Local News Matters Arts & Entertainment newsletter

End your week with a bit of culture to unwind and refresh. Sign up for our surprising and inspiring options in our weekly newsletter, delivered on Thursdays with news about Bay Area arts and entertainment.

When the Panama-Pacific International Exposition opened in 1915, San Francisco looked fabulous: Bedecked with ornate, European-inspired architecture and an array of technological wizardry, the city resumed its role as a West Coast powerhouse less than a decade after near-total destruction. 

Block after block of property flattened by the 1906 earthquake and ensuing fires had been transformed to make way for glitzy new hotels, sturdy apartment buildings, landscaped parks and courtyards, offices, theaters, and a sparkling, gold-topped City Hall. New streetcar lines were built to carry visitors and locals to the fair, much of which rose on previously uninhabitable lots along the city’s northern waterfront. 

The Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) of 1915 — which celebrated the Panama Canal’s completion and its impact on travel and trade throughout the Western Hemisphere — showed the world that San Francisco had reached new heights of grandeur, launching the modern incarnation of the city like a phoenix from the ashes.

(Image of poster courtesy of Wikipedia)

“San Francisco was just nine years out from the earthquake and fire, so the incredible rebuilding effort mirrored the tremendous feat of engineering that the canal required,” said curator Erin Garcia, who organized the 2015 “City Rising” exhibition for the California Historical Society. 

“There was also this symbolic, historical connection for many people who came to San Francisco in the middle of the 19th century during the Gold Rush from the East Coast and from Europe, sailing around Cape Horn or traveling overland via the Isthmus of Panama,” Garcia said. “The opening of the Panama Canal obviously made this journey much simpler, reinstating San Francisco as the West Coast’s port of call and the new center for commerce in the Pacific, particularly with Europe and Asia.”

After almost 80% of the city was leveled following the 1906 quake, city leaders realized that a global exposition would help incentivize rebuilding and give the community a tangible goal for recovery. 

“Images of the city destroyed were so powerful, and this is what people elsewhere thought of San Francisco,” said Laura Ackley, whose book, “San Francisco’s Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915” is the first modern, comprehensive volume to cover the 1915 world’s fair. “Not only would continuing with plans for the fair replace San Francisco’s damaged image in the eyes of the world, it could also be a lynchpin around which the people of the city and region could rally.”

The entrance to the Scenic Railway attraction in the Joy Zone. (Image courtesy of Collectors Weekly)

By the time of the fair’s opening in February 1915, most evidence of San Francisco’s great earthquake was gone. The gorgeous new City Hall was nearly finished along with the broad Civic Center plaza and Exposition Auditorium (known today as the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium), which was one of the few PPIE buildings constructed as a permanent gift to the city. 

As the exposition was gaining momentum, growing hostilities in Europe were also leading to World War I, forcing countries like Britain and Germany to withdraw from the PPIE. Regardless, the organizers pushed on, securing the participation of 31 different countries, including France and Japan. 

When the PPIE finally opened, it was a microcosm of the world — a dazzling expanse of monumental architecture filled with new technologies, products, and international cultural exports designed to make any guest swoon.

Inside one of the unfinished palaces, an oversized sculpture group called “Nations of the East” awaits installation over the Arch of the Rising Sun behind a crowd previewing the fairgrounds. (Image courtesy of Collectors Weekly)

And swoon they did: After entering through an opening in the oversized hedge wall facing Chestnut Street, visitors wandered past the domed Horticulture Palace and its elaborately landscaped gardens, passing under the Tower of Jewels to enter the Court of the Universe. 

Built in a grid surrounding this central court were eight primary palaces devoted to food products, agriculture, transportation, mines and metallurgy, education and social economy, liberal arts, manufacturers and varied industries. At the far western edge of this grouping, the Palace of Fine Arts curved around its giant lagoon; behind it rose pavilions dedicated to particular nations and various athletic fields. To the east was the Palace of Machinery and the Joy Zone beyond, with its rowdier amusement corridor.

All these structures and their lushly landscaped courtyards were united by an earth-tone color scheme devised by muralist Jules Guérin, the director of color, to reflect the California landscape. Architect Bernard Maybeck, who designed the Palace of Fine Arts, likened the entire assemblage to a cloissoné brooch, with its many Italianate, Islamic and French-inspired buildings all clad in faux-travertine.

The most eye-catching bauble of all was clearly the 435-foot-tall Tower of Jewels, a mishmash of architectural references whose exterior was covered by 102,000 2-inch cut glass “novagems.” Constructed to hang on small hooks and sparkle like a coating of colorful sequins, these oversized glass “gemstones” were also sold as souvenirs of the PPIE. 

A souvenir brochure showing the Tower of Jewels backlit by the rainbow-hues of the Great Scintillator. (Image courtesy of Collectors Weekly)

The Novagem gimmick was put forth by the fair’s lighting director, Walter D’Arcy Ryan, who referred to their effect as “augmented daylight.” Ryan had previously worked as director of the Illuminating Engineering Laboratory for General Electric, and was keen to try out some new tricks for the PPIE’s groundbreaking Total Illumination Plan. 

