When the Earth Shakes, Come to the de Young!

In 2009, senior registrar Stephen Lockwood came across a series of ledger books while examining the de Young’s offsite storage facility. These antique books contained detailed records of the weather and daily attendance at the de Young since its opening day in 1895. One entry was particularly interesting:

"5:15 AM, Wednesday, April 18/06. Terrific Earthquake which demolished the building and destroyed many of the exhibits.  --John W. Rogers, Curator"

Below this entry, Rogers adds the note, "Museum closed indefinitely." The next entry wasn’t made until November 10, 1907.

Today marks the 105th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake that ravaged San Francisco and severely damaged the old de Young. Recent events in Japan have heightened everyone’s concerns about earthquake preparedness, especially here in San Francisco. The Fine Arts Museums take the responsibility to protect visitors, staff and all artwork (on display and in storage) very seriously.

Arnold Genthe (photographer), American, 1869–1942
Untitled (Tilted wooden row houses after the earthquake), 1906
Cellulose nitrate negative
146 x 86 mm (5 3/4 x 3 3/8 in.) irreg.
Museum purchase, James D. Phelan Bequest Fund
1943.407.13

As the ledger tells us, damage caused by the 1906 earthquake resulted in the closure of the de Young for well over a year. These turn-of-the-century repairs withstood until 1989, when the next big earthquake struck. During the Loma Prieta temblor, the de Young sustained major damage that ultimately left the building seismically unsound. A temporary steel bracing was added to the building’s exterior, stabilizing the structure until 2000 when it was closed to the public and ultimately demolished to make way for the new de Young.

Coincidentally, the same year as the Loma Prieta earthquake, the Legion of Honor was part of an Earthquake Safety Bond measure requesting funds for seismic retrofitting. The election took place two weeks after the earthquake and needless to say, the measure passed. The Legion of Honor was closed from 1992–1995 to carry out the original plan to seismically retrofit the building and remove hazardous materials. During this time, the columns in the Legion’s rotunda, dislodged by the 1989 earthquake, were also repaired and replaced. The Museums’ Trustees contributed additional private funds for the restoration and expansion of the building that included underground galleries dedicated to temporary exhibitions.

The new de Young was completed in 2005 and not only doubled the exhibition space of the previous building, but provided superior structural stability for the collections housed within its copper walls. When designing the new museum, architectural firms Fong & Chan and Herzog & de Meuron emphasized seismic safety by isolating the foundation. The main building rests on base isolators that absorb ground vibrations, thereby reducing the movement of the building during an earthquake. There are three different types of base isolators located throughout the foundation of the museum typically positioned at the base of structural columns.

Furthermore, the de Young’s foundation is actually a box within a box, so that when the earth moves the inner most box that contains the art and people won’t crash into the external, structural foundation. The tower, however, is a separate structure all together and utilizes a fixed-base structural system.

And, if you still need more assurance, these earthquake design criteria were developed to protect the most fragile objects in the museums’ collections and therefore exceed the standards set forth by the Uniform Building Code. After all, artwork is (for the most part) more fragile than people.

All of these factors combine to make the de Young one of the safest places to be during the big one. So if you’re really worried about getting caught in an earthquake, we suggest you visit the de Young as frequently as possible!

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