The Panama Pacific Exposition of 1915 was an event dedicated to progress, the celebration of the completion of the Panama Canal, and the rebirth of San Francisco following the disastrous 1906 earthquake. Funds came from six million dollars in donations, five million in state bonds and five million in San Francisco taxes.
A nationwide architectural commission conceived of the Exposition as an architectural unit, and Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck was assigned the task of designing the Palace of Fine Arts.
The Palace was the last of the major buildings of the Exposition to be started; construction began December 8, 1913. The original columns and Rotunda were framed in wood, and covered with "staff", a mixture of plaster and burlap-type fiber. It was the largest building ever to be made of that material. For purposes of an exposition, in which buildings were supposed to last a year and then collapse readily, staff was ideal; but durability was one quality it lacked.
William Merchant, who was from Maybeck's office, designed many of the Palace's decorative elements. He also spent the last ten years of his life until 1962 planning the Palace's restoration.
A move to preserve the Palace was begun in October, 1915 with a Fine Arts Preservation Day. 33,000 supportive signatures were gathered, and $350,000 was raised towards the duplication of the Palace in lasting materials.
When the ashes of the Exposition were cleared, all that was left was the Palace of Fine Arts. It was maintained first by the San Francisco Art Association who attempted to raise additional funds for the preservation. After the First World War, the Palace became part of the city park system. Federal funds were used to repair and replace some of the Palace's decorations, and in 1934, the Recreation and Park Department installed eighteen lighted tennis courts that operated until 1942. During the Second World War, the Palace was used by the Army as a motor pool. In 1947, the Army returned the building to the city.
The Palace slowly crumbled from the ravages of the weather and ill-use. Finally, the structure had to be fenced off as it was a public hazard.
Then, in the late 1950's, a group of dedicated citizens, led by philanthropist Walter S. Johnson, initiated a drive to rescue the Palace from planned demolition and restore it to its former glory. On July 20, 1964, a contract was awarded and the reconstruction began. Workers carefully removed original design elements from which molds were made. The rotunda, colonnade and all except the steel framework of the gallery were torn down and replaced with concrete castings. In September, 1967, work was completed of a stripped-down version of Maybeck's original. The addition of the remaining original colonnades was completed in January, 1975 - a gift from Walter S. Johnson to the city and the people of San Francisco.
The gallery area now houses the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre and the Exploratorium. The theatre, which seats 1,000 in a continental-style configuration, was added in 1970. The Palace of Fine Arts Theatre is operated by the Palace of Fine Arts League, Inc., a non-profit corporation.