IMPORTANCE OF THE PALACE OF FINE ARTS
by Gray Brechin, Ph.D.
Ciriarcy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellow
U.C. Berkeley Department of Geography
Maybeck’s Palace of Fine Arts was the most beloved building at the Panama Pacific International Exposition, rivaled only by architect Louis Mullgardt's Court of the Ages (later adapted for the Young Museum). Its evocative beauty was such that a committee was organized to save it during the run of the fair. While the rest of the PPIE was meant to seem an artifice of eternity an ancient walled city which had survived intact beside the Golden Gate the Palace drew much of its success from a melancholic celebration of the transitory. Frank Morton Todd, the historian of the fair, wrote that "it represented the beauty and grandeur of the past. A cloister enclosing nothing, a colonnade without a roof, stairs that ended nowhere, a fane with a lonely votary kneeling at a dying flame, fluted shafts that rose, half hid in vines, from the lush growth of an old swamp."
The elegiacal theme, Todd noted, was inspired by Arnold Bocklin’s moody painting The Isle of the Dead, while the vocabulary of ruin was taken from the visionary engravings of Piranesi. Maybeck wished the melancholic theme emphasized by the dark and irregular reflecting lagoon, the weeping maidens guarding caskets on the peristyle (meant to hold trees and vines), and the intentional overgrowth that once sprang from monumental planter boxes to express the sadness that both the artist and the viewer feel for the inability of even the greatest art to reach perfection. At the same time, the structure's beauty represented the solace which art gives in a transitory world. The building was universally admired despite the liberties it took with the classical orders. Its elegiacal theme expressed perfectly the tragic sense that a world was passing with the outbreak of the Great War in Europe, and along with that world, the classical tradition which the Palace so nobly interpreted. Professor van Noppen of Columbia remarked that "the Palace of Fine Arts is so sublime, so majestic, and the product of such imagination that it would have graced the age of Pericles," while Thomas Edison exclaimed "The architect of that building is a genius. There is not the equal anywhere on earth."
In succeeding years, the Palace became exactly what its creator had intended, a vast ruin whose somewhat garish colors bleached to sunset tones of russet and ochre. Asked in old age what he felt should be done about the collapsing Palace, Maybeck characteristically responded:
I think the main building should be torn down and redwoods planted around completely around the rotunda....As they grow, the columns would slowly crumble at approximately the same speed. Then I would like to design an altar, with the figure of a maiden praying, to install in that grove of redwoods...I should like my palace to die behind those great trees of its own accord, and become its own cemetery. Nonetheless, Maybeck made several attempts to rebuild variants of the Palace in permanent materials, and, at the end of his life, he changed his mind and asked the governor to preserve the Palace.
Gray Brechlin, Ph.D., Berkeley, 2000