Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Why Is There a Replica of the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco?

Big Alma's Triumph

Alma at the Turn of the Century

Alma de Bretteville Spreckels is the female Horatio Alger of San Francisco history. After Commodore Dewey's triumph at Manila Bay in 1898, San Francisco decided the city needed a commemoration of the victory.  Dewey's flagship, the USS Olympia, had been built at the city's Union Iron Works. The location was to be in Union Square, and the design would feature a tall column with a 9-foot tall statue of the "Goddess of Victory" atop. Artist Robert Ingersoll Aitken hired Alma, then working as a laundry girl, as his model for the goddess.  

Detail from the Dewey Monument, Union Square, San Francisco

After the monument's 1903 dedication by President Theodore Roosevelt every man about town wanted to meet the artist's shapely model.  Alma, now having the choice of the pack, selected sugar baron Adolph Spreckels to be her husband.  This gave the former laundry girl a position in high society, in which Alma immediately became an "operator" of the highest order.

French Pavilion, 1915 San Francisco Fair

Now jump forward in time to 1915.  Alma, now known as "Big Alma", is now occupying the top rung of San Francisco social ladder, an acquaintance of presidents and kings, and already a renowned art collector. She has been contemplating combining her ambitions to show off her collection and to see the city add a world-class art gallery.  San Francisco, this year, is also the site of the exposition celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal.  Much of the rest of the world is at war at this time, unfortunately, so few of the combatants are represented. But France decides, nevertheless, to build a major pavilion exhibiting  the works of their A-list Impressionists and new school artists, and — incidentally — to keep them safe, away from any Zeppelin raids.  The design they selected is a 3/4-scale model of Paris's Palace of the Legion of Honor.

Big Alma, Wiser and More Formidable

When she saw it, the Francophile Alma was besotted. All her dreams together in concrete form, she wants one of her very own. Alma soon persuades Mr. Spreckels to support her project financially and, apparently, all of San Francisco's upper crust and political operatives as well. When America enters the war, Alma did everything she could do to support the nation's and the Allies' efforts. This allows her to use her connections and formidable political skills both to win the support of the French government and to gain designation of the museum as the State of California's memorial to its fallen in the Great War, to “honor the dead while serving the living.” World War I, of course, delayed the groundbreaking for the project, until 1921. 

Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco

Constructed on a remote site known as Land’s End, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor was opened on Armistice Day 1924. Alma was grieving at the time; Adolph had died a few months earlier. The memory of the 3,600 Californians who had lost their lives on the battlefields of France during World War I is preserved in the museum's "Book of Gold", a vellum-paged register signed by General John J. Pershing and French marshals Joffre, Pétain, and Foch. In it, each name of California's fallen is inscribed. Today the complex is still one of the city's two premier art venues. References to the war are only visible on a plaque in the courtyard and on little plates on the big trees just south of the complex (visible on the left above) that were planted by Marshals Foch and Joffre on visits to the site.

Marshal Foch Signs the Book of Gold Under Alma's Guiding Hand


  1. Is the present Palace of the Legion of Honor building in San Francisco a one-half size replica of the building in France, or a 3/4 size replica?

    1. I believe it is 3/4 scale, although I've been to both and I could hardly tell.


  2. One of my favorite spots in San Francisco. It seems to capture the charm and class that is best about the city. It melds into the natural beauty, panorama of the area. Before an earthquake of sometime in the '50s their was a road just below it that snaked to Lands End. A beautiful drive I have been told that was closed after the quake. The lower level parking is part of its remains. The Seacliff neighborhood, just down the bluff, was built in the '20s, nuevo roaring '20s stock market wealth, things coming together in the area.

  3. Many years ago, when I was in college, I did a report comparing the Palace of the Legion of Honor with the Old Mint. At that time, I found that the original in Paris was a hotel. Now, from the Palace website, is: 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.