SF Museum and Historical Society Presents: “Illuminating the Jeweled City: Spectacular Lighting at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition” by Laura A. Ackely.
It had been a while since I had attended a San Francisco Museum and Historical Society program, but I didn’t want to miss this one. It was one of many events that would celebrate the centennial of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
The Palace of Fine Arts is a San Francisco landmark that many tourists miss. It’s not too far off the beaten track, but visitors in a hurry usually head to the nearby Golden Gate Bridge. Once they get there, they look back and wonder what that orange dome is down in the Marina.
I can still remember finding the place. It was one of those spots in San Francisco that seemed mythical. It was like you had stumbled on the remains of an ancient civilization. The architecture was classical, but I couldn’t help thinking of Atlantis. Was the Palace a relic of a lost utopian civilization that had once been in San Francisco? The tall columns, statues and the lagoon gave the Palace an aura of being in another time and place, far from the modern world.
The lecture was at The Old Mint. Most of the gold the Forty Niners found passed through here. It was once the San Francisco History Museum, but that closed down during the recession. The San Francisco Museum and Historical Society has renovated much of the building, and they hope to open a San Francisco History Museum.
The Mint is far from the Marina, where the exposition was held. The Marina is an urban, yet somehow bucolic part of San Francisco. The area around The Old Mint has seen improvement, but it’s still gritty. Signs directed us to a side door. A homeless looking couple lurked near the entrance. A guy was sprawled out on the cement.
Once inside we were able to wander the vaults and other rooms on the first floor of the Mint building. Thanks to iron walls and the efforts of heroic employees, The Mint had survived the fire in 1906. There are bare brick rooms that stored treasure, and there are rooms with period furnishings. Now the rooms are used for cocktail parties and other events. Most of the windows have the iron shutters that were used for fire protection back then. It was like stepping into another time.
The lecture would be in one of the bigger rooms upstairs. Chairs were filling up fast. This event had drawn more people than they expected. About a third of the audience had to stand.
John Freeman is a local historian. He’s an expert on the history of the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco. He made some announcements, and gave us a preview of the next lecture. John Minderman was a San Francisco police officer in the Sixties. He would talk about how police handled the wild days of San Francisco in the wild early days of the countercuture. Minderman later joined the FBI and he was one of the first to respond to a break in at The Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. He used some techniques that he learned in the early days of Sixties San Francisco to help solve the Watergate case.
Freeman introduced Laura A. Ackley. Ashley is a tall and attractive woman. Freeman told us her book: “San Francisco’s Jewel City The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915,” was “the seminal work on the PPIE.”
She gave us some of the history of the fair. Officially, the PPIE was a celebration of the building of the Panama Canal, but to San Francisco it was a celebration of The City’s rebirth from the quake and fire. A slide showed us a huge grizzly bear looming over a map of San Francisco. “Undaunted.”
“A lot of ink was spilled over the expo,” Ackley tells us. The plans and construction for the fair were closely watched by the press. There were battles with New Orleans and San Diego to get the fair.
Most of the known world would gather at PPIE. It was meant to display all the wonders of the world. Celebrities of the time gathered, including: Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Theodore Roosevelt and Charlie Chaplin. Famous aviators were huge heroes back then and most of them flew at the fair. Fatty Arbuckle, a big star at the time, filmed a short at the fair. Great artists and musicians came to display and perform their work.
We’re shown a map of the grounds. It stretched from what is now Crissy Field to Van Ness. Crissy Field had been a race track before the expo. There’s a slide of what it looks like now. The Palace of Fine Arts is the only building left from the fair.
Europe was mired in World War I and there were hopes that the United States would not get involved. Some countries canceled, but a surprising amount of the fighting nations showed up despite the war.
There’s an aerial view of Opening Day on the screen. Two hundred and fifty thousand attended Opening Day. “Those little gray dots are people!” A huge parade started early in the morning and led people to the Expo. We’re shown a better view of the Opening ceremony.
World fairs and expos had the most advanced lighting technology of the time. The Columbian Exposition in Chicago of 1893 had revolutionized outdoor lighting. It became known as “The White City.” It was easier to get to and drew 29 million. They used arc lighting, which looked harsh compared to later Fairs. It made the buildings “look skeletal.” The lights and extensive use of electricity were a spectacle at the time.
