The de Young Museum originated as the Fine Arts Building, which was constructed in Golden Gate Park for the California Midwinter International Exposition in 1894. The chair of the exposition organizing committee was Michael H. de Young, co-founder of the San Francisco Chronicle. The Fine Arts Building was designed in a pseudo–Egyptian Revival style and decoratively adorned with images of Hathor, the cow goddess. Following the exposition, the building was designated as a museum for the people of San Francisco. Over the years, the de Young has grown from an attraction originally designed to temporarily house an eclectic collection of exotic oddities and curiosities to the foremost museum in the western United States concentrating on American art, international textile arts and costumes, and art of the ancient Americas, Oceania and Africa.
The new Memorial Museum was a success from its opening on March 24, 1895. No admission was charged, and most of what was on display had been acquired from the exhibits at the exposition. Eleven years after the museum opened, the great earthquake of 1906 caused significant damage to the Midwinter Fair building, forcing a year-and-a-half closure for repairs.
Before long, the museum's steady development called for a new space to better serve its growing audiences. Michael de Young responded by planning the building that would serve as the core of the de Young Museum facility through the 20th century. Louis Christian Mulgardt, the coordinator for architecture for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, designed the Spanish-Plateresque-style building. It was completed in 1919 and formally transferred by de Young to the city's park commissioners. In 1921, de Young added a central section, together with the tower that would become the museum's signature feature, and the museum began to assume the basic configuration that it retained until 2001. Michael de Young's great efforts were honored with the changing of the museum's name to the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum. Yet another addition, a west wing, was completed in 1925, the year de Young died. Just four years later, the original Egyptian-style building was declared unsafe and demolished. By the end of the 1940s, the elaborate cast concrete ornamentation of the original de Young was determined to be a hazard and removed because the salt air from the Pacific had rusted the supporting steel.
In the mid-1960s, following Avery Brundage’s bequest of his magnificent Asian art collection, the Brundage wing was constructed, thereafter altering the museum’s orientation toward the Japanese Tea Garden, another remnant of the 1894 Midwinter Fair. In 1994 city voters overwhelmingly supported a bond measure to renovate the former San Francisco Main Library as the new home of the Asian Art Museum. Architect Gae Aulenti—widely recognized for adapting historic structures into museum spaces—was chosen as the design architect for the new facility. The Asian art collection remained open to the public at the de Young until October 2001, when it closed in preparation for the move. In November 2003 it re-opened its doors to the public at its new Civic Center location as an independent museum.
In 1989 the de Young suffered significant structural damage as a result of the Loma Prieta earthquake. The Fine Arts Museums' board of trustees completed a project that braced the museum as a temporary measure until a long-term solution could be implemented. For the next several years, the board actively sought solutions to the de Young's structural jeopardy and solicited feedback from throughout the community, conducting numerous visitor surveys and public workshops.
With extensive public input, the board initiated a process to plan and build a privately financed institution as a philanthropic gift to the city, in the tradition of M. H. de Young. An open architectural selection process took place from 1998 to 1999. The board endorsed a museum concept plan in October 1999, and a successful multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign was initiated under the leadership of board president Diane B. Wilsey.
The resulting design by the Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron weaves the museum into the natural environment of the park. It also provides open and light-filled spaces that facilitate and enhance the art-viewing experience. Historic elements from the former de Young, such as the sphinxes, the original palm trees, and the Pool of Enchantment, have been retained or reconstructed at the new museum. The former de Young Museum structure closed to the public on December 31, 2000. The new de Young opened on October 15, 2005.
According to The Art Newspaper (April 2012), the new museum is the most visited art museum west of the Mississippi, the sixth-most-visited art museum in North America, and the 35th-most visited in the world. Housed in a state-of-the-art, accessible, and architecturally significant facility, it provides valuable art experiences to generations of residents and visitors.