Farewell to an old friend: Exploratorium closes its neighborhood doors Jan. 2

Sun Painting, an exhibit created by Bob Miller, 1985 Photo: Susan Schwartzenberg

November brought surprising news that the Star Wars empire will now be part of the more massive Disney empire – along with the Letterman Digital Arts campus just inside the Presidio gate. Disney says no changes are planned for the use of the campus, for now.

Less of a surprise, but no less concerning, has been the upcoming departure of the Exploratorium from its almost-44-year location at the Palace of Fine Arts. The Exploratorium began groundbreaking in October 2010 for its new home on Piers 15 and 17 along the Embarcadero. The grand opening of the new Pier 15 exhibition space is set for Wednesday, April 17, 2013.

A new home requires the pain of packing and moving, and in this case it entails relocating 475 current exhibits plus additional rotating exhibits held in storage. To accomplish this, the last day the Exploratorium will open its Palace of Fine Arts doors to the public will be Jan. 2, 2013. The next three months will be spent breaking down the existing museum to set it (and more) up in a brand new home.

What does the future hold for the Palace’s exhibition hall? The hall and its more famous exterior – the rotunda and flanking colonnades – were the only structures left standing from the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. To preserve them, the crumbling plaster buildings were demolished in 1964 so a replica could be rebuilt in more stable materials. Only the hall’s steel structure remained when demolition was complete. Reconstruction was finished in 1966, leaving the site with a large and empty exhibition space.

Prior to the reconstruction, the building had been used for a wide range of enterprises. From the close of the exposition until the Great Depression, the hall held a permanent art exhibition. From 1934 to 1942, the space housed tennis courts. During World War II, U.S. Army trucks and transport vehicles were garaged there.

After the war, the building was returned to the city and put to various uses: a parks department warehouse, a telephone book distribution center, a storage depot, and, for a short time, as Fire Department Station No. 6.

Anyone who has heard the audio guide from GoCars driving up Baker Street knows the Exploratorium was founded by Frank Oppenheimer, the brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb.” Frank worked alongside his brother on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, but was blacklisted from further scientific research during the McCarthy era.

Oppenheimer returned to the scientific field by teaching high school science with a unique approach. In the Exploratorium’s words, “He put down the textbook and filled his classroom with the hands-on tools and materials that had become
his trademark.”

Seeking to create a science museum based on those same principles, Oppenheimer was led to the still-empty Palace of Fine Arts exhibit hall in 1969. The Recreation and Park Commission approved his plan for a museum in August 1969, and one month later, the Exploratorium opened its doors.

The Exploratorium now has the equivalent of 290 full-time employees and another 250 volunteers. Last year, 570,000 people visited the museum – 55 percent were adults.

The Exploratorium will be moving from its current 110,000 square feet of exhibit space to a more spacious 330,000 square feet, allowing for an even higher visitor count. This leaves the Recreation and Park Department (RPD) in the market for a new tenant to take its place, and the neighborhood considering who could be the right fit.

In 2001, before the Exploratorium ever considered moving out of the Marina, it began a design charette for a remodel of the Palace of Fine Arts hall. The plan was to completely remodel the interior with a larger mezzanine while undertaking major deferred maintenance and seismic upgrading, replacing exterior detailing missed in the 1966 remodel, and recreating the original public entrance off the rotunda. The plan fell through when RPD refused to negotiate a lease for the entire hall.

In summer 2012, RPD’s property management team organized a Palace of Fine Arts Advisory Committee consisting of neighborhood, community and local business people they felt had the expertise, diversity and interests to provide feedback on future uses, both temporary and permanent.

RPD is now looking for community feedback on priority uses for the space. Two public meetings will be held in December where recommendations of the Advisory Committee will be presented: Dec. 5, 6–8 p.m., and Dec. 12, 6–8 p.m.

Both meetings will take place in the lobby of the Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, 3301 Lyon Street, and will have an identical agenda. RPD plans to initiate a competitive bidding process for a new tenant after the community meetings.

One of the Marina’s, San Francisco’s, and the science community’s most family-friendly institutions has grown too big for its nest, and its flight could change the face of the neighborhood. Finding an equal or better replacement is the challenge ahead.

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