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San Francisco History Bits: The Cow Palace

As a born-and-raised San Francisco native, Liz has long had a fascination with the history of San Francisco and the greater Bay Area.

Cow Palace as seen from the hillside above

Cow Palace as seen from the hillside above

Where Is The Cow Palace?

Synonymous with San Francisco, this famous arena is actually located in the next-door town of Daly City. It is not officially part of San Francisco, which has nothing to do with its ownership or operation. The building belongs to the State of California and operates under the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s division of Fairs and Expositions. Officially, it is a 1-A District Agricultural Association.

Because of its proximity to San Francisco and “The City” (as area natives call it) being the most likely source of overnight accommodations for travelers, the Cow Palace has long been recognized, incorrectly, as “part of” San Francisco. This association is my reason for covering it under my San Francisco History Bits series. The San Francisco City and County line is within walking distance and actually passes through the northwestern corner of the parking lot.

The site was originally a sparsely inhabited area just south of San Francisco and contained cattle slaughterhouses. The area then was called “Butchertown.” One can only imagine the stench. That history is long past, and the surrounding area is now a neighborhood of mostly single-family homes with a few apartment buildings.

When Was The Cow Palace Born?

The concept germinated back in 1915 at the Pan-Pacific International Exposition held in what is now the Marina District. It was spurred by the popularity of the livestock exhibitions at the fair.

However, the plan did not come to fruition until 1925, when an exposition company was formed and funds collected.

Following this, however, the country fell into the Great Depression, and the idea was dropped. Critics at one newspaper complained that with people starving, it made no sense to build a palace for cows. The phrase was turned inside out, and the name “Cow Palace” stuck.

Eventually, under the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration), building began in the mid-1930s, and thousands of the unemployed were given jobs in its construction.

It was completed in 1941 and hosted its first event in April of that year. It was followed, in November, by the Grand National Livestock Exposition.

The very next month, however, the attack on Pearl Harbor happened, and America was plunged into WWII. During the war years, the building was used by the military.

Following the war, it was returned to the state for its original use and as a venue for sporting and other events. It was officially opened for public use following legislation passed in 1949.

Freeway exit from US 101 South indicating the turnoff for Cow Palace

Freeway exit from US 101 South indicating the turnoff for Cow Palace

What Is the Building Used For?

Originally designed, as stated, for livestock exhibitions, it has played host to many, many more types of events. Famous bands have played there: The Beatles, The Who, The Grateful Dead, Elvis, Queen, Metallica, and many more. Almost all of the big names in entertainment have played that stage.

It has also played host to ice shows, dog shows, the sports and boat show, ice hockey, boxing (interestingly, the doctor we had when I was a child also served as the ringside physician for the boxing matches), basketball, and the annual Dickens Christmas Fair, to name a few other events. One of its longtime return players was the now-defunct Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus.

I remember walking with my parents down to Geneva Avenue to watch the unofficial parade of circus animals being walked up the last ¾ of a mile from the Bayshore train yards. We lived just a mile, as the crow flies, from the historic venue.

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How Big Is The Cow Palace?

To say the place is huge would be a gross understatement. The main building, the landmark arched-roof structure visible from the street and many surrounding vantage points, consists of the main arena and two adjoining exhibit halls, north and south.

The main arena floor itself is over 30,000 square feet! Each adjoining hall is about 49,000 square feet. There are two additional exhibit buildings not attached to the main structure, measuring out at 21,000 square feet each, and each is divided into 3 halls. The entire main complex covers 6 acres.

Counting all the outdoor livestock pens, practice riding rings, and parking, the full complex covers 62 acres! If you're attending an exhibit using much of the grounds, wear comfortable walking shoes!

This aerial view gives some perspective on the size of the place—shown just after completion.

What Is the Seating Capacity?

As stated, the place is huge and could even be described as cavernous. There is permanent seating for 10,000 persons surrounding the main arena. Additional seating can be added on the arena floor for concerts and other events which themselves do not use the entire main arena. This bumps the capacity up another 6,500. Here, you can see the overall floor plan of all the main buildings.

An ice hockey game about to start in the main arena

An ice hockey game about to start in the main arena

Some idea of the huge size of the interior main arena and seating space can be gained from the above photo. Even with all the very bright light pouring from the scoreboard and pyrotechnic display, the rest of the interior remains in shadow.

Will Events Continue to Be Held There?

The famous building has gone through several rough times, and as recently at 2019 was threatened with closure and being razed for housing developments, but the plan was shelved. For now, it appears to be safe from the wrecking ball and should be able to host events for years to come.

Perhaps some group will come forward to have it preserved as a historical landmark. One can hope so, anyway.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Liz Elias


Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on July 17, 2020:

Liz, point well-taken. We have a stadium in Orlando that seems to change its name annually. Same with an amphitheater in Tampa that's known for its outdoor concerts. Every year they're called something else and are always tied to an organization or a name brand.

I'm now with you. Keep it Cow Palace!

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on July 17, 2020:

Hi Shauna--

Yes, it's good that it now serves a wider selection of entertainments. However, the name, while quirky, is so well-known worldwide, that a name change would be confusing, and obscure the history, IMHO. ;-) I'm for keeping it as is, if only because I'm so disgusted with the current trend of large corporations buying the rights to name entertainment venues after themselves!

Hi there, Audrey!

Good to see you. I trust you are well. It is a grand old structure, even if it is showing its age these days.

I do have a (so far, small) series on San Francisco historic sites, they all begin with the header, "San Francisco History Bits..." followed by the name of the locale. ;-)

I'm pleased you enjoyed the article.

Audrey Hunt from Pahrump NV on July 17, 2020:

I've been to events at the Cow Palace and really enjoy the history you've presented here. I appreciate having the chance to go there after reading more about it.

I lived in the bay area for many years and would love for you to write a series about historic places.

Thanks, Liz and be safe!

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on July 17, 2020:

It's nice that the land is now used for entertainment purposes. Perhaps a name change is in order, though.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on July 17, 2020:

Hi Bill--Yes, you are correct. Many basketball games were played there. It's one of the standard ongoing sports events that are held. I've never been; basketball doesn't grab me. ;-) Glad you liked the article.

Peggy--Yes, I do hope it survives. It is an amazing part of the area's history. Thanks much for stopping by; I'm pleased you enjoyed the article.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on July 17, 2020:

Thanks for writing about the Cow Palace. It is interesting how it got its name and how it has been used over the years. Hopefully, like our Astrodome in Houston, it will survive to find purpose in the years ahead. People are still debating how best to use our iconic structure of the Astrodome.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on July 17, 2020:

I remember it for basketball...the Golden State Warriors played there, didn't they? My Seattle Sonics played there often. Fun history, Liz.

Liz Elias (author) from Oakley, CA on July 16, 2020:

Greetings, Pamela and Ruby. Thank you both so much for your kind words. I'm delighted you enjoyed the article. It was fun to write.

Ruby Jean Richert from Southern Illinois on July 16, 2020:

This was an interesting read. I have always heard about the cow Palace and would have loved to be there when the entertainers were there, esp. Elvis. Thanks for sharing.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on July 16, 2020:

This building has an interesting history and I enjoyed reading your article. I have traveled a little bit in that area of CA, but I never knew a thing about the Cow Palace.

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