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