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Golden Gate International Exposition: SF’s Final World’s Fair – Part 1

by James R. Smith


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As early as 1933, San Franciscans urged their politicians to host another world’s fair to follow up on the success of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. Mired in the “hard times” of the Great Depression, they were eager to bring increased trade to the City, and to celebrate the opening of two engineering marvels, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge.

San Francisco and its surroundings had grown markedly by the 1930s, with the Bay Area now boasting two million residents. Lacking the open land required to host the proposed Golden Gate International Exposition, backers of the fair looked to San Francisco Bay and selected Yerba Buena Shoal, lying just north of Yerba Buena Island.

The creation of Treasure Island began in February 1936 with the Army Corp of Engineers erecting a giant coffer dam that surrounded 400 acres of the shoal. Three hundred tons of boulders were stacked behind the dam walls, and dredges sucked twenty-five million tons of sand and mud from the bay floor and dumped it onto the site. Much of that sand came down from the Sierra Nevada Mother Lode during the gold rush, inspiring the name for the newly created land. In fact, there was very little gold on Treasure Island, but it inspired good press.

Plans for the new San Francisco Municipal Airport became key to development on the island. The Main Terminal would serve as the fair’s administration building, with a control tower topping the four-story structure. The two hangars would house the Air Transportation exhibition halls. Those structures were designed and constructed to be permanent, with plans for a set of 4,000 foot runways to be paved after the fair.

The north end of the island remained water-logged and was designated for parking. The remainder of the grounds was divided into six theme areas: the Exposition Buildings, the Pacific Area, the Latin American Court, the Foreign Pavilions housing non-Pacific countries, La Plaza area, and the Homeland area.

The GGIE Architectural Committee chose to create a new style of architecture for the fair structures dubbed Pacifica, which offered a composite of Art Deco, Mayan, Far Eastern, and Pacific Island designs. Constructed to last only for the duration of the fair, the structures offered an opportunity to express the fair’s theme, Gateway to the Pacific, in quickly erected wood and light steel frames, stucco, plaster, and spray paint.

The most prominent feature under construction was the Tower of the Sun, rising 400 feet over the island. A 22-foot-tall wrought-iron phoenix topped the tower, symbolic of San Francisco’s ascendance from the ashes three decades earlier and multiple times prior. A carillon of forty-four bells hung within the tower. The bells were cast and tuned in Croydon, England, in 1938, for San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, a gift of Dr. Nathaniel T. Coulson, who lived for years in poverty to accumulate the required funds. The church loaned the carillon to the fair for its duration since the church’s bell tower was not yet complete.

The four “L” shaped exhibition palaces occupying the southwest side of the island next to the Administration Building comprised the Mines, Metals, and Machinery exhibits; the Hall of Science and the Electricity and Communication exhibit; the Vacationland and the Foods and Beverages exhibits (the largest building); and the Agriculture Hall, the International Hall, and the Homes and Gardens exhibits. These four buildings came together at the landmark Tower of the Sun, visible from both the San Francisco and Oakland shores. The Portals of the Pacific with its Elephant Towers, the Court of the Sun, the Court of the Moon, the Court of Reflections, the Court of Flowers, the Court of the Seven Seas, and the Court of Pacifica separated the buildings.

Limited only by a loose set of guidelines, other structures quickly popped up, financed and developed by various individual entities, governments, and concessions. Companies like Ford Motor Company, National Cash Register (designed with a giant cash register on top), Ghirardelli Chocolate, and PG&E erected their own exhibition buildings.

Entertainment took shape in the form of the California Coliseum for livestock and athletic events, the Livestock Pavilion, the “Cavalcade of the Golden West,” a pageant of the West’s history, and the Gayway, providing arcade entertainment that included the Cyclone Roller Coaster, two Ferris wheels, and Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch.

Chromotherapy--a new scientific health treatment designed to create healing moods--dictated the colors and lighting. Most color schemes maintained a muted cast of earth tones, natural colors, and related shades. Primary colors appeared only in approved advertising displays for companies such as Coca-Cola.

The Golden Gate International Exposition took advantage of new indirect neon “black lighting,” ultra-violet floods, and luminescent tints to create nighttime illusions described as a “magic city of light floating on San Francisco Bay.” The luminescent paints and reflective vermiculite washed the fair in dazzling colors at night, some in shades that constantly varied.

As completion neared, the massive Elephant Towers, bathed in rose red by distant spotlights, glowed against the night sky. Fountains sprayed showers of liquid gold. The Tower of the Sun glowed in yellows and orange topped by its red illuminated phoenix. The 80-foot statue of Pacifica glowed stark white against a backdrop of vivid oranges and blues. The pools in the Court of Reflections returned casts of calming pink and coral. The lighting alone represented one million dollars in cost, but the effect proved stunning.



James R. Smith, author of San Francisco’s Lost Landmarks (2005, 2007), is a frequent contributor to GuideLines. His most recent articles were on two earlier SF world fairs: the 1894 MidWinter Exposition and the Panama Pacific International Exposition.

All photos courtesy of SF History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

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Pumping of Yerba Buena Shoal during creation of Treasure Island to be the site of the Golden Gate International Exposition

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Construction of the Air Terminal on Yerba Buena Shoal, October 1937

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Night Illumination of the Tower of the Sun and the Elephant Towers

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Eleanor Pickersgill and artists Margaret, Helen, and Esther Bruton, with sections of the mural Peacemakers that decorated the West walls of the Court of Pacifica

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Sculptor Ralph Stackpole working on the statue Pacifica that was displayed in the Court of Pacifica


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Illuminated Court of Honor Fountains surrounding the Tower of the Sun in the Court of Honor

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