Big Alma’s museum

January 20, 2013 § Leave a comment

The California Palace of the Legion of Honor | Photograph by Steve Whittaker

The California Palace of the Legion of Honor | Photograph by Steve Whittaker


Patriotism — pure American patriotism — was the way Alma de Bretteville Spreckels convinced her Teutonic husband to spend a million dollars for French culture. Her goal was to introduce French art to America, and she knew her friend the Parisian dancer Loie Fuller’s goal was to erect a shrine to Auguste Rodin, the great French sculptor. But she packaged those aims inside a red-white-and-blue flag. The museum she proposed to build in San Francisco — the Palace of the Legion of Honor — would be a memorial to the California boys who gave their lives defending their country.

How fervently her husband A.B. Spreckels bought the package is apparent in the statement he delivered to the Board of Park Commissioners when he made his formal offer at their meeting on January 5, 1920. He declared it was the purpose of “my wife and myself to contribute to the beautification of our native city something not only beautiful in itself, but also something devoted to patriotic and useful ends: something which might be dedicated as a suitable memorial to our brave boys who gave their lives to their country in the Great War, and also lend itself, as a home of art and historical treasures, to promoting the education and culture of our citizens, and especially the rising and coming generations.”

Along with his offer to build a museum, A.B. sent a check for $320,000 “to be used for and to insure the completion of the building.” He noted that “upon completion of the building it is the intention of Mrs. Spreckels to offer to you as a nucleus of the art treasures to be housed therein a valuable collection of sculptures and other works of art by famous artists.”

The museum actually cost A.B. over a million dollars to build. That fact came out after his death when, in a codicil to his will dated September 12, 1923, he revoked a sum of money he had originally left to John McLaren, Golden Gate Park superintendent, for the beautification of the park. Explaining his action, A.B. wrote, “I do this for the reason that the cost of construction of this memorial has far exceeded the original estimates made therefor, and I feel that the expenditure in excess of $1 million is all that I should make for such a public purpose.”

Alma chose Alta Plaza Park, six blocks west of the Spreckels Mansion at 2080 Washington Street, as the original site for her museum. Shortly after A.B. made his formal presentation to the city, she described the site in a letter to Loie Fuller as “the finest part of the residence district. People are saying, how did you ever think of such a splendid place? Adolph is crazy about it. He just loves it. People have telephoned, wired, written and personally thanked us.

“When it is finished,” she vowed to Loie, “I will declare publicly all you have done for it. I would not be worthy of the name de Bretteville if I did not give justice where justice is due . . . To a few, I have mentioned your part in it and they are so surprised. How can they expect me to have done what I did alone? People are so stupid. I am here in the West, 6,000 miles away where they do not realize the great importance of what Rodin and all means. However, I do it because my soul cries out to express itself and something in me loving art must come out.

The Legion of Honor as it might have looked in Alta Plaza Park | Michael Reardon

The Legion of Honor as it might have looked in Alta Plaza Park | Michael Reardon

“The site donated by the Park Commissioners is two square blocks on Jackson Street between Pierce and Scott. It is hilly in the back. I have chosen the exact spot with Applegarth.” George Applegarth, the architect who built 2080 Washington, had agreed to work with Henri Guillaume, the French architect who designed the original Legion of Honor in Paris, on which the museum was to be modeled. “It will be 100 feet back from the sidewalk. John McLaren, the park superintendent, loves Adolph and he is going to make the grounds around it beautiful. Also he is going to make the Court of Honor lovely, too.

“Adolph and I cabled Guillaume the news last week but we have not heard from him yet. Mr. Raphael Weill is crazy about it and has sent word to me several times offering to help . . . Many other wealthy people have sent word offering to help.”

Since one way of helping, to Alma’s mind, was to purchase paintings for the museum, she continued: “Now, listen. What is Barthome’s scheme about paintings? Could he send the list and some stories about them? People naturally want to know what they are paying 200,000 francs for. Perhaps I can interest someone.”

