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PPIE: San Francisco’s Finest World’s Fair (Part 2)

by James R. Smith

In the May issue of GuideLines, James R. Smith, author of San Francisco’s Lost Landmarks (2005, 2007), described San Francisco’s bid to host the world’s fair celebrating the opening of the Panama Canal, and the creation of the fantasy world of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. In this issue: The fair’s glorious success.

San Franciscans bought 100,000 Opening Day badges at 50 cents each, pre-paid entry to the exposition. At six o’clock on the morning of February 20, 1915, those San Franciscans turned out to march down Van Ness Avenue to Fort Mason and the Main Gate of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, accompanied by bands and fluttering flags, intentionally making as great a noise as possible—no vehicles allowed. When the head of the procession reach the gates, the end still reached back two and a half miles. Newspapers claimed 150,000 marched that day.

At the end of the opening ceremony, President Woodrow Wilson keyed a signal from the White House to the wireless station in Arlington, Virginia, triggering the switches in San Francisco to light up the fair and start the machinery. He declared the Panama-Pacific International Exposition officially open.

After having sailed through the Panama Canal, a great fleet of warships from many nations, including the United States Fleet and that of Japan, entered the un-bridged Golden Gate in tribute to the canal and the exposition. The city had never hosted so many warships, not even when the Great White Fleet sailed into the Bay in 1908. People arrived at the fair from the East Coast, sailing in comfort on giant cruise liners through the “Big Ditch.” No more slack-sailed voyages or wallowing steamers down and back up South America risking dangerous runs around the stormy Horn; the canal cut eight thousand treacherous miles off the trip.

When visitors reached the Main Entrance at the foot of Scott Street, the fair assaulted the senses in a most glorious way. The Tower of Jewels loomed ahead, the Novagems catching the sun, throwing back a fiery display. A three hundred-voice chorus sang Hail, California supported by an orchestra, John Philip Sousa’s Band, and a massive pipe organ, the sound and percussion carrying throughout the exposition. Cooling breezes and the oft-present fog kept the temperatures comfortable, never hot.

Carefully tended gardens of green contrasted with the great ornate buildings in soft coordinated pastels. Water sprayed, splashed, and danced in fountains everywhere, the sound blending with the excited conversations and exclamations of the fair patrons. Aromas wafted on the light swirling breezes carrying the enticing scents of baking cakes and bread, mysterious dishes from the Orient, popping popcorn, fresh roasting peanuts, and hot buttered jelly scones, all mingled with the fresh smell of the sea from the Marina. Almost every nation represented offered tastes of traditional foods. The Food Products Palace encouraged bites of this and that. Conces-sionaires temped fair-goers with delicacies guaranteed to spoil dinner.

Children tugged parents toward The Joy Zone and its rides: the roller coaster, the miniature riding train, Boone’s Animal Show, and the Aeroscope, a double-decked cabin lifted two hundred fifty feet above the ground by a huge steel arm, swinging around in a great circle over The Zone. Parents tugged unwilling children toward the great halls and the Panama Canal, Yellowstone Park, and Grand Canyon exhibits. A day wasn’t long enough to see the entire exposition. The PPIE encompassed 636 acres.

Lincoln Beachey amazed the crowds with his aerobatic antics in a German monoplane until he lost control at the top of a loop, crashed into the bay, and drowned. Art Smith immediately replaced him and lived to see the end of the fair. Night flights with flares drew patterns in the sky accented by the sparkling Tower of Jewels, fireworks, colored spotlights, and the Scintillator’s floodlights in a breathtaking lightshow. Lucky attendees stayed at the Inside Inn, a 610-room hotel built right on the grounds at the Baker Street Entrance. Providing all the modern conveniences, the hotel allowed patrons to spend their entire visit at the exposition.

The fair closed on the night of December 4, 1915, after a magical ten-month run. Nearly nineteen million people attended the exposition in spite of the war in Europe. Even after covering the costs of building the Civic Center’s Exposition Auditorium, the backers realized over one million dollars in profits. It was a counterpoint to the World War in Europe, though the war outlasted the fair by three years. Immediately after its close, the exposition returned its treasures, and bulldozers began demolishing the buildings, exhibits, and gardens, finishing the task in 1917.

The land, recently valueless, now had power, city water, sewers, streets, and public transportation right up to its edge, as well as three feet of fertile topsoil. Developers and land speculators grabbed it up, creating the Marina District, a seismic disaster waiting for 1989’s Loma Prieta Earthquake. Only the Palace of Fine Arts, which they could not bear to destroy, and the Marina remained in place when the bulldozers finally left. The Japanese Tea House was barged down the bay to Belmont, where it stands today as The Van’s Restaurant. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition stands as one of the finest world’s fairs ever in terms of the exhibitions, the aesthetics of the PPIE complex, and the fair’s financial success. The exposition marks a transition for San Francisco and the world. The world entered an unprecedented global war, leaving few countries untouched, changing its political makeup and America’s position in it. San Francisco changed too, recognized for the first time as a true international city and not just a Gold Rush town. The fair included a look back to less complicated times and a view forward into the twentieth century. At the time, the city and the world failed to recognize the exposition’s significance as a historical pivot point, in spite of all the platitudes about the future. The world never returned to what it was when the architects of the fair laid their plans.

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View of the Golden Gate from the fair

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Art Smith in his aeroplane in front of the Canadian Pacific Railroad Building at the PPIE

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Demolition – Fall of the Arch of the Rising Sun

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