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How to Ruin a Ruin

October 31, 2014

Gas was cheap when I was a child, and like many Americans my parents would pack up the kids for Sunday road trips. Sometimes we’d drive our Packard up the Old Bayshore Highway to San Francisco. For a kid caught in the colorless existence of the suburbs, The City (as residents of San Francisco refer to their home) was a marvelous place filled with culture, history and excitement. Most of my trips to The City involved Dad taking us to Giants baseball games at Candlestick Park, but there were other attractions, like the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park where I saw my first Rembrandt, Lombard Street with its Byzantine curves, cable cars climbing to the sky, and Ghirardelli Square where my addiction to chocolate began.


Grand though it was, San Francisco, like all American cities, was lacking in one significant way. Nothing was truly old. Unfortunately, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans never made it to the City by the Bay, leaving it lacking in the ancient ruins so characteristic of Athens, Rome and Constantinople. Sure, buildings could be found that were older than those of the suburb where I lived, but The Great Earthquake of 1906 had demolished most of the older buildings.


Once after spending a full day in The City, I mentioned this to my mother, who had inspired my love of all things old. She ordered Dad to drive to the Marina District, where she promised I’d see something special. The sun had already set and Dad said it was getting late, time to head home. My older brother David agreed, but Mom had only to raise a critical eyebrow for Dad to aim our car to the Marina. A short time later under the luminous glow of full moon, Mom directed Dad to pull up to a wire fence with NO TRESPASSING signs.


My mother stepped out of the car, approached the fence and walked along it until she found an opening, where she slipped through. Dad yelled at her to come back, but as usual she ignored him. Dad, David and I followed her through the opening.


It wasn’t long before we caught up to her. In the moonlight, I could see her smiling. She pointed at something beyond a group of trees. “What do you think?” she said.


I couldn’t believe my eyes. Before me were the ruins of an ancient temple complex, vandalized with graffiti but still beautiful. Impossible, but the structures appeared to have been there for thousands of years. Broken beer bottles and discarded food wrappers were strewn between giant caryatids that had fallen from an enormous Pantheon-size rotunda, their enormous unblinking eyes locked in communion with the moon.


No words came to me as I entered the main structure and looked up into the unfathomable darkness of the dome.


My feet were rooted to the debris-strewn floor, and given the chance I’d have stood there forever, taking in what I would later think of as an “Ozymandias Moment.” Dad finally nudged me from my reverie. My mother was about to say something, but Dad gave her a rare frown. “We’re leaving! It isn’t safe here.”


We walked back to the Packard, and David slumped in the back seat with a grumpy expression on his face. He’d shown no interest in what we’d seen and hadn’t spoken a word, but in an attempt to burst my enthusiasm said, “It was no Candlestick Park.” David had no interest in art or history, and had set his sights on becoming a famous baseball player.


We drove home in silence, until my mother said, “Stephen, there’s something you should know about what we saw.”


“What?” I asked.


“It wasn’t real.”


“What do you mean?”


She explained, “That was the Palace of Fine Arts, built for the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915. Like you, the architect was bothered that a cultured city like San Francisco had no ancient ruins, so he built this temple and designed it to fall apart after the Exposition, leaving a ruin similar to those in Rome and Greece. Instead of being

made from stone, it was created from wood and plaster. But didn’t it look wonderful?”


It truly did.


The Palace of Fine Arts had been designed by noted Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck. In the 1960’s, a philanthropist donated several million dollars to restore Maybeck’s masterpiece. The remaining structures were taken apart and rebuilt with steel and concrete to make them seismically sound. Today, the site is a beloved San Francisco landmark, often used for movie settings, wedding backdrops and car commercials. It’s a picturesque place to visit, but I preferred it on that moonlit evening long ago, when it was the ruin it was intended to be.









Happy Halloween Everyone!


