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Academy Awaits the Wrecking Ball

By Steven Finacom Special to the Planet
Friday December 26, 2003

With the close of the year, one of the Bay Area’s greatest scientific and cultural monuments will disappear as we know it. 

There are only a few days left before the venerable buildings of the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park close forever. Visit now, before the old Academy is gone for good. 

Of course the 150-year-old Academy itself is not going away. As a scientific and educational institution it will be emphatically reborn, first in temporary exhibit quarters near the Moscone Center, then back in Golden Gate Park by 2008 in an elaborate new building on the same old site. 

However, in the New Year wrecking balls will reduce to rubble eight decades of irreplaceable institutional history in the form of the Academy’s existing buildings. 

Something similar happened once before, nearly a century ago in 1906, when the Academy’s Market Street headquarters was destroyed by earthquake and fire. The current buildings in Golden Gate Park were the result. 

Some years ago San Franciscans approved rebuilding the current Academy almost literally from the ground up as a solution to extensive seismic problems and other major deterioration in the old buildings. The allure of a state of the art museum facility won out over a more nuanced reconstruction. 

Although the scientific treasures of the Academy—one of the nation’s premier centers of natural history, collections, research and education—will be carefully packed up and preserved, eight decades of Golden Gate park buildings are now regarded as a disposable part of San Francisco’s cultural patrimony. 

It’s a tragedy, since older buildings help define and enhance the gravitas and character of elder institutions. Consider, for example, if Berkeley’s UC campus were to be cleared then rebuilt with only 21st century structures. 

The time to see the Academy—for the first time, or for one last time—is now. 

If you go, allow about three or four hours for a visit if you can. Begin in the main lobby, which faces the Music Concourse of Golden Gate Park and the hulking hanger-like mass of the “new de Young” museum rising beyond. 

I suggest touring clockwise. Start with the Simson African Hall. 

Here, in one of the earlier and least altered parts of the Academy, is a slice of early 20th century natural history mystique and pre-electronic exhibit magic. It’s one of the few fragments of the current Academy structures that will be recognizably incorporated into the new structure. 

The softly lit hall, painted cream and apple green and ornamented with abstract arabesques and rosettes, is filled with vignettes of wildlife collected in an era when the word “Africa” still implied mystery and exoticism to most Americans. From stuffed hippos, to giraffes gathered beneath trees around a watering hole, it’s a look into a different world, detailed down to blades of grass and insects. 

Next is the Morrison Planetarium. A marquee fixture of the Academy for more than half a century, the venerable theater in the round is equipped with a unique “star projector” designed and built at the Academy. In the new Academy, a video projector will replace the ornate mechanical equipment. 

If you can take in a planetarium show (separate admission), note around the base of the dome the silhouette cutout of San Francisco’s skyline seen from Golden Gate Park in an earlier, less hurried, age before high-rises. 

Near the planetarium, pause to watch the Foucault Pendulum swinging back and forth like a giant metronome while the earth turns below it. Children crowd around watching with breathless anticipation, as at regular intervals, the pendulum knocks over a wooden peg. You may witness the last swings; it’s unclear if there will be any pendulum in the new Academy. 

Near the pendulum are exhibits and models describing plans for the “new” Academy building. Take a look—it’s an intriguing plan—but use your time to fully appreciate the old Academy first. 

Next is a historic heart of the Academy, the Steinhart Aquarium’s stately, columned, neoclassical hall featuring reptile cases around a sky-lit sunken “swamp” of alligators and turtles, enclosed by a wonderful railing of cast bronze seahorses, one of the Academy’s iconic symbols. 

Be sure to appreciate the fantastic tile work depicting reptiles on the walls and floors of this central area; step outside to the central courtyard to admire the wonderful cast metal animal figures adorning the entrance doors. 

While a similar “swamp” is supposed to be installed in the new Academy building, flanked by a columned gallery, it seems likely the new space will be only an echo, not a re-creation, of this gracious interior. 

Allow plenty of time to stroll through one of the premier glories of the Academy, the Steinhart’s “U” shaped tunnel-like space filled with underwater wonders. The walls are lined with displays from jewel-like cases the size of a home aquarium to huge tanks. The aquatic variety is almost endless, from a pitch-black tank of bioluminescent “flashlight fish,” to penguins, a coral reef, and garden pond koi. 

The last part of the aquarium is the must-see “Fish Roundabout.” Ascend on a spiral ramp within the “hole” of an enormous donut shaped tank. Around you in an ocean of rippling blue light swim fish of the open sea from rays to barracuda to tuna. The Roundabout, too, will be a thing of the past in a few months.  

Beyond the Steinhart, double back for a few minutes to walk through the linear “Life Through Time” gallery with its wall displays, dioramas and living exhibits. The gallery is a coherent rebuttal, informed by solid science, of the dogmas of those who attack evolution. It, too, may go away in the new Academy. 

Two key parts of the Academy remain to be seen. First, there’s a wonderful mineral display; a long corridor showcases a tremendous variety of geological specimens from tiny jewels to huge crystalline structures. Just beyond is what’s now known as “Wild California” but was the old North American Hall, one of the earliest parts of the Academy. Here, as in the Simson African Hall, there are fantastic dioramas of wildlife.  

Like the diminishing wild spaces they depict, they await the apparently relentless approach of progress. 


The Academy is located in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, on the Music Concourse, across from the de Young Museum. If driving, take Lincoln Way along the southern edge of the Park to 7th Avenue and enter the Park; the Academy is located a short distance ahead, on the right. Or enter the Park from the east end and take John F. Kennedy Drive to the north end of the Music Concourse (on Sundays, Kennedy Drive is closed to cars.) 

Standard operating hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission ranges from $2 for children under 11 to $8.50 for adults. Planetarium show admission is extra. 

On Dec. 29, 30, and 31, admission will be free and the Academy will have special, extended hours from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. 

For more details, visit the California Academy of Sciences, check its website at