving structures from the fair.
Over the years, The Palace Of Fine Arts has been used for a variety of purposes:
- It housed ongoing art exhibits and during the Great Depression, artists were commissioned to replace the decayed Robert Reid murals on the ceiling of the rotunda.
- From 1934 to 1942 the exhibition hall was home to eighteen lighted tennis courts.
- In World War II, it was requisitioned by the military for storage of trucks and jeeps, and at the end of the war, when the United Nations was created in San Francisco, the motor pool limousines were staged there.
- From 1947 on, the Exhibit Hall was used as a Park Department warehouse, a telephone book distribution center, a flag and tent storage depot, and the temporary Fire Department headquarters.
Not intended to last past the end of the Panama-Pacific Exposition, the original Palace Of Fine Arts cost $621,929 to build and was constructed with wood frames covered in staff — a mixture of plaster and burlap-type fibers — and by the 1950s it was already falling apart.
The original Palace was demolished in 1964 and rebuilt using permanent, light-weight, poured-in-place concrete, and steel I-beams. Five years later, the Exhibit Hall became the San Francisco Exploratorium and home of the Palace of Fine Arts Theater. Then around 2010, restoration and seismic retrofitting of the dome, rotunda, colonnades, and lagoon were completed.
Know Before You Go
- The Palace Of Fine Arts is located at 3301 Lyon Street, San Francisco, California 94123 at the intersection of Lyon and Marina Streets in the Marina District.
- It was named a Designated San Francisco Landmark in 1977 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2005.
- The Palace Of Fine Arts Exhibit Hall housed the San Francisco Exploratorium before its move to the Embarcadero and the Palace of Fine Arts Theater.
- Restrooms are inside the Exhibit Hall, now known as The Venue At PFA, which is open from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm Tuesday through Sunday. Inside is a coffee/snack counter called Cafe Plus.
- Free parking and more restrooms are located across the street at the Marina Green.