The story of San Francisco’s California Palace of the Legion of Honor starts in France where the original Legion of Honor building stands on the Seine’s left bank and is one of the dominant 18th century structures. The Palace Legion of Honor in France was originally called Hotel de Salm and was built from 1782-1788 and served as a royal residence for a year before the French Revolution. Later Napoleon took over the building and made it the headquarters of his Legion d’Honneur, an honorary decoration for French heroes both civilians and military.
In 1915 the Panama Pacific International Exposition held in San Francisco called for the construction of several pavilions to house the exhibits, one of them being the French Pavilion. The building was designed to look like the Palace Legion of Honor in Paris, France. These exposition pavilions were not built to last and the intention was to let the exposition structures be destroyed, taken away or left to ruins after the expo finished. However fate stepped in and the wife of sugar magnate Adolph B. Spreckels, Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, became enamored with the French Pavilion and was granted permission by the French government (who had funded the pavilion) to have a permanent replica built.
Construction was postponed due to the First World War but by 1924 the California Palace of the Legion of Honor stood proudly on Land’s End. Spreckels gifted the building to the city of San Francisco to be used as a fine arts museum in honor of the 3600 Californian soldiers who lost their lives in France during the First World War, the building was intended to house a Museum of Fine Arts.
The Californian version designed by George Applegarth is a ¾ scale copy of the Paris original, the design of the interior disguises non-aesthetical elements like water pipes, air-conditioning and air filters which cleans the air of dust to protect the art work. In the 1990’s the building was given seismic reinforcements to withstand the San Francisco quakes and other renovations were made without changing the historic façade but increasing the floor space.
The building’s gardens are as stunning as the structure itself. The museum is situated on the highest point of the park and there are views over Lincoln Park and down to the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Museum of Fine Art
Within the beautiful building is a collection of ancient European art dating as far back as 4000 years. The works are in a range of medium including sculptures, paintings, engravings, book illustrations and decorative art. The work of sculpture Auguste Rodin features prominently with over 70 pieces, the best known on show is The Thinker which stands on the museum patio. The museum also houses a paper conservation laboratory, a print study room and a porcelain study room all used by researchers and students who examine the museum’s artifacts in the course of their work. The location is a popular venue for events and is rented out for weddings and other occasions.
Visiting the Museum
The Legion of Honor is located at 100 34th Avenue at Clement Street in Lincoln Park. Open hours are Tuesday to Sunday from 9:30am to 5:15pm and it is closed on Mondays. Entrance is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors, $6 for students and youths aged 13 to 17 and under 12s go free. Entrance to the museum is free on the first Tuesday of each month.