Spreckels and the French connection 

Across the street from the Musée d’Orsay stands the historic Palais de la Légion d’Honneur, a splendid neoclassical building owned by the French state since 1804. That’s when Napoleon bought the private mansion — built for the German Prince de Salm-Kyrbourg in the 1780s — to house the new order he’d created to honor soldiers and civilians of merit.

Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, the storied San Franciscan philanthropist who adored French art and architecture, considered the colonnaded Palais de la Légion d’Honneur one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. She was so taken by its stately grace and symmetry that she commissioned a San Francisco museum modeled on the Parisian landmark to showcase her collection of Rodin sculpture: The California Palace of the Legion of Honor.

Set on a promontory above the Pacific Ocean, with sweeping views of the Golden Gate and The City, the Legion is an elegant symbol of the longstanding link between Paris and San Francisco, where French culture has flourished since the Gold Rush. It was given to the city of San Francisco by Spreckels and her husband, sugar baron Adolph Spreckels, in memory of the California boys killed in World War I.

The Legion, which later merged with the de Young to form the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, opened on Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1924, with a major civic celebration. Mrs. Spreckels, who’d raised money for French and Belgian war relief, was awarded the prestigious Grand Cross of the Légion d’Honneur by the French Counselor of State, Albert Tirman. A 30-voice male choir sang “Le Marseillaise.”

A decade earlier, the irrepressible Spreckels — a six-foot beauty called Big Alma — had gone to Paris for a dose of culture. She was befriended there by the celebrated modern dancer Loie Fuller, an exotic American expatriate who pioneered the theatrical lighting effects that colored her swirling silk costumes. Fuller introduced her rich new American friend to the great French sculptor Auguste Rodin and encouraged her to buy his work. Spreckels became Rodin’s most important American patron, eventually collecting more than 80 of his potent sculptures and drawings, which she gave to San Francisco’s Legion of Honor.

One of the first bronzes she bought was a cast of “The Thinker,” the brooding, larger-than-life masterpiece that sits in the Legion’s Court of Honor. It was one of a dozen Rodin works displayed in the French Pavilion at the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco (Spreckels had helped persuade the French government to participate in the exposition while the war raged in Europe). Architect Henri Guillaume designed the temporary pavilion as a replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur.

Captivated by it, Spreckels convinced her husband to fund a new museum based on the double-winged French building. He plopped down $1 million to build the limestone-clad Legion at Lands End. Designed by George Applegarth, who’d built the Spreckels’ grand neoclassical French mansion on Washington Street (now owned by novelist Danielle Steel), the Legion is a three-quarter-scale adaptation of the French palace, which itself is something of a replica: The original building was burned down during the civil strife of the 1871 Paris Commune and later rebuilt.

While not an exact copy of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur, San Francisco’s Legion reads very much like it, with its Roman arch and Ionic columns, the classical busts and ornamentation, the motto “Honneur et Patrie (Honor and Fatherland)” over the Corinthian-columned entry porch.

Two years ago, Museums Director John Buchanan got a call from a Parisian art dealer friend, telling him about a Rodin drawing with an interesting inscription. It was written by Loie Fuller to Alexis Rudier, the fondeur who cast many of Rodin’s bronzes.

Fuller thanked Rudier for his work on the master’s behalf, adding that she’d worked tirelessly to introduce Rodin’s work to America, but that the only person who embraced it was Alma Spreckels of San Francisco. Dodie Rosekrans, whose late husband, John, was Big Alma’s grandson, bought the drawing for the Fine Arts Museums. It’s now in the collection at the Legion.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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