As George Lucas pursues his quest to build an art museum in San Francisco’s Presidio, he’s made a strong case that it could explore aspects of popular culture in ambitious new ways.
Less persuasive is the filmmaker’s insistence that his “museum of experience and interaction” should occupy an 8-acre perch facing Crissy Field and the bay.
That’s because there’s a much better location a short walk away: the Palace of Fine Arts. Not only is Bernard Maybeck‘s landmark one of California’s most cherished buildings, it’s also the lone survivor of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the event that reshaped that corner of the city and is cited by Lucas as an inspiration for his proposed structure.
The vast hall that flanks the romantic colonnades and rotunda housed the Exploratorium for 43 years. Now, it faces an uncertain future while the owner, the city’s Recreation and Park Department, prepares to issue a request for long-term tenants.
A big vision
Such a transformation would require farsighted and imaginative preservation. But it’s ingenuity of this sort that has made Lucas a pioneer in digital arts – and the result would embody the aspirations that he has laid out for himself in his latest pursuit.
The site Lucas covets instead is part of the Presidio, the former Army post that’s now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
His field of dreams is nothing glamorous – currently a parking lot and a former commissary that houses a sporting goods store. But it is situated across from Crissy Field, which in the past 15 years has been reborn as an enthralling waterfront promenade.
It’s also where the parade ground of the Main Post will spill down to the bay, a new landscape to be draped across Doyle Drive, a 1930s viaduct being rebuilt at ground level and renamed the Presidio Parkway.
That future is why the Presidio Trust, which manages the land, last winter invited interested parties to propose a new use for the site: “a cultural facility of international distinction, befitting its location at the Golden Gate and honoring the power of place.”
Sixteen teams responded. Three are still in the running. The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy proposes “a new civic space” that “connects this space to the Bay Area and the world.” Architecture firm WRNS Studio and Chora, a Washington-based cultural consultant, would build a “hybrid museum, science and nature center.”
The other finalist is Lucas, who has pledged to spend $ 250 million to $ 300 million in his effort to erect a home for his collection of populist art that ranges from Norman Rockwell paintings to props from his “Star Wars” movies.
With a personal fortune estimated at $ 4.2 billion, Lucas has the resources at hand to make his dream a reality. He has lined up support from such politicians as Gov. Jerry Brown, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee.
Even so, plenty of skeptics have asked why this particular wish should be fulfilled on a prime spot within this particular national park.
That’s why the book-length proposal that went to the Presidio Trust last month goes to great lengths to explain how Lucas’ vision is linked to the Presidio and its surroundings. It does this in part by arguing that the museum would be a direct descendant of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in both mission and design.
The architectural call-and-response is obvious, since the broad dome above the proposed building’s entrance all but plagiarizes the peak of the Palace’s rotunda. Columns and classical forms would adorn the long exterior walls.
“The Lucas Cultural Arts Museum‘s design takes the PPIE as its inspiration,” the proposal declares at one point. “The dome, the arches, the stone, the colors, the beautiful landscaping, are all in keeping with the unified Aesthetic Movement and its homage to the highest aspirations of grace, unity and beauty.”
The bid goes so far as to call Lucas’ proposal “a legacy of the PPIE,” that “will be a museum of objects, but even more it will be a museum of experience and interaction.”
But if the goal is to extend the “cultural legacy” of “one of the most exciting and optimistic passages of the history of Crissy Field and the American West,” what better place to do so than in Maybeck’s Palace, where the Presidio and city meet?
The exhibition hall contains more than 125,000 square feet of space, nearly 30,000 more than allowed at Crissy Field, so there’s room to work with. There’s also architectural leeway, since the only interior details of significance are fireplaces, doors and structural steel trusses. Openings could be added to the structure, which began life with a far-more-elaborate facade that was stripped down over the years.
The landscape is already in place, with its lagoon and willows that have charmed visitors for generations.
So is the more mundane attribute of parking, in an adjacent lot used by the Presidio for decades. If more spots are needed, it’s a short walk to the parking garage at the Letterman Digital Arts Center – a complex that Lucas developed, so weekend access should be no problem. Seven Muni lines stop nearby.
The Lucas proposal projects 500,000 to 750,000 annual visitors to the new facility. Since the Exploratorium’s attendance often topped 500,000 patrons, this suggests the museum would not be a new burden on nearby residents.
Obstacles and payoff
Would there be obstacles? Of course. The structure would require a thorough renovation to meet the humidity and temperature controls required by a state-of-the-art museum. The Palace also has had problems in the past with groundwater levels.
But these are factors that can be dealt with – and what a payoff! The restored Palace could become one of the museum’s story lines, a primer on how one century’s valued icons can be reborn and retooled for future generations.
In the introduction to his proposal, Lucas writes that he wants his museum to stand as “a unique and sustainable beacon of creativity for the Bay Area and beyond.” It’s a laudable vision. And at the Palace, he has a chance to bring it to life.
The Presidio Trust’s Board of Directors meets at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Observation Post, 211 Lincoln Blvd. in the Presidio, to hear public comment on the three proposals for reusing the commissary site at Crissy Field. The rivals will not make presentations, but members of the public can sign up for a two-minute speaking slot.