History of the Legion of Honor

In a statement delivered to the Board of Park Commissioners on 5 January 1920, Adolph B. Spreckels declared it was the purpose of “my wife and myself to contribute to the beautification of our native city something not only beautiful in itself, but also something devoted to patriotic and useful ends: something which might be dedicated as a suitable memorial to our brave boys who gave their lives to their country in the Great War, and also lend itself, as a home of art and historical treasures, to promoting the education and culture of our citizens, and especially the rising and coming generations.”

High on the headlands above the Golden Gate—where the Pacific Ocean spills into San Francisco Bay—stands the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, the gift of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels to the city of San Francisco. Located in Lincoln Park, this unique art museum is one of the great treasures in a city that boasts many riches. The museum’s spectacular setting is made even more dramatic by the imposing French neoclassical building.

In 1915 Alma Spreckels fell in love with the French Pavilion at San Francisco’s Panama Pacific International Exposition. This pavilion was a replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris, one of the distinguished 18th-century landmarks on the left bank of the Seine. The Hôtel de Salm, as it was first called, was designed by Pierre Rousseau in 1782 for the Prince of Salm-Krybourg. Completed in 1788, it was not destined to serve long as a royal residence; the German prince, whose fortunes fell with the French Revolution, lived there only one year. Madame de Staël owned it briefly before Napoleon took it over in 1804 as the home of his newly established Légion d’Honneur, the order he created as a reward for civil and military merit.

Alma Spreckels persuaded her husband, sugar magnate Adolph B. Spreckels, to recapture the beauty of the pavilion as a new art museum for San Francisco. At the close of the 1915 exposition, the French government granted them permission to construct a permanent replica, but World War I delayed the groundbreaking for this ambitious project until 1921. Constructed on a remote site known as Land’s End—one of the most beautiful settings imaginable for any museum—the California Palace of the Legion of Honor was completed in 1924, and on Armistice Day of that year the doors opened to the public. In keeping with the wishes of the donors, to “honor the dead while serving the living,” it was accepted by the city of San Francisco as a museum of fine arts dedicated to the memory of the 3,600 California men who had lost their lives on the battlefields of France during World War I.

Architect George Applegarth’s design for the California Palace of the Legion of Honor was a three-quarter-scaled adaption of the 18th-century Parisian original, incorporating the most advanced ideas in museum construction. The walls were 21 inches thick, made with hollow tiles to keep temperatures even, and the heating system design eliminated aesthetically offensive radiators and cleansed the air that filtered through it with atomizers to remove dust. Seven thousand cubic yards of concrete and a million pounds of reinforcing bar went into the structure, but an assessment performed in the 1980s showed that the landmark building needed to be made seismically secure. Between March 1992 and November 1995—its seventy-first anniversary—the Legion underwent a major renovation that included seismic strengthening, building systems upgrades, restoration of historic architectural features, and an underground expansion that added 35,000 square feet. Visitor services and program facilities increased, without altering the historic façade or adversely affecting the environmental integrity of the site. The architects chosen to accomplish this challenging feat were Edward Larrabee Barnes and Mark Cavagnero.

The 1995 renovation realized a 42 percent increase in square footage, including six additional special exhibition galleries set around the pyramid skylight visible in the Legion courtyard. The glass pyramid sits atop the Rosekrans Court and special exhibition galleries located below. It is a key second focal point in a formal courtyard otherwise focused solely on Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, as well as a light and tensile counterpoint to the heavy stone materials of the Court of Honor, lending scale and interest. The museum also provides services for scholars as well as visitors. On the lower level, the paper conservation laboratory, which is internationally recognized for its innovative and high quality work, doubled in size during the renovation. A print study room, also added during renovation, allows close examination of works on paper, as well as access to the collection by means of four computerized work stations. Similarly, a porcelain study room adjacent to the museum’s porcelain gallery gives scholars an opportunity to examine this area of the museum’s collection.

On the lower level, a spacious café provides visitors with a place to eat and relax while enjoying dramatic views of the Pacific Ocean and beyond. Across from the café, the museum store features a wide selection of art posters and books, notecards, jewelry, and other unique products inspired by the museum’s collections.