San Francisco's New de Young Museum.

Part II – History of the de Young Museum and the Family Dinner

By Jeanne Lawrence

History of the de Young Museum

The original de Young Museum was built in 1884 in Golden Gate Park for the California Midwinter International Exposition; the Egyptian Revival style pavilion called the Fine Arts Building.

There was talk of tearing it down after the exposition, but it reopened the following year as the Memorial Museum, thanks to the determination of San Francisco Chronicle co-founder and publisher, Michael H. de Young. “Every great museum in the world is in a park,” he argued to the naysayer’s.

In 1906, the infamous San Francisco earthquake destroyed the decorative Egyptian-style stucco exterior, but de Young proposed an addition to the buildings that survived. From 1919 to 1921, when the museum was re-named in de Young’s honor, Louis Christian Mullgardt’s Spanish Colonial style expansions were added, which included the landmark tower and sculptor Earl Cumming’s “Pool of Enchantment.” Thus began a continuous cycle of expansion and rebuilding throughout the museum’s history.

When the Loma Prieta earthquake irreparably damaged the de Young in 1989, then museum director Harry S. Parker held the fate and future of the museum in his hands. He had to decide whether to reconstruct the existing museum, tear down and rebuild an entirely new museum or create a new museum downtown.

Parker was certainly qualified for the job, as he was the former director of the Dallas Museum and was responsible for building their new museum. His credentials also included a stint at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art under director Thomas Hoving.

Clockwise from top left: Spanish Flavor Expansion by Louis Christian Mullgardt; 1894 Egyptian Entry Court of Fine Arts Building; Modernized de Young Museum up to 2002; Another View.

In keeping with the museum’s history, a public debate ensued. Environmentalists, bicyclists, and others, who opposed traffic in the park and the proposed underground garage, filed lawsuits to prevent the construction of another museum in the park.

The de Young descendants, who include the McEvoy, Martin, Goodyear, Tobin, Spalding, and Thieriot families, lobbied in favor of the “Keep the de Young in the Park Coalition” in the spirit of its founder.

Public forums and hearings were numerous and contentious. In office at the time was Mayor Willie Brown, who dedicated himself to finding a solution. Finally, the board made the bold decision to demolish the old Spanish Colonial and Egyptian style buildings and replace them with a brand-new museum in the same location.

The museum then went to the public for funding. However, after two bond issues were narrowly defeated, the future of the de Young was in limbo. Nevertheless, Board President Dede Wilsey stepped up to the plate and pledged that they would re-build the public de Young Museum with private money. 

On December 31, 2000, the historic de Young closed its doors forever.

Family Party – Dinner Honoring the Family of Donors

Everyone had been waiting for years for the 21st Century de Young. Wanting to include so many friends and supporters in the celebration, the museum planned a series of pre-opening soirees rather than one exclusive bash.

The first dinner honored 200 patrons who donated $250,000 or more. For the 500 generous supporters of the arts who contributed $2,500 plus, there was a FAMily dinner. Dede Wilsey greeted these guests in a chocolate brown ball gown from her favorite designer Oscar de la Renta. She accessorized, of course, with her trademark suite of jewels — illustrating that when it comes to diamonds, bigger is definitely better! 

“Tonight the town is in the palm of her hand,” gushed one guest in the crowd. Dede certainly deserved the compliment for her dogged determination. Even after all of the preparation, she appeared tireless, genuinely enjoying every moment.

After viewing the museum and its collection, the guests headed to dinner in a transparent tent with stunning views of the gardens. Kudos go to event designer Lewis Sykes and floral designer Michael Daigian for the stunning modern décor. Using handcrafted copper pipes –— mimicking the building’s copper façade — they created tree-like candelabras placed on chocolate-brown skirted tables (maybe to coordinate with Dede’s dress).

L. to r.: Iconic Sphinx tetained from the original de Young Museum; New de Young combines the old and new with style.

The guests found elegant party favors on the table; ladies received trademark Tiffany blue bags with an Elsa Peretti engraved crystal box inside, while men were given the de Young in the 21st Century book by author Diana Ketchum.

Dinner was exquisite; Vine-Ripened Tomato Napoleon and Chevre with 100-Year -Old Balsamic Vinegar and McEvoy Extra Virgin Olive Oil (fitting as McEvoy, you will recall, is a granddaughter of de Young) accompanied with Grgich Hills Cellar 2004 Fume Blanc Estate Grown wine donated by vintner Austin Hills.

The tasty main course was a flame-grilled Chateaubriand Béarnaise with Dauphinoise Potato Galette, Chanterelle Mushrooms and Fava Beans served with Grgich Hills Cellar 2002 Zinfandel Napa Valley. A Chocolate Temple and Raspberry Coulis topped off the perfect meal.

After dinner, Dede and Harry welcomed the supporters on stage and toasted the occasion.

“De Young is de best”, joked Harry, crediting Nini Martin, another granddaughter of de Young, for teaching him the phrase. The evening was all about new beginnings, as it also marked the last hurrah for Harry Parker, who announced his retirement. And what a way to end his brilliant career! The M. H. de Young Museum became the largest cultural gift ever given to San Francisco.

Several nights later, more than 3,200 celebrated at another gala, and we’ll tell all, in the next article.

NY's Donald Deal arrives with Diane Lloyd-Butler and Ghislain D'Humieres

Donor wall with names etched in copper

Dede Wilsey with sons Trevor and Todd Traina

Nan Tucker McEvoy, de Young's grandaughter

Helen Spalding and Connie Goodyear Baron, de Young great-grandaughters

NY's John and Marcia Friede, collection donors

Alexis Swanson, Trevor Traina, and Katie and Todd Traina

Board Member Sandy and Jeanne Robertson

Karen and Frank Caufield
Patricia and Charles Sprincin

Roberta Sherman and Dr. Gerold Grodsky

Jeanne Lawrence with Phyllis and Dr. Stephen Pfeiffer

Dagmar and Ray Dolby with a friend

L . to r.: Ghislain D'Humieres; Cool sounds.


Carole and Robert McNeil
Diane Morris and Charlie Willis

Patsy and Jim Ludwig

Iris and Michael Chan
Chuck and Donna Huggins

Sandra Schnitzer and Andrea Schnitzer

Frank and Kay Woods with Charlene Harvey and Michael McCCone

Ellen and Walter Newman with Judy Long

Lisa Goldman with Dorothy and George Saxe
Pam and Dick Kramlich

Genie di San Faustino

Adam, Paul, and Julia Violich

OJ Shansby and Wilkes Bashford

Frances Bowes
Jamie and Philip Bowles

Table favors

Bronze evening
Mutual admiration

Carolyn Davis and Alex Mehran

Dining in the Park
Soprano Catherine Nagelstady
Margaret Anderson, Ellen Parker, Barbara Carleton with daughter, and Harry Anderson
Edith and Joseph Tobin II, de Young's great-grandson
Catherine Bigelow, Stanlee Gatti, and Connie and Barry Baron
Big apples in the city by the bay


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Photographs by Tom Gibbons.


© 2006 David Patrick Columbia & Jeffrey Hirsch/