article picture

PPIE: San Francisco's Finest World's Fair (Part 1)

by James R. Smith

The building of the Panama Canal in the beginning of the twentieth century meant expanded trade and less costly passage east for local goods shipped through San Francisco. In 1904, the San Francisco Merchants’ Exchange proposed that San Francisco should host a world’s fair celebrating the opening. Our great quake and fire in 1906 put those plans on hold, but San Franciscans did not forget.

In October 1909, President William Taft announced January 1, 1915, as the date for the opening of the canal. The San Francisco Merchants’ Exchange met and by March 22, 1910, incorporated the Panama Pacific International Exposition Company. Local support quickly generated six million dollars in subscriptions to support the fair. Charles C. Moore, leader of the successful 1909 Portola Festival, assumed the role of President of the Exposition.

New Orleans countered San Francisco’s bid for the fair, but the State of California put up an additional five million dollars, paid for by a state tax. Requiring no Federal funding, Congress passed a hotly contested resolution authorizing the President to invite the world to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) at San Francisco in 1915. The fair would celebrate the discovery of the Pacific Ocean by Vasco Nuñez de Balboa in 1513 and the planned completion of the Panama Canal in 1915.

President Taft broke ground in Golden Gate Park on October 13, 1911, in front of a crowd of 100,000 people, proclaiming San Francisco as the “city that knows how.” The selected sites originally included Lincoln Park, Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, and Harbor View.

The architects, including famed locals Willis Polk, Bernard Maybeck, and George Kelham, decided that the exposition should consist of a contiguous grouping of the grounds and structures for both esthetic and attendance reasons. They chose the Harbor View mudflats, today’s Marina District, also incorporating a portion of the Presidio. The plans were complete by early 1912, and construction commenced. The goal—to create the finest fair ever.

The corps of architects selected a Beaux-Arts style for the exposition, a classic but eclectic European design with Spanish, Moorish, Greek, Roman, and Italian Renaissance influences. The designs focused on structure, color, and light. Columns, statuary, floral cornices, domes, and ornate entries and windows carried the theme. Imitation travertine made of cement and sand sufficed for the bulk.

Work that was more intricate required a more malleable travertine, composed of gypsum, hemp fiber, and color pigments. The colors imitated fine marble—primarily ivory, accented by light earthy pastels.

The filling in of Washer Woman Cove kicked off the development phase. Great hydraulic dredging machines pumped silt and sand from the bay, filling the area that lay behind the new breakwater. Liquefaction of that same silt during 1989’s Loma Prieta Earthquake resulted in severe damage to homes later built on those grounds.

Trucking in enough topsoil to provide a three-foot cover, Golden Gate Park’s John McLaren led his landscaping team in greening the area. Foliage was a crucial part of the plan. An elaborate sewer and irrigation system kept bay salt from intruding. McLaren’s team planted more than 30,000 trees, acres of flowerbeds, and miles of hedges and lawns. They constructed thick hollow wooden walls with ice plants inserted that covered the vertical surfaces like flowering carpets.

Eleven great palaces rose up under an army of skilled craftsmen. Eight of those made up the Central Palace Group called the Walled City. It was a design so cohesive the eight seemed to be one magnificent building intersected with walkways and courts, topped with the magnificent Tower of Jewels. A uniform color theme under the guidance of Jules Guerin created a study in natural tints, enforcing the sense of a grand design and providing a soft, glare-free façade.

Lincoln Beachey, a native San Franciscan and contracted fair aviator, flew his plane through the unfinished Palace of Machinery, completing the world’s first indoor flight. He died in a performance held later, after the fair opened, failing to come out of a loop over the Bay.

In a stunning lighting scheme designed by General Electric’s Walter D’Arcy Ryan, new indirect lighting lit up the grounds at night, unlike anything previously envisioned. Multicolored spotlights and flood lamps hidden from view cast a magical glow on the exposition, especially on the tower. A bank of colored spotlights with 2.6 billion candlepower made up the Scintillator that lit up the fog in a lightshow of epic proportions. When the fog failed to materialize, a dedicated locomotive engine placed on the bay’s shore produced billows of steam that rose into the air to create the backdrop. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition on opening would become a wonderland at night.

The forty-three-story Tower of Jewels, encircled by fifty-four hidden search lamps, shimmered from the reflected light cast back by more than 100,000 multicolored glass jewels. The builders strung colored Austrian cut glass beads called Novagems, outlining the tower structures. Sensitive to the lightest breeze, a tiny mirror backed each jewel, reflecting the light back through its facets. Four hundred thirty-three feet from ground level, the tower stood as the dominant feature of the fair. At night, its illuminated, shimmering beauty drew the breath out of onlookers.

Pools, fountains, lawns, and beds of flowing plants completed the fantasy world of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. The grounds and halls were ready on schedule. The “city that knew how” had done it again. The world was at war, but San Francisco refused to accept that fact, preparing to celebrate her own rebirth and the opening of the canal.

James R. Smith, a generous contributor to GuideLines, is a fourth-generation native of San Francisco and the author of San Francisco’s Lost Landmarks (2005, 2007).

To see a photo of the Levi Strauss & Co. manufacturing booth at the PPIE, visit the City Guides website, /public_guidelines.html, and read our past article, “Levi Strauss and His Company.”

Photo credits: PPIE postcard, courtesy of James R. Smith. All other photos in this issue courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

article picture

Mechanics working on high elevation, probably the Tower of Jewels

article picture

Auction of Panama Internation Exposition Stock, SF merchants subscribing $4,089.000 in 1 hour and 50 minutes, April 28, 1910.

article picture

Postcard view of the PPIE.

Send comments and questions to
Material of San Francisco City Guides. Please give credit to the author and SF City Guides if referenced or reproduced.