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Foch and Joffre Visit San Francisco

by Jack Leibman

The east side of the Palace of the Legion of Honor is flanked by a wide gravel path, the Lincoln Park golf course, and a row of tall Monterey cypress trees. On closer inspection, two of these trees are accompanied by rocks bearing embedded bronze plaques. The plain weathered plaques are similar in format. One simply states that on December 3, 1921, Ferdinand Foch, Marechal de France, planted the tree; the other marks a similar event on April 7, 1922, by Joseph Joffre, Marechal de France.

What was the background to these intriguing memorials? What brought these distinguished military commanders of the Allied forces in France in World War One to this remote, barren spot on the edge of the Pacific?

For there was no museum yet at this site, although the idea for the museum had been conceived by Alma de Bretteville Spreckels in 1915. She had seen the replica of the Parisian monumental building, the Palais de Légion d'Honneur, reproduced as a temporary structure at the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. She and her husband, Adolph Spreckels, who was head of the San Francisco Art Commission, donated the building, specifically to honor the 3600 California soldiers who had been killed in France in WWI. The museum, designed by George Applegarth, was to be a ¾-sized replica of the Parisian edifice. Construction was to start in 1921.

In 1921, Marshal Foch embarked on a triumphal tour of the US sponsored by the American Legion. On December 3, he was met by a huge crowd at the station in Berkeley. He was then driven aboard a special ferry from Oakland to San Francisco for a grand and glorious welcome by Mayor Rolph and Governor Stephens. The festivities, crowned by a Market Street parade, were described as the greatest reception ever accorded a world figure in SF history.

A sightseeing tour was followed by receptions at the Presidio Red Cross Hut for Disabled Veterans and by the French colony at the Dreamland rink, ending with a banquet at the Palace. He departed the same night, after a crowded and very busy day. It seems unlikely that he had time to physically plant the tree at the future museum site, and indeed, his recorded program makes no note of such an event, so the precise history of this episode remains unclear. A headline announcing Foch's visit was overshadowed by a larger one, "Arbuckle Jury Deadlocked." And the day before had marked the arrival of a lesser luminary, Premier Venizelos of Greece.

Scroll forward to April 7, 1922, when Marshal Joffre, with his wife and daughter, arrived for a three-day visit. The family were house guests of Alexander de Bretteville at 2610 Vallejo Street. Joffre also received a hero's welcome at Mayor Rolph's reception, as "Victor of the Marne" and "Father of the French Poilu." Throngs lined the streets for the largest military pageant in years. On this front-page occasion, Marshal Joffre attended a public reception at 2:30 at Lincoln Park, where he planted his tree. On the day of his arrival, his headline was almost matched by "Galli-Curci Robbed of Gems.”

Such were the circumstances of these curious plaques, exciting times in their day, now virtually forgotten. The official history of the museum, which opened in 1924, does not refer to these visits.

Sources History of the Legion of Honor San Francisco News, Dec 3, 1921; Apr 7, 1922 SF Call-Bulletin, Dec 3, 1921; Apr 7, 1922 SF Chronicle, Dec 3, 1921; Apr 7, 1922

• Bronze plaque picture courtesy of Jack Leibman. • Lincoln Park golfcourse picture courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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Golfers at Lincoln Park near Monterey Cypress trees. Jack Leibman recounts the story of two Frenchmen, Alma Spreckels’s proposed museum, and two plaques.

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The wording on the plaque proclaims “This Tree was planted by Ferndinand FOCH Marechal de France, December 3, 1921.”

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