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Legion of Honor
museum in San Francisco, California
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Legion of Honor
museum in San Francisco, California
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100 34th Avenue
San Francisco, California
United States

rzarlif's picture

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The Legion of Honor is the sister museum of San Francisco's de Young and holds all the European art, and some well selected Greek, Egyptian, and other near-Eastern bits and pieces.

It’s hard to beat the location, at the edge of San Francisco overlooking the ocean and with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Walking paths go through those classic California cypress trees and coastal pines, and down to little Baker’s Beach below, which has its own amazing view of the Bridge and some belief-stretching expensive, and pretty handsome, houses.

Be prepared for a shock when you see the building, it's as if the very French Palais de la Légion d'honneur in Paris wandered over to California and reproduced. It looks pretty damn impressive, but all the heavy stones and columns are kind of stark against the woody coastline. Alma de Bretteville Spreckels was the formidable engine behind the Legion of Honor and she definitely wanted the contrast between stone building and lush nature. Big Alma (she was 6 feet (1.8 m) tall) should not be dismissed lightly.

The daughter of Danish immigrants, she went from helping mom run a Danish bakery–laundry service–massage parlor [what?!] to one of the most influential art collectors in the U.S. She studied painting, worked as a nude model, won an unlikely case of "personal defloweration" against a rich lover, and then, lack of flower notwithstanding, married the smitten sugar baron Adolph Bernard Spreckels.

Adolph’s father had a temper and shot a Michael H. de Young, co-founder of San Francisco’s main newspaper, three times, and then got himself shot by a gun-wielding newspaper clerk. The Chronicle claimed Spreckels Sugar was defrauding its investors and ran a sugar monopoly in California. De Young was in critical condition but a jury of Spreckel's peers acquitted him. They figured what’s a little gun-play between the powerful. Spreckels went on to become a San Francisco's Park Commissioner and helped create the lovely Golden Gate Park. De Young went on to build the de Young Museum in that very park in 1895.

The museum has a nice connection to the Monuments Men, the movie George Clooney made about a team of art specialists who recovered works taken by the Nazis in WWII. While Madame Spreckels was building the museum and raising funds for war-torn Europe, the future Legion of Honor director was in Europe as a monuments man. Thomas Howe helped find art loot stashedat Hitler's safe-house in southern Germany. After the war, he helped restore over three million objects to their original owners. The Museum’s Monuments, Fine Art and Archives (MFAA) has a lot of the correspondence from the Monuments Men as well as maps, annotated photographs, a scrapbook, and photographs from the remarkable events.

The Legion also has one of the best collections of Auguste Rodin sculptures. Alma met Rodin in Paris around 1914 and bought a ton of his work. The Legion has a Bronze Age, Three Shades and an oversized marble head of Victor Hugo. The collection of Dutch and Flemish masters is small but carefully choosen and includes Rembrandt van Rijn and Peter Paul Rubens. The antique desks and mirrors give the rooms with works from artists like Francisco GoyaEdgar Degas and Pablo Picasso a lot of atmosphere.  

Eat and drink before you leave, there are no other options close to the museum. The café-restaurant is good: first rate pale ales, some good wines, and gourmet food. Across from the café the museum store has the friendliest staff on earth, colorful arts and craft, and for those of us caught off-guard by San Fran’s cool summer breeze, a wind-resistant black cotton summer jacket.

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Here is what Wikipedia says about Legion of Honor (museum)

The Legion of Honor (formerly known as The California Palace of the Legion of Honor) is a part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (which also administers the de Young Museum). The name is used both for the museum collection and for the building in which it is housed.

History

The Legion of Honor was the gift of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, wife of the sugar magnate and thoroughbred racehorse owner/breeder Adolph B. Spreckels. The building is a full-scale replica, by George Applegarth and Henri Guillaume, of the French Pavilion at the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition, which in turn was a three-quarter-scale version of the Palais de la Légion d'Honneur (also known as the Hôtel de Salm) in Paris, by Pierre Rousseau (1782). At the close of the exposition, which was located just a few miles away, the French government granted Spreckels permission to construct a permanent replica of the French Pavilion. World War I delayed the groundbreaking until 1921.

The museum building occupies an elevated site in Lincoln Park in the northwest of the city, with views over the Golden Gate Bridge and the distant downtown skyline. Most of the surrounding Lincoln Park Golf Course is on the site of a potter's field called the "Golden Gate Cemetery" that the City had bought in 1867. The cemetery was closed in 1908 and the bodies were relocated to Colma. During seismic retrofitting in the 1990s, however, coffins and skeletal remains were unearthed.

Between March 1992 and November 1995—its seventy-first anniversary—the Legion underwent a major renovation that included seismic strengthening, building systems upgrades, restoration of historic architectural features, and an underground expansion that added 35,000 square feet. The Court of Honor was pierced by a pyramidal skylight opening onto the new gallery space below, a quotation in miniature of the Louvre Pyramid. The architects for the project were Edward Larrabee Barnes and Mark Cavagnero. The plaza and fountain in front of the Legion of Honor is the western terminus of the Lincoln Highway, the first improved road for automobiles across America. The terminus marker and an interpretive plaque are located in the southwest corner of the plaza and fountain, just to the left of the Palace. Dominating the classical plaza is Pax Jerusalemme, a modern sculpture by Mark di Suvero that stirred controversy at its installation in 2000.

Check out the full Wikipedia article about Legion of Honor (museum).