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Social History: The California Palace of the Legion of Honor and Alma de Bretteville Spreckels…

The California Palace of the Legion of Honor, often called Legion of Honor by San Franciscans, refers to both the fine art collection and the building that houses it. It was a gift from Alma de Bretteville Spreckels and is a three-quarters scale imitation of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. Built on a former cemetery, the plaza of the Legion of Honor is also the western terminus of the Lincoln Highway, the first road across America.

Social History: Alma de Bretteville Spreckels (March 24, 1881 – August 7, 1968), known both as “Big Alma” (she was 6 feet (1.8 m) tall) and “The Great Grandmother of San Francisco”, was a wealthy socialite and philanthropist who, among her many accomplishments, persuaded her first husband, sugar magnate Adolph B. Spreckels to donate the California Palace of the Legion of Honor to the city of San Francisco, California.

She was born Alma Charlotte Corday le Normand de Bretteville in the Sunset District portion of San Francisco, the fifth of six children of Viggo and Mathilde de Bretteville, two Danish immigrants. The family was very poor during her early childhood; but, in contrast to Viggo who claimed to be descended from Franco-Danish nobility (he claimed Napoleon Bonaparte as an ancestor) and used that as an excuse to avoid working while simultaneously deriding the “nouveau riche” of California, Mathilde had enough ingenuity and business sense to open a combination Danish bakery–laundry service–massage parlor which became the family’s source of income.

At age 14, Alma quit school to work full time for the family business. Meanwhile, she had developed a love of art and enrolled in the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art to study painting. While there, she earned money by being a nude model.[2] Now flush with cash, she became popular around town, and found herself intimately involved with a miner named Charlie Anderson. After their relationship deteriorated, she gained a bit of notoriety for having successfully sued him for “personal defloweration”.Alma de Bretteville met her future husband thanks to modeling for the Dewey Monument by Robert Aitken, which can be found in Union Square. This statue was selected from a number of entries and only barely made the cut, thanks to the crucial vote of the chair of the Citizen’s Committee, Adolph Spreckels. Although he was twice her age, he was smitten by her and after a five-year courtship, they married on May 11, 1908. Because he was head of the Spreckels Sugar Company, Alma often referred to her husband as her “sugar daddy”.

Initially, they lived in his house in Sausalito, where their first daughter Alma Emma was born in 1909, but he soon purchased a property in Pacific Heights which was torn down and replaced with a new mansion in the Beaux-Arts style, completed in 1913 (it now serves as the home of author Danielle Steel). In the meantime, son Adolph Bernard Jr. was born in 1911, followed by another daughter Dorothy Constance in 1913. It was after Dorothy’s birth that she learned her husband had contracted syphilis before their marriage, as he began showing symptoms of the disease. Fortunately for her, she never caught it from him.

Palace of the Legion of Honor

After the mansion was completed, she began throwing opulent parties as befitting a woman of her status. Although attended by local celebrities such as author Jack London and sculptor Earl Cummings, there were a number of people who were disdainful of her earlier infamy and snubbed her invitations.  This motivated her to gain some respectability for herself, which she did by going to Paris. There, she met entertainer Loie Fuller and through Fuller, other artists, most notably Auguste Rodin. With Fuller’s encouragement and contacts, Spreckels eventually became one of the more influential art collectors in the U.S.

She returned from Paris right after the beginning of World War I. Having purchased a number of Rodin’s works directly from the artist, she had them displayed at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It was there that she was inspired to have a building constructed that could permanently contain her burgeoning art collection, but it would be another nine years before this dream could come to fruition.

In the intervening time, she busied herself with charity auctions, raising money for war-torn France, Belgium, and Romania. For one such event at the Palace Hotel, she was able to obtain donations from U.S. Presidents and other renowned individuals. Her own collection was not spared: her prized Rodin The Genius of War also went on the auction block.

After some persuading, Adolph eventually agreed to fund her museum project, which was to be a scale replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. To acquire more art and financial support, Spreckels returned to Europe. The French government agreed to supply some, and Queen Marie of Romania donated a replica of her Byzantine Golden Room. While she was in Europe, President Warren G. Harding requested her help in compiling a report on post-war working conditions for women for the Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau, which she dutifully carried out. The museum finally opened on November 11, 1924, six months after Adolph’s death. During the dedication ceremony, the Counsellor of the State of France announced that Spreckels had been awarded the Grand Cross of the Légion d’honneur.

Spreckels continued her charity rummage sales during the Great Depression, this time expanded to thrift shops, which were eventually given to The Salvation Army to operate. She also continued her devotion to the arts, obtaining more and more works for her museum as well as coordinating and partially funding the development of the Maryhill Museum of Art in Maryhill, Washington, after the death of her friend Samuel Hill.

Spreckels met Elmer Awl, a Santa Barbara rancher and businessman during her inquiries into the Samarkand Hotel, a Persian-themed hotel which had fallen into disrepair. She purchased the property for $55,000 in 1937 and proceeded to renovate it, hoping to provide another home for her now-overflowing art collection. Spreckels and Awl hit it off immediately and were married in 1939. Awl moved to San Francisco, but the hotel was not particularly successful and Spreckels sent him back to Santa Barbara to manage the business, but he was also unable to stem the losses. They decided to rid themselves of it, but could not find a buyer. Eventually, the hotel was swapped for a dairy farm in Marin County worth $80,000.

When the U.S. was drawn into World War II, Awl, as a member of the United States Coast Guard Reserve, was called to active duty. While he was away, Spreckels formed a new charity, the San Francisco League for Servicemen, which gathered supplies for the Army and Navy. She even donated her vast Sonoma County ranch to the Army to use as a recreational facility. Near the end of the war, Spreckels discovered that Awl had been having an affair with her niece Ulla, and she quickly divorced him in 1943, while he was still stationed in Central America.

(left) To the casual visitor’s eye, she is an anonymous but stately bronze female figure with a palm in one hand and a trident in the other. In reality she was one of San Francisco’s greatest benefactors. Her name was Alma de Bretteville (1881-1968), which might sound as though she was reared in the high society enclave of Nob Hill, or Snob Hill as Simone said some call it, but was actually from a dirt-poor farming family from the city’s Sunset District. A 6-foot-tall beauty, she found she could make good money by posing for artists. It was Dewey Monument sculptor Robert Aitken who transformed the statuesque Alma into the statue we see before us in Union Square.

Later life

Spreckels’ last major project was the construction of the San Francisco Maritime Museum. When it opened in 1951, her collection of model ships that had been on display at the 1939–40 Golden Gate International Exposition was the main exhibit. However, she had had a feud with museum founding director Karl Kortum and as a result, did not receive much recognition for her role in that museum’s establishment.

After her son Adolph’s death in 1961, she lived mostly in seclusion, visiting only with her daughters and grandchildren.

She died in 1968 of pneumonia at age 87.

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