The New California Academy of Sciences
The California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, was established in 1853 as the California Academy of Natural Sciences. It was given its present name in 1868. In 1874 the Academy moved into the old Congregational Church building on the corner of Du Pont and California Sts. This was the first museum in the city. In 1891 the Academy moved to 819 Market St in the heart of downtown San Francisco. But in 1906 the building was destroyed in the earthquake and fire. Most of the displays and collections were sacrificed to the fire, however, a few, such as the dragonfly collection, were saved because they were on loan for study to scientists elsewhere. Alice Eastwood physically rescued a portion of the plant collections from the fallen buildings.
The Academy as it was in 1853.
The Academy in 1891 on Market St
In 1916 North American Hall was opened in Golden Gate Park. This housed Wild California, Mineral Hall, a Bird Hall and the Invertebrate Zoology & Geology Department. This hall was closed in 1989 after a severe earthquake and this eventually led to the decision to establish, new and safer premises.
The Academy in 1916.
In 1923 Steinhardt Aquarium opened including a number of outdoor pools in the front courtyards that housed seals, river otters, sharks and the like. These were eventually closed when the Academy was further enlarged in 1969. In 1934 African Hall was opened and this also housed administrative and other offices. There were many other additions over the years but the biggest change occurred in 2003 when the Academy closed and reopened in temporary premises, again in downtown San Francisco, at 875 Howard St. The Board had taken a decision to completely level the old premises which were considered unsafe and the aquarium was in severe need of repair.
Steinhardt Aquarium in 1923 with the seal pools in the foreground.
Simpson African Hall in 1934. Note the similarity with the present reincarnation.
Many of the “old timers” like yours truly, were very skeptical about the demolition. The old exhibits, the dioramas, the Alligator Pond and the ambience would be gone. The pleasant quarters that housed the scientists were to be demolished and the collections put in storage. We feared they could never recover the ambience and the collections would suffer.
Well it was with some trepidation and great skepticism that we returned to the Academy on 27 September 2008 to attend the Grand Opening of the new 466 million dollar California Academy of Sciences. There were more than 15,000 other interested souls who turned up early for the 9.00 am opening. Once inside, our fears were dispelled. Renzo Piano, the architect, had blended the old with the new. The ambience of the old place was preserved and there were plenty of exhibits that assuaged the fears that the past would be lost. The Alligator Swamp was much the same as it was but you could now go downstairs and view the occupants from an underwater window. The Alligator Gars were back. African Hall looked much as it did before but had an exhibit of live penguins at one end and a herd of moving elephants in one exhibit. The Gorilla was standing tall and proud in familiar surroundings and the planetarium, although much different from before, was in approximately the same position as it was in the old Academy. And Foucault’s Pendulum was back.
There were many new exhibits, the most imposing of which is the Rainforest Dome. This provides examples of rainforests of the world with Borneo, Madagascar, Costa Rica and the flooded Amazon featured. The roof of the Academy also serves as a display and a functional way to help cool the building. The architect has designed this “eco-roof” to emulate the Seven Hills of San Francisco and adorned them with a 2.5 acres with Californian annual and perennial plants. These plants are already attracting local bees and birds.
There are pleasant restaurants and café’s in the building and one which will be open for nightly dining. There are many more innovative exhibits that I could go on about in detail. Suffice it to say that the public and school children of the San Francisco Bay Area will be well served by the new Academy. The opening day crowd is testimony to the community interest in the Academy. My only gripe has to do with the gift shops that are within the Academy. One would expect that you could purchase almost any book on natural history or nature DVD’s at a place like that. Instead there are very few books and a plethora of stuffed animals, rubber alligators, ear-rings and other jewelry. In brief, the shops are not unlike any of the cheap import outlets that one finds in San Francisco’s Chinatown. One hopes the Academy will rectify this situation, although, from the looks of things, those items are of considerable interest to the general public—all things that children don’t need! But I digress, a visit to the new California Academy of Sciences is well worth the visit and it will b most likely that you will w3ant to return over and over again—just like in the old days.
Construction underway, the new Academy takes shape in 2005
The front of the Academy in 2006. (C. Wemmer photo)
The front of the Academy on opening day 27 Sept. 2008. The glass panes above are actually solar heaters and should contribute 10% of the Academy's needs over the years.
Entertainment for the waiting crowds on opening day.
In late August 2008 there was still much work to be done.
An albino alligator is among the first living creatures to greet the public.
The Alligator Swamp can be viewed from below.
Snapping turtles and a mixture of fish including Black Bass and number of cichlids add interest to the exhibit.
The new aquarium is even better than the old one with many more thoughtful exhibits.
Children are already drawing the inhabitants of the Big Tank.
A walk-thru tank provides a closer look at marine fish.
A tank of damsels is always a delight.
The New African Hall is very reminiscent of the old.
A group of elephants moves across the landscape in the mist in the distance. About 90% of the visitors did not notice this triumph of modern technology. (Now what did we miss on the other dioramas!!)
Virtually everyone was happy with what they saw.
The "Altered State" area deals with climate change in California-a relevant current topic of interest.
"Islands of Evolution" takes up the field of evolution that even an "Intelligent Design" advocate can master. Both Madagascar and the Galapagos are used as examples. The Academy has long history of study on both of these areas.
The Rainforest Dome is one of the new innovations at the Academy. Birds, Butterflies and many living plants are the highlights of this themed exhibit.
Many of the visitors are keen on photographing as much as possible.
The Dome highlights three rainforests, Borneo (lower level), Madagascar (middle level), and Costa Rica (upper level). This water feature is very impressive.
At each level there are appropriate exhibits. Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches are well known around the world. They are sold in pet shops as exotic pets.
This model of a giant Rafflesia flower illustrates a hightlight of the Bornean biota. See earlier offerings in this blog for more on Rafflesias.
This tanager pauses to contemplate the onslaught of visitors.
The "living roof" of the Academy will be kept alive by the natural fogs of San Francisco. Already bees, other insects and birds are visiting the flowers. The layer of local annuals and perennials provide insulation to the building.
Eating at the Academy is a fun experience.
Much more can be said about the new CAS. It will be a highlight for any tourist visiting San Francisco. An icon has ben restored to the city.
The old photos of the Academy are from a website with many more nostalgic photographs of the early CAS.