Big Bang: Major donor dinner at the new California Academy of Sciences


Most succinctly, Doris Fisher uttered the adjectives on the tip of every patron's tongue at the Celebrate Leadership dinner last night at the new California Academy of Sciences .

"Fabulous!" "Amazing!" "Fantastic!" enthused the philanthropist and arts patron.

The 154-year-old Academy deserves all those superlatives and many, many more. Perhaps even some 484 million more. Which is the dollar amount (outside of new universities, the largest ever private capital campaign in the West) this group of 300 deep-pocketed (500K-and-up) donors raised to get the Academy up and running after sustaining irreparable damage from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

With gala chairwoman Randi Fisher (shimmering in a to-die-for and appropriately-hued aquamarine Hermes gown) at the helm, this fabulous!, amazing! and fantastic! evening was both glamorous and good old-fashioned fun.

Echoing the theme of glamour, fun and sustainability, Pam Baer was decked in a knock-out electric green gown with rows of fringe by hot, local designer, Coltrane Conui.

"You're going to see this gown again," explained Pam. "Because not only is it the color green, it's the green of sustainability and I'll reinvent it and wear it to many Academy events!"

The glass-walled lobby of this glorious 410,000-square-foot masterpiece by renowned architect Renzo Piano where pre-dinner cocktails were served was surprisingly empty. But that's only because the patrons were clamoring to explore every nook-and-cranny of the new space.

As well as inspecting wall plaques and newly named halls to make sure the spelling of their names were correct.

The one exhibit everyone managed to view before dinner was the thrilling 25,000-gallon tank containing the African penguin colony that is now the centerpiece of the long beloved African Hall.

As a wet-suited aquatic biologist inside the tank fed the penguins, an Academy employee explained that the penguins are marked with different colored arm bands to indicate whether they are males or females.

To which, former Mayor Willie Brown (on whose watch the new Academy got underway) quipped: "And during the night, those penguins switch their bands!"

Only in San Francisco. Indeed a theme that also describes the determination of the denizens of our little 7x7-square-miles burg where many of the same families (Kimball, Bingham, Wattis, Osher, Fisher, Schwab, Siebel, Bakar, Byers, Blum, Haas, Montgomery, Hearst, Folger, Hume, Tusher, Goldman, Walker,Johnson, Hellman, Rembe-Rock, Moore and Taube) continuously, and most generously, dig deep to fund our world-class institutions.

For family members of the late William Kimball, the night was bittersweet. For it was Kimball, a former Academy board chairman and trustee, who boldly declared after the '89 quake that the right thing to do was knock down the old Academy and build it anew upon its historic Golden Gate Park location.

Like his late aunt, arts patron Phyllis Wattis, before him, Kimball (for whom the Academy's new Kimball Natural History Museum is named) knew that declaration must be accompanied by a bold gesture: a personal donation in the galaxy of mega multi-millions.

"I'm so thrilled tonight to see our dream of the new Academy come true," said Gretchen Kimball, who got teary at the mention of her husband's name.

"I wish he were here tonight," said William Kimball's daughter, Ana Kimball, "But I know, somewhere, he is here."

Her brother, Stephen Kimball, was thrilled with the result of his father's great vision.

"Around every corner, the building keeps surprising me," said Stephen. "The penguins, the old Roman columns, even the bronze sea-horse railing from the old Aquarium. The designers expertly incorporated these elements honoring the Academy's history."

