The Recreation and Park Commission grilled staff on Thursday over the $272,000 price tag for a single night’s rental of the Palace of Fine Arts. (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

Sticker shock: Palace of Fine Arts rental price of $272,000 raises Rec Park commissioners eyebrows

The Palace of Fine Arts costs how much in the what-now?!

Thursday afternoon, the Recreation and Park Commission grilled staff over the absolutely brain-busting $272,000 price tag for a single night’s rental of the San Francisco icon, or, more specifically, the facilities behind the icon, the former home of the Exploratorium.

The question stemmed from one Bay Area event designer, Kate Stanley, who has helped people wine-and-dine in San Francisco and Napa county for 25 years. Her client, Golden Gate Capital, often holds holiday parties at museums and historic buildings in The City, which usually run around $35,000, she wrote in an email to the Rec and Park commission. The Mint, for instance, can cost $20,000 for an event, according to some online listings.

That’s far more scratch than I’ve got in my back pocket, but that’s nothin’ compared to the quote Stanley was given on the 100-year-old domed icon.

When Stanley sought one night’s Palace of Fine Arts booking from Non Plus Ultra, the vendor who currently manages the facilities, the price she was quoted for a single night in December was $272,000.

“I am a fourth generation San Franciscan. It is a sad, sad day when these fine properties can only be used by the uber rich,” she wrote to Rec and Park commissioners.

Commissioners Kat Anderson and Allan Low, both attorneys, questioned the seemingly sky-high price.

“It could be, again, due to rookie ignorance on my part,” Anderson, a two-year commissioner, said, “but I wanted to understand why someone from our community was reaching out to us, the commission, and how was it that there could have been a meaningful conversation around $272,000 to do a one-night event in the palace.”

Dana Ketcham, director of property management at Rec and Park, said Non Plus Ultra was an exemplary tenant that fixed up the space and offered free use of the space for certain community events.

“They have really pleased the community,” Ketcham said.

But in order to offer all those nifty benefits and keep the facility in good upkeep, Ketcham said they needed to price events accordingly.

The base price for events in the facility is $25,000 to $50,000 per day, according to commission documents, but Ketcham said pricing can spike depending on the time of year and the type of organization seeking an event. Corporate entities, for instance, are charged higher rates. A holiday party held in the Palace of Fine Arts facilities last December was billed $306,000 for 3,000 people, according to commission documents. (Although it should be noted, the actual dome itself is often offered free and at a far lower cost.)

Ketcham also noted the department nets 10 percent of the price for Palace of Fine Arts events.

That $272,000 figure is “supply and demand type of pricing,” she said, because Stanley asked for a high-demand December night.

“The person who asked for this said they wanted the works, that money is no object, and they wanted a quote,” Ketcham said.

Still, commissioner Low wasn’t having it. He implied there was something fishy about the lease with Non Plus Ultra itself.

“Well, it’s very clever, I will say that,” he said.

Low raked staff over the coals for allowing Non Plus Ultra’s “temporary” lease to extend more than a year without full permission approval.

“The permit very clearly contemplates over a year,” he explained, despite it being a “temporary” month-to-month lease. That circumvents the public, he attested, who presumably could insist event rental costs come down.

Though he said NPU is “innocent in this,” staff granted the permit by effectively circumventing the commission, he argued.

“I think that policy needs to change,” Low said.

Ketcham protested, citing the sheer number of temporary permits Rec and Park grants. But Low said the commission could let other permits stay in staff’s authority, which would leave the more controversial temporary business permits to the commission.

“Sure, we don’t need to approve a jumpy castle in Golden Gate Park,” he said. But, “you can’t authorize yourself to enter into a contract.”

And with that, perhaps the next time the Palace of Fine arts comes up for approval, event prices may drop to something more … reasonable?

On Guard prints the news and raises hell each week. Email Fitz at, follow him on Twitter and Instagram @FitztheReporter, and Facebook at

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