Friday, September 19, 2008

Outside the Legion

After work this afternoon I took the 38 Geary out to the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco's Lincoln Park. The summer blockbuster show of women Impressionists ends this weekend, and I had waited to see it until the tourist crowds slacked off. On my approach to the museum (out on a bluff near the Golden Gate Bridge, in heavy fog) I started snapping samples of the outdoor sculpture that stands about on the grounds and in the courtyard.

The building was completed in the early 1920s as a memorial to the California soldiers who died in World War I. Creating it was the pet project of the professional-beauty-turned-grande-dame Alma de Bretteville Spreckels. Born in San Francisco in the 1880s Alma was forced to quit school at 14 and go to work making deliveries for her mother's laundry business. Working as a nude model for artists proved more lucrative and made her locally famous, but also notorious. Marriage to sugar baron Adolph Spreckels in 1908 funded Alma's conquest of San Francisco society. Prior to building the Legion as a gift to the city, she created an enormous Beaux Arts mansion for herself and Adolph at 2080 Washington Street, a site chosen (like that of the museum) for its sweeping Bay views. Today the writer Danielle Steele owns the house, but the people of the city own the museum, and Alma Spreckels is still fondly remembered.