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Pan Pacific International Exhibition, 1915: Prelude to the Fair

by Gloria Lenhart

One hundred years ago this month, San Francisco was in a frenzy of final preparations for the opening of the Pan Pacific International Exhibition. What the San Francisco Chronicle called “the greatest year in all the history of San Francisco” began with an aerial demonstration on New Year’s Day. Famed local aviator Lincoln Beachey performed loop-the-loops and other daring feats over the exposition grounds while attempting to break the world altitude record for bi-plane flight. (He failed, but still climbed to 11,982 feet!)

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Photos from the San Francisco Chronicle after a rehearsal of the lighting effects on January 20, 1915.

This year, Guidelines will provide month-by-month highlights of the 1915 Exposition, as well as details of the PPIE Centennial Celebration which kicks off in February to coincide with the anniversary of Opening Day on Feb. 20, 1915.

Preparing for the Fair

Here’s what was happening 100 years ago as San Francisco made final preparations to “Welcome the World” to the Pan Pacific International Exhibition, which was set to open on February 20, 1915.

Panama-California Exhibition Opens in San Diego At the stroke of midnight, Jan 1, 1915, the Panama-California Exhibition officially opened in San Diego’s Balboa Park. Even though San Diego lost its bid for the International Exhibition to San Francisco, a city nearly ten times its size, it decided to go ahead with its own fair on a smaller scale. San Diego’s fair proved to be a money maker for the city, and stayed open for two years, closing on Jan. 1, 1917.

French Building Breaks Ground On Jan. 5, noted French architect Henri Guillaume broke ground for the PPIE’s French exhibit building. It was to be a copy of the French Legion of Honor building in Paris, and later, served as the inspiration for Alma Spreckel’s Legion of Honor museum in Lincoln Park. The participation of many European countries in the PPIE was cast in doubt with the outbreak of WWI in July 1914. England, Germany, Russia and Austria had no official participation in the Exposition, but artists and manufacturers from these countries provided exhibits.

Civic Center Auditorium Opens The official opening of the Exposition Civic Auditorium, now the Bill Graham Auditorium, was celebrated on January 9, 1915, with a gala costume ball. Ticket prices for the ball ranged from upwards of $50 for a box seat to only $1 for standing room admission to the dance floor. Only those wearing a costume or a “domino” (a hooded cape and mask for sale at the Auditorium) were allowed on the dance floor. The Chronicle boasted that the Auditorium could seat more people than Madison Square Garden in New York (the one designed by Stanford White, demolished in 1925) and the Coliseum in Chicago (demolished in the 1980s). More than 20,000 people attended the opening ball. The Auditorium was the first Civic Center building to be completed. By Jan. 1915, the exterior of City Hall was complete but the interior was still under construction. The State Building and the Library (now the Asian Art Museum) were still in the planning stage. The Auditorium was designed by city architects John Galen Howard, Frederick Meyer and John Reid Jr and erected jointly by the Exposition Committee and the city at a cost of $2 million, $700,000 of which was the cost of land.

Exposition Grounds Close for Final Prep On Jan 10, the Exposition closed its gates to the public to make final preparations for opening day. That day, a record 50,000 people took one last stroll through the incomplete fairgrounds. In December alone, 350,000 people had toured the fairgrounds while they were still under construction

Transcontinental Phone Service Launched On Monday, January 25, 1915, at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, Mayor Rolph and several other city leaders gathered at the offices of the Home Telephone Company at 333 Grant to place the first transcontinental phone call. At the other end of the call was New York City Mayor John Mitchel, whom Mayor Rolph cordially invited to the fair. The phone line was for official use only at first; public access wasn’t available for a few more weeks while AT&T continued to test the line.

Compiled by Gloria Lenhart (www. from the ProQuest database available through the San Francisco Public Library and the California Digital Newspaper collection.

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