THE LEGION'S BACK - San Francisco's California Palace of the Legion of Honor

by Louis Bignam

San Francisco deals out the first in a hand of museum restorations and art reorganizations.

It might seem strange to write a love letter to a museum, but San Francisco's California Palace of the Legion of Honor holds a special place. More than any other, it exposed me to fine arts early on. Granted the M.H. de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park is far larger and, in salad days 40 some years ago, it held more of the paintings I loved best -- besides you could sneak next door for what was then called 'the Oriental Tea Garden" or whip across the esplanade to see the minerals and "Stuffed stuff.".

But "the Legion" held its own with "the Thinker" and the site. No other museum offers such a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Few others in America have such a wonderful collection of Rodin sculpture.

The Legion before the restoration and, hopefully, once again.


Few other museums have such a variety of names too. While it's officially the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, some drop the "California." Others call it the "Legion of Honor." Locals generally call it 'the Legion." Under any name it's a Francophile's treasure that, with its contents, almost makes up for the manners of Paris taxi drivers.

Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, the world-class Francophile who gave the Legion to the people of San Francisco, bought the "Thinker" statue from Rodin in 1915. The pensive statue appeared in the San Francisco Panama Pacific Exposition -- now the site of San Francisco's wonderful Exploratorium -- and spent nine years in Golden Gate Park before it was moved to its final resting place.

The Legion, a wonderful representation of the Palais de la Legion d'Honneur in Paris, built to "honor the dead while serving the living" with the statue in the center of its columnar courtyard, opened up on Armistice Day, November 11, 1924. The Rodin statue stayed put until its travels during the 1992 renovation but is now, since September 12th, 1995, back in place. So the museum looks just about the same from the front as it did 40 years ago when I'd get off the bus and scamper in through the courtyard to the Saturday activities.

Rodin's Thinker.


However, the Legion gained an entire lower level, nifty new alarm and climate control systems and, in a sensible decision other urban areas could emulate, it now holds most of the European and Ancient Collections of the several Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. The art of the America's is now at the M.H. de Young in Golden Gate park, and modern art's at the Museum of Modern Art downtown. This is a major plus as, in years back you had to flit back and forth between the Legion and the de Young to get even a dim idea of art history. Now it's easy!

Even more important, the Legion's now safe even in a major earthquake. There's been extensive strengthening of the building with a return to its original appearance. This is even with the addition of a lower garden area with a shop and restaurant that, because of the museum's hill top site, enjoys natural light from three sides. Services so important for all museums are stashed away underground.

Almost 10,000 feet of space in six galleries for temporary museums and new displays of the porcelain collections and the Achenbach's 70,000 works on paper as well as considerable expansion for the museum's world-class paper conservation center hide on the lower garden level. I adore the Achenbach's wonderful Japanese wood cuts, and they've thousands of other wonderful drawings.

However, major interior changes included restoration of the museum interior to its original state from its pink marble floors and Napoleon Gray marble columns to the wildly ornate plaster cornices. What's not real marble is Scagliola, a faux finish developed in 17th-century Italy to resemble marble.

xI've an intimate, if "eyes only" association with Scagliola. I'd try to trace the patterns from my seat during regular visits to the Sunday afternoon chamber concerts, then a free feature. Chamber music's never brighter than in a marble and plaster hall! Christmas seemed special with concerts and wonderful seasonal exhibits. I've an even more intimate connection to the wonderful Rembrandt portrait of Joris de Caullerj, now in the Legion, that looked exactly like a favorite uncle who, sad to say, had what appeared to be an equal attraction to Bols gin. I once visited the museum with an internist who supported my view.

It might seem difficult to explain why the Legion still has such a hold after 25 years of travel writing. The Topkopi has at least as good a site on the Bosphorus. The British Museum has much, much more and better art. So do at least ten museums in the US and several dozen overseas. What makes the Legion special is one gentleman who, back around 1949, spent two hours explaining Japanese and other wood cut techniques to a wide-eyed 12-year-old who'd strayed to the museum on his own. I was taken behind the scenes and shown at least 25 wonderful prints by the man and his wife. The kind gentleman first asked for, and listened to, my rather unhatched opinions, then carefully explained why the prints were important. He then suggested that I take a break outside to "refresh my eye" and then look at the rest of the collection the next week. He then promised that I could see more the next week. I returned, we finished the prints and he spent a good hour trying to convince me that Picasso was a serious artist.

I don't know the man's name. I remember a tweed coat, his wife's jewelry and their cookies. I'll never forget them. I still follow his museum advice to "really look at just 25 things. Then leave before your eyes loose their effectiveness."

Happily, on my last visit to the Legion before the restoration I watched a tall, blond lady with expressive hands explaining the fine points of a 17th Century painting of John the Baptist to a typically multicultural audience of school children. Two, a slight Asian girl in her best blue dress, and a black youth with rather oversized pants and Jamaican hair had "the look", that special jaw sagging look that you get when you realize people just like you made this beauty and, one can hope, the realization that "I can do that." As long as the kids come, and even a few get that look, museums shall exist.