A year ago I wrote a piece called Athens of the South, a reference to the city of Nashville and its remarkable full-scale replica of the Greek Parthenon in downtown Centennial Park. The Nashville Parthenon is a leftover from the 1897 Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition. If you ever visit the ruins of the real Parthenon, you might want to add Nashville to the itinerary to see how the structure looked in its full splendor.
Shortly after my trip to Nashville, I traveled to San Francisco for my niece’s wedding. She chose a remarkable venue for her ceremony – outdoors under the dome of the elegant Palace of Fine Arts, near the Golden Gate Bridge in the Marina District. The Palace, as it turns out, has much in common with the Nashville Parthenon. Despite more popular attractions, both structures belong on the “must-see” lists of their respective cities.
The Palace of Fine Arts, like the Nashville Parthenon, is one of the few remaining structures from its World’s Fair; in this case San Francisco’s 1915 Pan[ama]-Pacific International Exposition. Typical of a World’s Fair, the Pan-Pacific showcased products, inventions, and cultures of the day, and remained open to the public for almost a year. The 600+ acres of San Francisco’s Marina District (where I rented my first post-college apartment) served as the Exposition’s central footprint, with the Palace on the west end and “The Zone” of amusements and concessions on the east (near Fort Mason). Even though the Pan-Pacific’s structures were designed from plaster and burlap – to literally fall to pieces after a year, a few have been preserved to this day. The Civic (Bill Graham) Auditorium is a Pan-Pacific structure in its original location. The Japanese Tea House was loaded onto a barge and shipped down the bay to the town of Belmont, where it still stands today as a restaurant. Two of the Exposition’s state pavilions (Wisconsin, Virginia) were relocated to nearby Marin County.
The Pan-Pacific Exposition – like the Tennessee Centennial – brimmed with remarkable structures, including ten exhibition “palaces” and the 435-ft. tall Tower of Jewels. Surely none of these were more elegant than the Palace of Fine Arts. My first visit to the Palace was back in the 1970’s, when it housed the Exploratorium, a kid’s-dream hands-on maze of exhibits showcasing the wonders of mechanics, physics, and chemistry. The Exploratorium filled the Palace’s Exhibition Hall for 44 years before moving to its current location in the Embarcadero. The Exhibition Hall was all about art for the Pan-Pacific, but it’s had several creative uses since, including tennis courts, storage of military trucks and jeeps, and a temporary fire department.
Let’s be honest though – the Exhibition Hall is not why you visit the Palace of Fine Arts; at least not anymore. You’ll be captivated by the glorious Roman/Greek-inspired structure of dome, rotunda, and adjoining pergolas instead. Take a walk between the colonnades to get a sense of its monumental scale. Have a picnic on the grassy shores of the lagoon. The Palace’s best photo opp: on the east side of the water under the Australian eucalyptus trees. Your view is uninterrupted, and mirrored in the water’s reflection. It’s a popular spot for wedding photos, as my wife and I discovered thirty years ago:
Personal connections or not, I like to think of the Palace of Fine Arts as a large-scale keepsake; a reminder of those simpler-yet-somehow-more-elegant days and generations gone by. Perhaps the Palace gazes forlornly to the east, seeking the grandeur and crowds of the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exhibition. Perhaps she’s content to just watch over the parade of newlyweds on the far side of the lagoon. Either way, I’m glad she’s still around. Like the Nashville Parthenon, the Palace of Fine Arts is fine art.
Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.