I couldn't agree with you more. My heart often sinks when I see a place is a world heritage site because it means often that the life has been sucked from it. Everyone is so desperate to preserve the appearance they don't think about the actual meaning of the buildings. I sometimes marvel at historic places shown in old photos and make a point of going to see them - just to find they have been renovated into something that looks almost modern!
By: Jenny woolf on October 31, 2014
So sweet of your Mom.
By: John on October 31, 2014
What a fabulous memory! I take it, then, that the lost IIV Legion, having taken a sinister turn in Palestine and ending up in China, never made it across the Pacific after all?
By: Mike@A Bit About Britain on October 31, 2014
That's a good idea to have ruins that create themselves.
By: PT Dilloway on October 31, 2014
Our's are too young to be significant on the international scene. Besides, we live in a disposable society. We tear things down to build newer, bigger, brighter, greener and efficient structures. Your mother was a trailblazer. :)
By: Daniel LaFrance on October 31, 2014
Always interesting stuff. Great piece. Like those "ruins" you my friend are a piece of work!
By: cranky on October 31, 2014
I would say that everything used to be much cheaper. My dad paid $30,000 for his house. I'll never see prices like that in my lifetime.
By: Michael Offutt on October 31, 2014
Not all that much further away (at the south end of the Golden Gate, under the bridge) is an even older structure. Fort Point dates from the Civil War.
By: Uncle Skip on October 31, 2014
How cool! Then again, I would expect nothing less from a state which gave us Hollywood!
By: Al Penwasser on October 31, 2014
Happy Halloween! And how wonderful of your mother to go out of her way and risk being caught trespassing to let you see that sight!
By: mimi on October 31, 2014
pretty darn cool! even cooler that your mom took you to see it!
By: TexWisGirl on October 31, 2014
Your mom was quite a lady!!
By: fishducky on October 31, 2014
I just imagine that was something to see at that time, much better than the rebuild.
By: Jimmy on October 31, 2014
That is a most excellent memory, and kudos to Mom for helping make it! I will have to look that up for my list of things to see... Cat
By: Cat on October 31, 2014
Here in Houston, we have restaurants that brag on their signs "Serving Houston since 1998!" The east coast has some places - like in Boston - where you find buildings several hundred years old. But for many of the rest of us, it seems like everything gets torn down every decade and a half to make room for the news stuff...
By: Katy Anders on October 31, 2014
What a terrific tale. You lived a rich life.
By: Tabor on October 31, 2014
How utterly fascinating ~ glad you discovered an interest in historic buildings and history . . . :)
By: Eddie Bluelights on October 31, 2014
An Ozymandias Moment--well done. A great story. Love, Janie
By: Janie Junebug on October 31, 2014
Loved the story. What a brilliant architect and thank goodness it wasn't eventually leveled and turned into a parking lot.
By: Akansas Patti on October 31, 2014
I like the Packard. They disappeared years ago. You're as old as I am if you remember cheap gas!
By: red on October 31, 2014
I had no idea those things were in SF. I think the World Expo buildings in NY are better known ("Men In Black"). Thanks for the cool pics! Have a happy Halloween!
By: Lexa Cain on October 31, 2014
Hey, your mom's not so bad after all!
By: jenny_o on October 31, 2014
Kudos to your mom for taking you trespassing on unsafe broken glass amongst man-made modern ancient ruins.
By: Val on October 31, 2014
your mom sounds like a smart woman
By: on November 1, 2014
Your mom was amazing- she knew you so well! As a kid we would go to "the City" and I always wondered about those structures. We lived in an old house built in 1906 and designed supposedly by Maybeck. It was a wonderful place to grow up. Thanks for sharing your story and the history behind that fabulous ruin!
By: Kathe W. on November 1, 2014
I really like your mom, based on this story alone. I didn't spend enough time at that spot, on my visits to the City. I noticed they had many a wedding there, though. It's a gorgeous area.
By: Robyn Engel on November 1, 2014
Great story! I love the fact that your mom took you there, and I'm sure she hated to break the spell but telling you the truth was the right thing to do.
By: Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma on November 1, 2014
Excellent story. I had no idea. Thanks for the terrific history. Your mother did you a wonderful favor and your recounting of the evening is magical.
By: Tom Cochrun on November 1, 2014
This story shows a totally different side of your we haven't seen yet!
By: Pixel Peeper on November 1, 2014
I like the nice little twist on history. Sounds like a page out of 19th century England, where they built ruins on their estates to make them look old and classic.
By: tom sightings on November 2, 2014
There I go hitting enter too soon again... I love that your mom showed you the fake ruin - it was great of her!
By: The Bug on November 3, 2014
That is indeed a memory to behold.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on November 3, 2014
It sounds like there was at least a period of time that your mother really GOT you. That's a beautiful memory, and though you were already deeply ensconced in your love for art and history, I'm sure that that day.. that gesture on your mother's part.. helped to shape you.
By: Hilary on November 4, 2014

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