Big Alma raises her spear into the sky from atop a 97-foot tall Corinthian column in the middle of Union Square in this 1954 photo that I mercilessly photoshopped to augment the usually cloudless noontime San Francisco sky. City of Paris has been torn down to make way for Neiman-Marcus and TWA went bankrupt, but Union Square and the magnificent column still exist.
As the 19th century ended and the 20th century began, Alma de Bretteville was a poor art student in San Francisco who sometimes modeled for other artists. The talented sculptor Robert Aitken chose the 6-foot tall Alma to model a scantily clad “Winged Victory” capping a monumental column that he hoped would be built in Union Square.
Aitken’s design (and Alma’s beauty) wowed the sugar-baron Adolph Spreckels, an influential member of the selection committee. With Spreckels’ help, Aitken’s column was built and now stands as the iconic Dewey Monument in the center of the square.
President Teddy Roosevelt came to San Francisco to dedicate the monument, with Alma’s likeness at the top, on May 14, 1903. Aitken went on to design other important monuments, including the West Pediment of the United States Supreme Court building, which bears the inscription Equal Justice Under Law. Alma married the project sponsor Adolph Spreckels, and with money came influence and social power that she wielded with a flair for more than 50 years until her death in 1968.
Alma’s crowning achievement was the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, which Adolph donated to San Francisco. With this singular achievement she hoped to eclipse the “other” museum in town—the somewhat grandiose De Young Museum. Ironically, today the two museums are joined as the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Who knows what Alma would think of that?
The Chronicle, on the grand occasion of the reopening of the Legion of Honor on November 11, 1995, told Alma’s story with great charm:
The California Palace of the Legion of Honor was conceived as an act of philanthropy, social climbing and a brilliant stroke of one-upmanship in the rivalry between two of early San Francisco society’s leading families.
The museum, which reopens November 11 in remodeled splendor after three years of renovations, is a monument to one of the most remarkable powerhouses in San Francisco history, Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, the daughter of dirt-poor 19th century Danish immigrants.
–Jerry Carroll, Chronicle Staff Writer