There was an expo in Paris in 1900. The biggest attraction was a lit up Eiffel Tower. There were two large fountains. Ackley heard they may have used perfume in the fountains, but she can’t find any proof of the “olfactory effect.”
There were fairs in St. Louis in 1904. “Meet you in St. Louie, Louie.” The expo in Buffalo used the power from the nearby Niagra Falls to light up their fair. People were still fascinated by outdoor electrical lighting. The bar was set high for San Francisco. PPIE would use recent innovations in lighting to stunning effect.
We’re shown an ad with a giant Underwood typewriter. Ackley says it’s one of her favorite images from the fair. The massive typewriter weighed two tons. I guess no one asked why back then. It is a bit comic.
Ackley says she’ll start with the most spectacular. The Great Scintillator was a product of “lumination technology.” The exhibits were closed at night, so the lights were the main entertainment. It was important to put on a spectacular show so that attendance didn’t drop off at night.
Ackley tells us that before PPIE opened there were great doubts about the lighting. The organizers almost assumed the lighting system director Walter D’Arcy had put in place would fail. It was “foredoomed to failure.” They even hired contractors with alternate plans. There is no proof of this, but Ackley thinks that these contractors were hired, paid a retainer, and then when D’Arcy’s lighting plan worked the alternate contractors were paid and the contracts destroyed.
The lights that shone on The Great Scintillator came from a pier that had a “weather proof” breakwater. At the end of the pier there was a Morro Castle. The lights were operated by marines. Usually the fog helped with the lights. It gave them a mysterious effect. If there was no fog they ran a locomotive near the Tower of Jewels and used the smoke to enhance the lights. The locomotive was loud!
The lights dancing in air could have a plaid effect. There was another effect called the ghost dance. Refraction caused an aurora borealis effect. The lights could be seen for miles across the Bay.
The Electric Kaleidoscope was in the Palace of Horticulture. The Palace had the largest dome in the world. Lights were projected through the ”opalescent dome.”
The Tower of Jewels was a little over forty stories high, which would make it about four hundred feet. In another picture people walking by the Tower give some perspective to how big it was.
One hundred and two thousand cut glass gems hung from the Tower of Jewels. They were called Nova-gems. The Novagems were hung on hooks so that they would be loose and move with the wind. This produced a glimmering effect that was dazzling. There is black and white film footage of the fair, but it can’t reproduce the colors or the effect.
Light reflected off the Novagems and neighbors in the residential district complained. Taking them down and trashing them was considered. The San Francisco Examiner suggested throwing them in the Bay! Ackley is glad they did not meet, “a watery demise.”
Chicago’s Fair had been known as The White City, so a catchy name was needed for this Fair. The Examiner ran a contest and the winner was an Afro-American schoolgirl named Virginia Stevens, who came up with, “The Jewel City.” She later became the first black woman to become a lawyer in the state of California.
We’re shown slides of:
A Presentation Novagem. The Novagems used during the fair were marked “Patent Pending” near the hole that they were hung by. Souvenir Novagems that were sold at the fair were marked: “Souvenir - Patents Pending.” They came with a box and certificate. Tipsicoin.com says that the certificates are very rare. The souvenir Novagems were sold for one dollar. When the Novagem was paid for the buyer was given a certificate. The buyer redeemed the certificate to get the Novagem. The certificate was usually taken by the merchant and lost. They are very rare. A presentation Novagem in great condition sold online for $500. They’re hard to find in good condition.
The slide show continues:
The Court of the Universe had two large fountains facing each other in a courtyard. During the day it had a marble color. It lit up in many colors at night. The lights tried to match the travertine marble walls of most of the fair. It was said the lights used 2 billion, 6 million candle light power.
The Court of Abundance.
The Fountain of the Earth. Four ornate dragons look into a column like the weeping maidens of the Palace of Fine Arts. The lighting was aided by gas flambeaux inside the building. There were “lighting banners” below lights throughout the Fair. They had the heraldic banners of Spanish explorers hanging from them.
