What's Up With the 'Weeping Women' at the Palace of Fine Arts?

14 min
The Weeping Women at the Palace of Fine Arts. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The Palace of Fine Arts is an iconic San Francisco location, a favorite for engagement photos and tour groups.

Across a scenic lake sits the giant pastel rotunda, flanked by two colonnades. At the top of those colonnades is a series of large concrete boxes surrounded on each corner by “weeping women.” These women have their backs turned to the viewer and lay their heads upon the tops of the boxes, obscuring their presumably mournful faces.

These women have puzzled some passers-by: “Why do the women at the top of the Palace of Fine Arts have their backs turned?” asks Emily Stauffer.

Emily Stauffer in front of the Palace of Fine Arts.
Emily Stauffer in front of the Palace of Fine Arts. (Jessica Placzek/KQED)

The 1915 World's Fair

The Palace of Fine Arts was built for the 1915 World's Fair, also called the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition. The PPIE honored the completion of the Panama Canal and was seen as a way for San Francisco to show the world it had risen from the ashes of the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire.

Across the city, temporary buildings were constructed for fairgoers. Among them were showstoppers like the Tower of Jewels, which scintillated with thousands of colorful cut glass gems. Courtyards were landscaped, clubhouses tricked out, and a number of “palaces” were built around various themes like transportation, food, agriculture, metallurgy and of course … fine arts.

The Palace of Fine Arts

During the fair, the Palace of Fine Arts showcased works ranging from the Renaissance to more contemporary pieces. The rotunda and colonnade served as the gateway to see the art inside.

Sponsored

Bernard Maybeck designed the Palace of Fine Arts to emphasize the European influences on American culture and to convey a sense of mystery. "He wished to evoke the ‘sad, minor note’ of ‘an old Roman ruin … partly covered with bushes and trees,” wrote James Ganz in "Jewel City: Art From San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition."

Maybeck worked with sculptor Ulric Ellerhusen to make the weeping women. The melancholy figures with their backs turned were supposed to enhance the idea of sadness and ruin. He wanted to strike a quiet and reflective tone amid a bustling and stimulating fair.

Maybeck planned to fill the giant boxes with flowers and vines so that the women would be shrouded in plant life, and only partially seen. However, due to cost, the vines were never installed, and thus the melancholy ladies have always been exposed.

The Palace, built in 1915, was designed by architect Bernard Maybeck for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Expo. The Palace is the only remaining structure from the Panama-Pacific Expo.
The Palace, built in 1915, was designed by architect Bernard Maybeck for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Expo. The Palace is the only remaining structure from the Panama-Pacific Expo. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Like all the other structures at the PPIE, the Palace of Fine Arts was built for temporary use, and construction materials were chosen almost as if they were building a stage set. All the columns, figures, walls and entablatures were made of plaster.

After the fair, when most other structures were destroyed, the Palace of Fine Arts got a pass from the wrecking ball. It was saved by the Palace Preservationist League, founded by Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the mother of William Randolph Hearst. However, due to the weak materials it was made from, as the years passed, it became in desperate need of repair. In the 1960s it was completely reconstructed, using more lasting materials like concrete. And after seismic retrofitting was completed in 2009, it looks like these ladies will be weeping well into the future.

Sponsored

Volume
KQED Live
Live Stream
Log In ToPledge-Free Stream
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
Live Stream information currently unavailable.
Share
LATEST NEWSCAST
KQED
NPR
KQED Live

Live Stream

Live Stream information currently unavailable.