27 July 2013

French art and architecture in San Francisco - Legion of Honour

Alma Charlotte Corday le Normand de Bretteville  (1881–1968) was an American teenager (of French ancestry?) who developed a love of art and enrolled in San Francisco’s Mark Hopkins Institute of Art to focus on painting. She may not have had a great deal of money from home, but she noticed a much older man who DID have money - Adolph Spreckels was an extremely wealthy sugar magnate. They married in 1908 and had three children, then Alma Spreckels began her campaign to conquer San Francisco society.

The book Legion of Honour: Inside and Out, was written by Anne Heath Karlstrom and published by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in 2013. It talked about Alma using the Spreckels money to embark on a new and extravagant lifestyle, travelling across France, experiencing French culture and building a huge French chateau back in the USA. As you might expect from a keen Francophile, Alma wanted to fill her new chateau with 18th century French furniture, paintings and sculpture. Back in France, Alma shopped till she dropped, purchasing her antique treasures.

Moorish Bath by Jean Leon Gerome,
c1885, 74 x 60 cm
Legion of Honour

Alma Spreckels had to leave France once WW1 broke out in 1914, yet France was convinced to continue with its plans to participate in San Francisco's Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915. Amazing! The French pavilion at the exposition, modelled on the Palais de la Legion d’Honneur in Paris, impressively displayed Rodin’s sculptures. When Alma visited the French pavilion, she immediately decided that this was the perfect type of setting for her French treasures. Even more amazingly, the French government agreed to construct a permanent replica of their exposition pavilion for the Spreckelses.

After the war ended, Alma started to build her pavilion, ensuring that the museum she had been considering would become a permanent re-creation of the French temple to the arts. Where would the land be? Architect George Applegarth selected cliff top land in Lincoln Park, overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Naturally the project cost Adolph Spreckels dearly – one million dollars by 1924.

The building was finally completed, with an impressive cupola on which six statues of classical mythology stood. They were modelled on the sculptures added to Paris’ Palais de la Legion d’Honneur when it was nationised by Napoleon in 1804.

The opening ceremony was conducted in 1924 in the presence of a French government representative who awarded Alma Spreckels the Cross of the Legion on Honour for bringing aid to France during the hell of WW1. Only then was the California Palace of the Legion of Honour donated to the City of San Francisco and dedicated to the memory of the 3,600 Californian soldiers who had died in WW1. What had started as a heartfelt salute to French culture in 1914 had, after the war ended, morphed into a particularly beautiful American war memorial.

But it wasn’t only Alma’s collections that were included. The French Republic made gifts of tapestries, Sevres vases and other decorative arts while drawings and scultures were donated by other American Francophiles. Graphic arts flowed in, as did illustrated books.

Front entrance into the central courtyard.
Legion of Honour, San Francisco

Since Alma Spreckels’s death in 1968, the historic façade of the refurbished Legion of Honour buildings remains the same but now six enlarged galleries for special exhibitions surround the lower court. Which section did I love most? It is said that the Legion of Honour houses one of the great collections of European art in the USA. And I agree - the Corots, Renoirs, Monets and Seurats are lovely, particularly during the Impressionists on the Water Exhibition that closes in mid October 2013.

But for me the Dutch and Flemish 17th century paintings are sublime. My spouse had to revive me, after seeing Rembrandt, his pupils and their contemporaries. In fact one of the world's best private collections of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings, including masterworks by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Gerrit Dou and Jan Steen, was displayed at the Legion of Honour in 2011.


The de Young Museum, located in the heart of the Golden Gate Park overlooking the bridge, originated as the Fine Arts Museum which was built for the California Mid-Winter International Fair of 1894. Designed in the Egyptian Revival Style and adorned with Egyptian goddesses, the de Young Museum opened for business in 1895. The terrible 1906 earthquake caused damage to the Mid-Winter Fair building, requiring months and months of repairs. But it wasn’t until after the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915 that the new Spanish-Plateresque style building provided the de Young Museum with a bigger and better art space. Even then, wings were later demolished and new wings were built.

In 1972 the de Young Memorial Museum in Golden Gate Park and the California Palace of the Legion of Honour in Lincoln Park merged to form the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. There is no problem with duplication – the de Young Museum focuses on the Americas, the Pacific and Asia whereas the Legion of Honour specialises in European arts, especially French. CityPASS includes admission to both the de Young and the Legion of Honour Fine Arts Museums, if visited on the same day.

Joris de Caulerii,
by Rembrandt, 1632
Legion of Honour



Steve Baker said...

Great story. Thanks. Over 40 years of visiting both these museums, seeing countless exhibits, I had never given a great deal of thought to the building itself.

Hels said...


good to hear from a Californian :)

I believe that Alma Spreckels would have wanted to stay in Paris, had WW1 not ruined her dreams. She saw herself as dying and going to Parisian heaven.

So we should be looking at her passion for Paris memorial architecture AND her passion for French paintings and decorative arts.

Lucky San Francisco!

Anonymous said...

I wonder why the French sent a minister to the USA for the opening ceremony. Why did they give an honour to Alma? The French must have felt her work brought honour to France.

Hels said...


Good question. So I went back to my reference book.

In November 1921, soon after WW1 ended, French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch was in Kansas City to participate in the groundbreaking ceremony for that city's new Liberty Memorial. So in Dec that year, before he went home, he did the groundbreaking honours for San Francisco's Legion of Honour as well.

At the Legion of Honour's opening ceremony, Armistice Day Nov 11th 1924, a representative from the French government did the honours for Alma, "a fitting culmination of her campaign and recognition of her efforts both to bring aid to Frnace during the war and to bring French art to her country".

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The Legion of Honor was closed (for repairs?) when I went to see it, but I was still able to view the outside and the cast of Rodin's Thinker. This was a rather emotional experience for a Clevelander, since our copy of this iconic work was vandalized in an explosion. (I recently took some photos, and with any luck will post them soon.)
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


I hope you do publish the photos.

I must admit that spouse and I went to see the paintings and porcelain etc, not the architecture. But once you learn about the close connection between Palais de la Legion d’Honneur in Paris and its San Francisco off spring, the architecture becomes VERY important.

Anonymous said...

I suppose now that I will just have to go to San Francisco (the 'Cite' as they call it there!) and visit the Palace and the De Young again.
Last time was something like 50 years ago...Great place if you can stand those little cable car thingys!

Jim of Olym (WA, not the greek one)

Hels said...

Jim of Olym

I saw The Palace of Fine Arts last visit and really enjoyed the Roman ruins, lagoon and wide walkway around the central rotunda. I thought it was brilliant that at least one building was saved from the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition.

Now I realise that due to neglect and the temporary nature of its original plan, the Palace was tragically ruined beyond repair. I am not sure whether we should celebrate the 1965 new building from the ground up, or regret its mocked up nature.

So you will definitely have to visit the de Young and the Legion of Honour again.

Hels said...

The blog called Architect Design has fabulous photos inside the Legion of Honour. See