The Fountain of Energy.
It wasn’t all high culture at PPIE. The Joy Zone was an area with rides and other amusements of the time. There was a replica of the Grand Canyon and a recreation of the Dayton flood. Most attractions had large and wild facades.
Previous fairs used an “outline method of lighting,” the arc method of lighting that gave buildings a “skeletal” appearance. The Ferry Building had that look during the fair, and it will again in 2015! There will be a lighting ceremony on March 3 at 5:30.
The Court of the Universe.
Banks of floodlights were used to light up The Great Scintillator and the other buildings of the fair. It was said PPIE had more search lights than the U.S. Navy!
The Palace of Fine Arts. It was designed by Bernard Maybeck. It was meant to be a quiet, romantic spot where you could rest your eyes after being dazzled by The Great Scintillator and the other bright wonders of the Fair.
So what is the legacy of the lighting innovations used during the fair? Ackley shows us some lighting effects of today that were developed for the fair:
Fantasmic by Disney.
A Zeiss Model One Projector from Munich, 1923. Planetariums need a curved ceiling to replicate the night sky, like the Laserium show that was in the old Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. The Kaleidoscope had to use a flat surface.
A slide of a sequin sign on the back of a truck brings laughs from the audience, but it is the concept behind the Novagems. It’s still used to catch attention for ads today. The motion draws our attention to the ad.
The Palace of Fine Arts was relit in 1999. It will be relit like it was for the fair during the centennial celebration next week.
People were saddened to see PPIE close that December. There was one last grand finale on Closing Night. Attendees were treated to a final light spectacular and a midnight fireworks show. Pilot Art Smith left trails of smoke in the lights.
There is some black and white film footage of PPIE. Fatty Arbuckle shot a comedy short using the Fair as a backdrop. Witnesses said the films doesn’t come close to showing the color and grandeur of PPIE.
All the buildings of the fair were meant to be temporary. The Palace of Fine Arts was saved by a campaign led by Phoebe Hearst. Most of the buildings were made of staff. Staff was a mixture of plaster and burlap. It was not meant to be permanent. There are disturbing photos and film footage of the grand buildings of the fair being torn down. The party was over, and most of the fairgrounds became the residential neighborhood now known as the Marina.
Why was the Palace of Fine Arts the only building saved? The building held an incredible, priceless art collection. The insurance company insisted that the building holding the art would have an iron framework. There were earthquake and fire fears.
There was also a real estate angle. The Palace stood on ground that was owned by the federal government. A swap was worked out with some Presidio land and the City of San Francisco became the new owners of The Palace. The campaign to keep the Palace started before the fair was over.
The dread two part question: Was there sound for The Great Scintillator? Was there a script for the marines running it? Ackley gives a quick no and yes. In her research she found a script for the marines, but it is indecipherable. The instructions make no sense unless you’re one of the well drilled marines.
Was the breakwater outside of the St. Francis Yacht Club built for The Great Scintalator or the other light shows of the fair? Not that Ackley knows of, but it is a relatively unknown scenic spot in San Francisco.
What happened to the Novagems after the fair? D’Arcy’s contract gave him the selling rights for the Novagems. He claimed that most of them were damaged and he had them stored. “They rotted for ten years.” This may have been a ploy to get a better price. He did sell some later for seven cents a piece.
The Novagems had started disappearing during the fair. Many of the ones that were at “head height” were lifted by fairgoers. Ackley tells us that firemen used their ladders to get Novagems that hung higher and gave them to girls.
A member of the audience volunteers that “years ago” he saw many of them for sale in a now gone antique shop on Shotwell Street. They were boxed with certificates! Ackley says that she is looking for Novagems. She does have a great collection of PPIE memorabilia, but she wants Novagems!
An elderly man started ranting. It was hard to understand what he was saying. He said he was six or seven years old when his father ran a saloon near the dog tracks in San Mateo. He said there was talk of building a casino there. People started to head for the exits. There was applause for Ackley and many thanked her on the way out.
There will be an event at the Palace of Fine Arts on February 20th celebrating the centennial. There is more information on PPIE events at www.SF1915.com.