By Anthea M. Hartig, Ph.D.
Executive Director & CEO
California Historical Society
Long before autumn of 1915, one building emerged as the crowd favorite at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The Palace of Fine Arts both beguiled and dazzled the millions who had attended the Fair. One of many masterpieces by noted Bay-Area architect Bernard Maybeck, the Palace may have been inspired by Roman ruins and other classic European architecture, but its elegant, ethereal beauty–in a western, urban, port City without compare–clearly spoke to the hearts of visitors and San Franciscans alike.
As the December end of the Fair drew near, and its impermanent nature became real, October 16, 1915, was declared “Fine Arts Preservation Day.” Exposition management dedicated 75% of all Fair dollars taken in that day above the daily average to a fund for the permanent preservation of the Palace of Fine Arts. On that day, according to Fair historian Laura Ackley, 92,865 visitors entered the gates, and by closing time at 11:00p.m. $8,000 had been collected for the cause. Adding most significantly to the efforts to save the building was the Chair of the PPIE’s Women’s Board, Phoebe Apperson Hearst. In concert with her San Francisco Examiner publisher son, William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper campaign added another $30,000 to the fund, and the multi-decade effort to preserve the Palace began.
That Phoebe Hearst, the composed and understated counter to her often-newsworthy son led the effort, came as no surprise to those who had charted the remarkable path from her modest Missouri beginnings. In today’s world, there may be no specific term which encapsulates the striking variety of her interests and, in the words of one author, her ability to “steer the course of progressive reform.” The first female Regent of the University of California, her interests and generosity ranged from archeological digs and anthropology to Armenian relief and the SPCA. Chief among her causes, though, were organizations dedicated to the social uplift, care and education of women and children. In addition to creating scholarships for young women at the University of California, she helped establish kindergartens, schools for girls around the country, and the precursor to the national PTA organization.
There could be no better time to celebrate Phoebe Apperson Hearst then today’s Centennial of one of her most visible achievements. Today’s Centennial has particular relevance since tomorrow the deYoung museum will be opening an exhibition, “Jewel City: Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific Exposition,” that features over 200 works of art displayed at the Palace during the World’s Fair. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department, the Palace’s owner and steward, is reviewing proposals to determine the future of the Palace itself, a building that exists because of Phoebe Hearst’s initial efforts met and matched by many generous and visionary souls including most recently the Maybeck Foundation.
That Phoebe Hearst led the effort to preserve the building that serves as the sublime heart of the city of San Francisco seems wholly fitting. Today, we celebrate the glorious Palace of Fine Arts, as well as the powerful, dedicated, deeply thoughtful, caring, and forward thinking woman who both beautified and bettered society in the most fundamental of ways.