Untroubled by any afternoon fog, the sun slides towards the Golden Gate before retiring for the night.
White swans glide across the placid lagoon. A small boy runs after a ball, inadvertently kicking it forwards each time he reaches down to pick it up, whilst his mother checks her e mails on her new smart phone. Even the ubiquitous dogs and joggers appear to float past as if in a dream.
I glance to my left at the crippling climb up Lyon Street to privileged Pacific Heights, and feel that I could not be more blessed sat here on this bench, watching the day draw serenely to its close, than if I were observing it from above in the manicured garden of a multi-million dollar Victorian.
Built, along with ten other structures, on land created with sand dredged up from the bay for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915, the Palace of Fine Arts was designed to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal, but it quickly became a demonstration of San Francisco’s stunning revival after the devastating earthquake and fire of nine years earlier.
A wonderful place to re-charge your energies, meditate or wind down, especially in the final hour of daylight, the reflecting lagoon, once a frog pond, and the structures that tower over it, form a beautiful classical harmony.
The forty metre high rotunda with its golden dome, visible from both the hill above and the Golden Gate Bridge to the west, may appear incongruous in a city still so young, but it is a nonetheless glorious sight, beloved of residents and visitors alike. The adjoining colonnade, with its groups of columns depicting weeping maidens “crying over the sadness of art”, and decorated with incomplete stairways and funeral urns, complements it perfectly.
The work of Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck, who aimed to convey a sense of “sadness, modified by the feeling that beauty has a soothing influence”, it was built of plaster over wood fashioned to resemble stone or marble. Intended to represent a Roman ruin, ironically it survived alone of all those buildings of the much lauded Exposition.
It was allowed to stand for decades whilst crumbling into decay, befitting the air of “timeless melancholy” that its founders had aimed for. It helped too that, unlike the remaining edifices, it was built on Army land and escaped the prompt demolition that befell those in the dash to create the Marina residential district.
Over the intervening decades it served as tennis courts, a motor pool for army vehicles and diplomatic limousines, a warehouse for city park supplies, telephone books, flags and tents, and as a temporary headquarters for the Fire Department.
And then in 1957 Assemblyman Caspar Weinberger succeeded in securing $2 million from the state, which was matched two years later by philanthropist, Walter S. Johnson, who lived across the street. This roused further latent public, private and City support for its restoration. It was torn down and replaced by one in reinforced concrete at a cost of $7.5 million, and was re-dedicated on 30th September 1967.
However, lumps of concrete subsequently fell from the rotunda, necessitating nets being built to protect visitors, and the lagoon became a swamp-like dump. Prompted by then Mayor Willie Brown, Donna Ewald Huggins, a historian and publicist, led a further project to restore it once more. As a result, the Palace as we see it today was dedicated on 14th January 2011.
It takes little suspension of disbelief to understand why it is so popular as a location for wedding shoots and film sets.
As the balmy bay breeze gives way to the chill of twilight, I rise to leave. The tranquility is temporarily interrupted by another small boy, this time in a toy car chasing a pair of understandably agitated ducks around the perimeter of the lagoon. Needless to say, he loses, and peace is restored as darkness falls.