So what does almost $500 million getcha these days?
Herewith, a few stats:

20 million research specimens

38,000 live animals

a 30-foot-high Foucault pendulum

a 25-foot-deep, 1,000-square-foot living coral reef

a 75-foot-wide screen and 90-foot high dome of the revamped Morrison Planetarium

environmentally-conscious loos sporting the most amazing Mitsubishi air hand dryers; stalls adorned with placards containing phrases such as "Man shapes himself through decisions that shape his environment" and encourages guests to install similar models of the water efficient toilets in their homes

a living rainforest beneath the four-story high glass dome (replete with sun portholes) all protected by a constant and tropical 82-degrees

a "Living roof" garden -- the world's largest -- containing 1.7 million species of plants

a revamped home for Monarch, the stuffed California Grizzly bear that is the model for the California State Flag. The state's last wild Grizzly was trapped in 1889 (and spent many years on display in the city) by an old Examiner reporter for his boss, press baron William Randolph Hearst

and one albino alligator named Claude

That amount also got these patrons a swimmingly good party!

The center glass atrium (glowing like sunset o'er the Pacific) was designed by the deft Stanlee Gatti, who wrapped the intimate tables in striking International Orange (the same color that adorns our Golden Gate Bridge and many architectural details at the Academy) fabric.

Place-cards (that doubled as souvenirs) were glass cubes adorned with the Academy's new logo as well as many of the species now inhabiting their new home.

Caterer extraordinaire Paula LeDuc whipped up a creative and delish dinner: rack of lamb and local organic heirloom carrots, a "Rainforest" espresso brazilian nut toffee glace bombe that was topped by a spun sugar dome in homage to the Academy's sculpture by Maya Lin.

Stepping outside the lines, LeDuc's show-stopping first course featured a trio of filled egg shells nestled atop a bed of wheat grass.

"Well," joked Becca Prowda, "It looks like we're going to have to forage for our food tonight!"

And interspersed between numerous toasts and tributes were musical repasts featuring the stylings of SF Opera baritone Lucas Meachem and songbird Patti Austin.

Academy Board Chairman Bill Patterson welcomed the gathered grandees with great enthusiasm and hope, reminding them of the Academy's mission.

"Science can be and must be an engaging and open question," declared Patterson, "As to what is our world about and how we can make it a better place."

Speaking of the Academy's research, conservation and education programs, Academy Executive Director Gregory Farrington deduced that the world's most important resource is ... actually ... peanut butter.

"Because that is what children run on and they are our future!" said Farrington, to great applause. "This is not a natural history institution but rather a natural future institution!"

Academy trustee and New Academy Founding Chairman Dick Bingham toasted his fellow supporters and friends for delivering to San Francisco this dazzling new "kingdom of 'wow'!"

The Academy officially opens for business on September 27. And Dede Wilsey, Fine Arts Museums Board President, is thrilled to have it back in place.

"We're very good neighbors and very good friends," said dynamo Dede, who well knows from the arduous task of rebuilding museums.

"Aside from this wonderful new building," said devilish Dede, gazing out the lobby across the music concourse at the de Young's magnificent tower, "that view is another great reason to visit the Academy!"


A view from the Aquarium floor up to the Rainforest Dome

Alberto Palleroni and Ana Kimball with her brother, Stephen Kimball and his wife, Julie Kimball

Betsy Jewett, her mom, Lucy Jewett and trustee Thomas Tusher and his wife, Pauline Tusher

Christine Murray and her husband, trustee Michael Murray

Claude, the albino alligator

Daniel Lurie and Becca Prowda with Staci and Jamie Slaughter

Detail shot of the Stanlee Gatti table decor

Doug and Lisa Goldman with Dick Goldman and Helen Raiser

Eva Price and her husband, trustee William Price

Fred Parkin, Michael Lazarus and Bob Fisher

Gerson and Barbara Bakar

Katie Schwab, Mayor Gavin Newsom, Jennifer Siebel Newsom and Chuck and Helen Schwab

Ken Siebel and his wife, trustee Judy Siebel with Terry Gosliner, the Academy's curator of Invertebrate Zoology

Mark Dwight (center) and his parents, Jane and Herb Dwight

Paul Pelosi and Bernard Osher

Sako Fisher (foreground) with friends Anne and Paul Wattis, and her husband (far right) Bill Fisher

Sandy and Kay Walker at the Penguin Tank

Sonya Molodetskaya and former Mayor Willie Brown

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