Saturday, December 01, 2007

Why do the French Love San Francisco?

This was Jean and Marie-Christine’s first visit to the United Sates and California. Jean told me that they could not miss San Francisco--nearly every person he talked to said that San Francisco, for the French, could not be missed.

I love France, and there is no other city in the United States where I could live other than San Francisco. The reasons are multiple.

First, I suppose, San Francisco is a totally cosmopolitan city. But there are many such cities in the world which are at least as interesting as San Francisco, Paris, London, New York, even LA, to name just a few.

But there is also something that I find hard to express simply in a few words. You can see it in the built environment. Jean, Marie-Christine and I visited the Golden Gate Bridge, which to my eye has the same flagrant panache as the Eiffel Tower, thought that Bridge at least has some utility in its design. And you can no more say that I visited San Francisco but missed the Golden Gate Bridge than you can say, I was in Paris but never had time to see the Eiffel Tower!

The Eiffel Tower under construction in 1878.

The Golden Gate under construction in 1934-5

Both the Golden Gate and the Eiffel Tower are the stuff that dreams are made of!

Very close to the Golden Gate is the Palace of Fine Arts as it is called, the one structure that remains form the Panama Exposition of 1915, which was staged in San Francisco to celebrate its reconstruction in little less than a decade after the '06 quake.

The Palace is in the middle of an expensive neighborhood built on the land fill that did not exist in 1906. Ironically it proved to be the most vulnerable in the only relatively large quake during my time in San Francisco, the 1989 Loma Prieta quake though some major structures, the Bay Bridge and several of the elevated freeways suffered catastrophic damage. You can Google "Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco," and track down lots of interesting history.

On my first visit to San Francisco in 1969 I was wandering on foot from the house I was staying in on California and Fillmore. I just let gravity take me down hill into the Marina. From a small street I caught a glimpse of the Palace and though to myself, my God what a city where something like this can just stand in the middle of an ordinary neighborhood. I tried recreate the same surprise with Jean and Marie-Christine as we drove haphazardly from the Marina Green and its wonderful views of the bay, trying to sneak up on the Palace. I don’t know how successful I was. Ask the Garapons!

Bernard Maybeck, the man who designed the Palace, was one of the Bay Area architects who had been trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and had dreams of rebuilding San Francisco inspired by le baron Hausman’s recreation of Paris about a half century earlier. They did manage to get some control over the Civic Center, the new City Hall, the Library and the Opera House as wall as several other public buildings which follow in the tradition with varying degrees of success.

Just look at a very famous building in Paris next to San Francisco’s rebuilt City Hall which we visited as well as the original Public Library which is now home to the Asian Art Museum, built in the same beaux-arts tradition.

From the detail of its rich interior decorations:

To the sweep of City Hall and the Civic Center from Van Ness Avenue:

And, every French person would immediately "get" the inspiration for Grace Cathedral atop Nob Hill.

The Episcopal Church has taken a different path than the Roman one in many matters of church discipline, principally women priests and married clergy, but the source of the inspiration is unmistakable. In some ways, like wonderful French tapestry that Jean and Marie-Christine admired in the nave, as well as the wonderful reproductions of Lorenzo Ghiberti's doors to the Baptistery of the Duomo in Florence, it represents the way that Americans have attempted to import parts of its rich European ancestry and make them more democratic and accessible. (I myself really don’t care what the Roman church thinks about women priests. I just know that they can sing a high Mass better than most Jesuits).

More about California’s universities and libraries coming in the next post.

1 comment:

Dino said...

I think you were successful already. :)