• Otter Views: The Palace of Fine Birds

    American palace centennials don’t roll around very often, so I made sure to pay my respects recently to San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. Built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, it’s the sole survivor still standing on the Marina District expo site.

    And “survivor” is the word. The palace has undergone four makeovers in its 100 years, the most recent a 2009 seismic retrofit. Fashioned from wood, burlap and plaster, the expo structures weren’t meant to outlast the 1915 fair. Accordingly, the fine arts building’s nine neighbor palaces all fell to the wrecking ball in 1916, freeing up prime bay front real estate for the city’s new millionaires.

    But by 1916, even San Francisco’s rough-hewn millionaires had taken the fine arts to heart. Before the fair ended, mining heiress Phoebe Hearst led a drive to preserve the Beaux Arts-style palace, its 1,100-foot colonnade, and its artificial lagoon. Her “Palace Preservation League” became the palace’s savior and the first of its many landlords.

    The property also served many uses. After the city’s arts patrons built other venues, the palace rotunda became a 1930s tennis stadium boasting 18 lighted courts. During World War Two, it garaged army jeeps and trucks. When San Francisco midwifed the United Nations in 1946, dozens of glossy diplomatic limos crowded the space.

    As time and the elements chewed away at Phoebe Hearst’s initial rebuild, the palace served more prosaic functions. By 1964, the leaky ruin was fit only to store flags and telephone books. But San Francisco again rallied to the cause, razing the old palace and replacing it with a costly new concrete and steel duplicate.

    Now in its 50th year, the “new” palace also found users. From 1969 to 2013, it hosted the city’s famous “Exploratorium” science education museum. And since 1970, it has housed a well-hidden 966-seat theater.

    Having first toured the palace during its crowded and crazy Exploratorium phase, I was unprepared for the solemn, zen-like tranquility it confers now. Strolling along the pathway that circles its artificial lagoon, I could hear only the crunch of gravel underfoot and the faint rattle of eucalyptus leaves in the bay breeze.

    I haven’t been to Karnak or the Acropolis, but the towering columns of the palace “pergola” put me in mind of those ancient wonders. Walking among them, I could only imagine what the entire 635-acre 1915 exposition must have been like. Ten “palaces” radiated from the Tower of Jewels, a 435-foot pinnacle studded with 100,000 cut-glass “gems” dazzling in daylight and lit at night by 50 searchlights. For a full year, this was America’s Taj Mahal. A century later, we have Las Vegas.

    The 1915 exposition also featured vast “courts” of many descriptions – the Court of Abundance, the Court of the Universe, and the Court of the Four Seasons among them. These were apt representations of the muscle-flexing young empire that had recently annexed Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and The Philippines and had built a miraculous canal through the fever-ridden Panama isthmus.

    In 1915 America was building its empire, and San Francisco was rebuilding from the 1906 earthquake. So it seemed only fitting in the fair’s centennial year that herons were building a nest in the Palace of Fine Arts’ craggiest tree. And these were not just any herons. These were great blue herons, as big and bold as the palace itself.

    Two other big birds led me to them. Following a pair of lordly white swans that plied the lagoon’s jade-green waters, I heard a strange cackling conversation overhead. The speakers, a pair of blue herons newly resident in the crown of a barren tree, seemed to be squabbling over the specifications of their nest.

    At intervals the larger heron would launch from the nest, circle the lagoon, and alight in one of the boundary trees. Once there, he or she would balance on a branch and carefully pluck from the canopy a slender stick. Clenching this firmly in his or her beak, the bigger heron would flap arduously back to the nest. After considerable cackling, the stick would be thrust into the nest.

    The Exploratorium having relocated in 2013 to San Francisco’s Embarcadero, few Palace of Fine Arts patrons were on hand to witness the amazing ritual of blue herons nesting in a major metropolitan center. I tried to remedy this by running along the path and crying out: “Look! Great blue herons!” But most everyone was Chinese, and I didn’t have Mandarin.

    Eventually I calmed down and just watched. The smaller heron would sit resolutely in the nest. Was there an egg? The bigger one would balance on a bare branch, then launch with a great soft whoosh of four-foot wings. It was worth waiting a century to see.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on April 3, 2015

    Topics: Otter Views

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