Alma shrugged off criticism and ploughed ahead on her project. Diplomacy was to her just another word for pussyfooting around. You have to work as hard as you can to make something this tremendous come about. Being so far away, you have to send letters and cablegrams and keep after so many people, or else nothing would get done. This was costing her husband a great deal of money and Alma was going to see that the money wasn’t wasted.

Even with her very limited business knowledge, Alma was aware that her husband could very comfortably afford such a munificent gift. The vast scope of the empire owned jointly by J.D. and A.B. Spreckels, in addition to sugar companies in the U.S., Hawaii and the Philippines and the mighty Oceanic Steamship Company, also included investment companies. There were railroads and utilities; two daily newspapers in San Diego; hotels and resorts, including the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego; plus banks and real estate holdings. A.B.’s wealth also included the princely profit he made in 1916 when he transferred his and Alma’s interest in 640 acres of oil land in the McKittrick Hills district near Bakersfield to Standard Oil. His Tanforan Racetrack in Burlingame and the Tia Juana Racetrack, just across the border from San Diego, were both flourishing.

Early in may 1920, four months after A.B. announced his gift, Alma left for Paris to line up French support for the museum. She got it. Soon after her arrival, she was guest of honor of the French government at a reception in the salon of the Grand Palais, “in recognition of her services in behalf of French art, and the French cause during the war,” according to a newspaper account. The reception was attended by “members of Paris society, by high officials and distinguished artists.”

Unlike San Francisco society, French society adored Alma. They found her bluntness disarming. If her manners were coarse, her wish to promote French culture in America was genuine. She so charmed her friend the duchess of Vendome, France’s highest-ranking noblewoman, that the duchess was moved to write a letter to A.B. about “dear and sweet Mrs. Spreckels,” pledging to “help as much as I can with real enthusiasm for your museum, collecting works of art which will represent a little of our French soul and spirit.”

When Alma returned home in August, she reported jubilantly to the waiting press that “Gobelins tapestries donated by the French Republic and rooms furnished by royalty of Europe” would adorn the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, which she and her husband were erecting in Alta Plaza.

There was lots more, she reported excitedly. The French government promised to give a comprehensive collection of Sevres vases, and a large collection of war medals and ancient coins. The duchess of Vendome pledged to furnish a room, to be called La Salle de la Duchess de Vendome, enlisting the aid of 50 of her friends among the old noblesse, each of whom would donate a work of art.

While Alma was ecstatic over the progress made in that visit, there was one thing she was not happy about: the location of the museum. Later that night, when she finally climbed into her green velvet canopied bed that kings had made love in, she worried that the day might come when there would be a need to enlarge the museum. You couldn’t do that at Alta Plaza Park.

The next morning, she had A.B.’s chauffeur drive her around to all the parks in the city. The most beautiful one was Lincoln Park, and the ideal site within it was Inspiration Point.

Inspirational as that idea was, it offered what seemed to be insurmountable difficulties. Lincoln Park was the site of the city’s only public golf course, and Inspiration Point was in the vicinity of the putting green for the 17th hole. Alma could anticipate the furor that was sure to erupt if that sacrosanct ground were disturbed.

Another problem was the remoteness of the site, referred to as Land’s End. The city proper lay far to the east; the area was surrounded by sand dunes and there were no roads, except one in the Presidio, connecting it to the rest of the city.

Those difficulties provided just the kind of challenge Alma needed. Restrictions that applied to ordinary people did not apply to her. Predictably, when news got out about the new location of the museum, a howl went up among the city’s golfers. Alma quieted them with the announcement that she had secured the services of a famous golf course architect, W. Herbert Fowler, who would redesign the 17th hole.


Excerpted from Big Alma: San Francisco’s Alma Spreckels © 1990 Bernice Scharlach, published by Scottwall Associates.

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