Ryan developed several innovative techniques to provide subtle, indirect, and colorful lighting that made the exposition spectacular at night.

“The most famous effect of all was the Great Scintillator, that rainbow fan of light you see in so many pictures,” said Ackley. “There were 48 spotlights, four feet in diameter each, and it required 60 Marines to run the drill. Each spotlight was mounted so that it had freedom of movement in all directions, and they would form patterns across the sky in the San Francisco fog.”

The PPIE also hosted a variety of wackier architectural experiments. Improvements in stucco technology allowed for the construction of several oversized facades along the Joy Zone, such as booths in the shape of Aztec temples, King Neptune, a Golden Buddha, toy soldiers, elephants, icebergs, and more.

The gigantic Underwood typewriter on display in the Palace of Liberal Arts was operated using an ordinary-sized typewriter. (Image courtesy of Collectors Weekly)

Also, there were plenty of exhibits to knock your socks off. When you entered a giant upside-down potato bug, you entered to learn about the wonders of pesticides; a huge 14-ton Underwood typewriter typed onto sheets of 9-feet wide paper. 

In the Joy Zone, you could watch hundreds of premature incubator babies being cared for by uniformed nurses or take a simulated ride over 100 miles of Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Inside the Pennsylvania building, one could see the original Liberty Bell, which had traveled to San Francisco via train — the final journey of its kind.

Like most major world’s fairs, the PPIE included several booths dedicated to foreign cultures that exotified and stereotyped these races more than they celebrated them. Sid Grauman, of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, presented an offensive attraction called Underground Chinatown.

The fair’s central grounds, stretching from the Palace of Machinery at the top left to the Palace of Fine Arts at the lower right. (Image courtesy of Collectors Weekly)

“It showed scenes of squalid opium dens and a white woman being pressed into sexual slavery by a Chinese drug lord, which was only performed if there were no Asian-looking people in the audience,” said Ackley. “It was just incredibly offensive, and eventually, the exposition management shut it down.”

For many visitors, the most thrilling displays were those centering on futuristic technologies.

In 1915, only around 10% of American homes had electricity, and the PPIE presented a variety of novel electric devices that would quickly become ordinary.

A looming Uncle Sam greeted guests with a huge pocket watch at the Souvenir Watch Palace. (Image courtesy of Collectors Weekly)

“The G.E. home Electrical Exhibit in the Manufacturers Palace had a California-style bungalow filled with all types of different electronics like blenders, an intercom system, a hair dryer, and even an electric car charging station,” said Garcia. 

Mere months before the PPIE opened, the country’s first transcontinental phone line had been completed, and on Jan. 25, 1915, in a ceremony designed to gain publicity for the PPIE, Alexander Graham Bell called and spoke from New York to his assistant Thomas A. Watson in San Francisco.

The pace and precision of modern manufacturing was shown through onsite production lines. At a time before private cars were widespread or affordable to the middle class, Ford’s assembly line was perhaps the most impressive factory, turning out 18 finished cars per day. “By the time each Model T was finished, it drove off the line using its own power,” Ackley said. 

The earliest Wright brothers’ flight took place in 1903, which meant the PPIE was the also first major exposition to show attendees the potential of human flight, with stunt pilots doing tricks over the San Francisco Bay and joyrides available to the public for a hefty $10 fee. 

“You’d take off from the bay in a seaplane and fly over Fort Point, across the bridgeless Golden Gate, over the Marin Headlands, Sausalito, and Alcatraz, then land in the bay and taxi up a wooden ramp onto the beach,” explains Ackley. “The concession was run by two brothers whose last name was spelled ‘Loughead.’ Although they had already gone broke at least once, they re-founded the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation using their profits from the fair.”

The fair ran for a little over 9 months, closing on Dec. 4, 1915, with a total of 18,876,438 visitors — far exceeding even the most optimistic predictions. Demolition began almost immediately, since by contract, most of the land had to be returned to its original owners.

Many buildings along the Joy Zone used programmatic architecture, like these oversized ostriches, to attract potential customers. (Image courtesy of the Seligman Family Foundation)

Though many magnificent structures were destroyed, a campaign to save the Palace of Fine Arts had begun even before the PPIE closed. The Hearst family provided significant funds and support for maintaining the structure, although its crumbling edifice required a complete reconstruction in the 1960s — San Franciscans still cherish the building today.

Ackley says world’s fairs “were never designed to be permanent. The buildings would have been much more expensive to build in a way that they really would last.”

Though the fair came down less than a year after it opened, its long-term impact on San Francisco is both subtle and profound. 

“When you think of a world-class city in California, what do you think of?” Ackley asks. “You probably don’t think of Los Angeles. I’m sorry, L.A. — you’re a beautiful city and your weather is a lot better — but people think of San Francisco. It’s San Francisco, Paris, London, Rome. And the fair may have done that for us.”