This is what the City by the Bay can do!!
Mile-long line for Academy of Sciences opening
The crowds of adults, children and infants were awesome, and by mid-afternoon the line for free admission wound more than a mile along Kennedy Drive and the park's side streets as academy staff handed out tickets admitting 500 visitors at a time every half-hour.
By 1 p.m., 5,000 patient ones had gotten inside. By the 9 p.m. closing, the number grew to nearly 17,000. But thousands more were turned away for lack of room. The staff suggested that those who struck out Saturday could come back on the next free admission day, Oct. 15.
But inside the building, every exhibit was ready - the towering trees of the tropical rain forest were alive with butterflies and birds; the two alligators napped lethargically on their swamp-surrounded rock; the tropical fish of every conceivable color filled the deep waters of the living coral reef, and the Morrison Planetarium show inside its giant dome enthralled hundreds at a time all day as it carried awed spectators from the outer reaches of the cosmos to the blue but fragile planet Earth.
The academy opening at 8:30 a.m. was appropriately ceremonial as the Police Department's color guard marched to the front of the building to the sound of bagpipe and drum, and Martin Martinez, a Pomo Indian from Redwood Valley in Mendocino County, waved a feathered hawk wing and intoned a thanksgiving blessing "for another day alive and for all the people who created this place."
Then Heidi Melton, an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera, sang the national anthem and Gregory Farrington, the academy's executive director, introduced Renzo Piano, the famed Italian architect whose design of the academy building has already earned extraordinary critical praise and who, as Farrington said, "instantly came to understand the soul of this institution."
The crowd of hundreds massed in front of the building cheered and applauded.
Piano himself was brief: When he first learned about the academy's goals, he recalled, "I said, 'Mamma mia! I need this job! The Earth is fragile and it needs our help, so I want to help.' " He turned to the crowd, his arms outstretched.
"Do you like it?" he asked. The crowd roared.
Mayor Gavin Newsom was there to speak too, and he was brief. He cited all the city's other cultural icons - the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum standing high on the other side of the park's Music Concourse, and the institutions downtown, the Museum of Modern Art, the new Jewish Museum, and the smaller Museum of the African Diaspora; and, of course, the Japanese Tea Garden and the Strybing Arboretum, two other park neighbors.
"A tremendous sense of spirit and pride" was Newsom's phrase about all this culture, and then he noted that $152 million of city funds had gone into the academy's $488 million building, and he cited former Mayor Willie Brown's "leadership constancy" when the seismically unsafe old academy structure needed public support for a replacement.
With the ceremonies over, Farrington took the microphone again and, to the surprise and delight of the crowd, opened a huge cardboard box to let the first of 150 monarch butterflies soar high above the building. As the crowd laughed and thousands of cameras clicked, some of the butterflies alighted on the museum's overhanging glass portico - while others flew out of sight to stop amid the burgeoning grass and flowers of the academy's famed "living roof."
The roof itself was a major attraction, and 225 visitors at a time were allowed up by elevator to a viewing platform where they could watch flowers blooming, insects flitting and city birds from the neighborhood scavenging.
The crowds never seemed to end, but they did have a beginning: Well before 5:30 a.m. Saturday, Dara Nachmanoff, together with her son Caleb, 12, her daughter Solana, 10, and Caleb's friend Sam Ryan, 12, walked over from their home in the Richmond District on 11th Avenue to be the first visitors in line.
They'd often been to the academy's temporary quarters on Howard Street during the museum's four-year exile there, and they even knew the old building in the park.
"I've never stopped loving this place," Dara Nachmanoff said.
"She's an addict," said her daughter - not without admiration.
Inside the building, the academy store did a brisk business in ecologically sound animal replicas, tote bags, T-shirts, books and posters; ecologically sound food was on sale, and there wasn't a plastic water bottle to be found anywhere.
And deep in the underground portion of the Steinhart Aquarium, surrounded by fish of many species - some large, some tiny - Nehu Malik, 11, and her brother Jay, 7, stopped to take turns inspecting the magnified skull of a piranha while their father, Kamat Malik, a veterinary lab technician from New Delhi, watched.
"These tiny bones are interesting," Nehu said, "but I like the huge fish more - they're fantastic."
Perhaps the academy's biggest hit on opening day were the penguins in the Simpson African Hall. They waddled on their rocks, dived and swam in their pool, and the crowds and cameras seemed unending. Kids pressed close to the glass wall separating them from the birds, and many of the birds seemed just as playful: As the kids skittered from side to side, the swimming penguins swam too - was it chase or be chased? Neither birds nor kids seemed to care.
"I just love it when I watch the people's jaws drop," said Judy Ryan of Novato, one of the academy's 500 volunteer docents whose bright orange smocks identified them so visitors could ask questions. Ryan watched the penguin action with a smile.
"When I retired from teaching elementary school 23 years ago," Ryan said, "I found what I wanted to do. But I thought it would be astronomy and geology, and now here I am with the penguins and the African animals. But what fun!"