When the Lights Went Out. The Last Day at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. December 3, 2015. San Francisco Public Library. 6:00.
The Ferry Building is at the end of Market Street. It’s downtown San Francisco’s main vein. It was the central gateway to the City, and it’s still the spot for New Year’s Eve and civic celebrations. You can see it for a long way down Market Street. This year the building has had the large numbers 1915 lit up under its clock tower. It honors the centennial of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
It’s been quite a year for lovers of San Francisco history. There were many Exposition related exhibits and celebrations during the 2015. It was a unique way to look at life in San Francisco a hundred years ago. The fair was a celebration that brought the world to San Francisco. It may not have reflected what daily life was like in the City, but it was San Francisco putting its best face forward to the world.
The Panama-Pacific International Exposition celebrated the innovation and progress of the times. The Panama Canal had just been finished. It was considered a technological wonder of the world. Domestic and foreign pavilions displayed many other achievements in science and art. The celebrities of the time gathered to celebrate. Thomas Edison and Henry Ford took a ride around the fair grounds in a Model T. “Too bad that conversation wasn’t recorded.” The entertainment stars of the day visited or performed at the fair. America’s frontier past was celebrated with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Many saw their first airplane there. Daring aviators were the rock stars of the day. Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand made a short film of their visit to the fair.
The Panama-Pacific International Exposition stretched from what is now Crissy Field to Van Ness. Most of the buildings were in classical Beaux Arts style. They were made of burlap that was painted a travertine pink. Lights shone on the buildings, especially the Tower of Jewels. The tower was covered in dangling Novagems that caught and reflected the light. There are black and white photos and film footage, but even sepia tinted photos can’t capture the lighting effects and beauty of the fair. It was a classical vision, but it was ephemeral. The buildings and the fair were never meant to be temporary. You had to be there.
The centennial celebration started a year ago with a lecture by Laura Ackley at the Mint Building in downtown San Francisco. The Mint was one of the few structures to survive the fire of 1906. There were heroic efforts to save the building and the treasure inside. It was a San Francisco history museum in the Seventies. Budget cuts had forced its closure, and it had been empty for years. There were attempts to make it a history museum again, but it didn’t work out.
Ackley’s book has been called the seminal work on the Exposition: “San Francisco’s Jewel City. The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915.” It’s a beautiful, well printed volume with an expert description of the fair and great photos.
The day after Ackley’s talk there was an opening ceremony at the Palace of Fine Arts for the exhibit: “City Rising: San Francisco and the 1915 World’s Fair.” I describe it here: http://worldfest23.blogspot.com/2015/04/panama-pacific-international-exposition.html Many people came in period dress, and it was a great San Francisco event.
The exhibit at the Palace of Fine Arts has a large map of the fair grounds and a short film about the fair. There are statues and other items that were at the exposition. The Palace of Fine Arts is the last building from the fair in its original location.
The California Historical Society had an exhibit at their home on Mission Street. There was a large diorama of the fair grounds that had been in storage for years. It’s a great way to visualize how large and grand the fairgrounds were. There are original Novagems from the Tower of Jewels and fascinating newspaper clippings from the time.
There were exhibits and celebrations in other parts of California. Sacramento, Monterey, Fresno and Saratoga had exhibits showing their city or county’s participation in the fair. In the East Bay the Bancroft Library and Mills College joined the fun. The Wells Fargo History Museum and the Chinese Historical Society of America in downtown San Francisco had displays of PPIE artifacts. There were related exhibits in San Luis Obispo, Los Gatos and San Ramon.
The DeYoung Art Museum in Golden Gate Park has gathered two hundred art works that had been shown at the Exposition for: “Jewel City. Art from San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition.” Most of them are paintings. It’s only a glimpse of the art that was shown throughout the fairgrounds. There were twenty thousand pieces of art spread throughout the fair.
Tonight’s event was at the Skylight Gallery in the San Francisco Public Library’s Main Branch. It was fitting that Laura Ackley would speak again on the eve of the anniversary of the Closing Day at the Exposition.
The Skylight Gallery is home to yet another exhibit on the Panama-Pacific Exposition: “Company’s Coming: San Francisco Hosts the Pacific-Panama International Exposition.” Amazing memorabilia from PPIE is displayed around the room in glass cases. There are photos, business papers, newspaper clippings and other ephemera from the San Francisco History Center’s collections. Other artifacts are souvenirs, scrapbooks, ticket stubs and badges. Old sheet music is entertaining and humorous. Our MC is Christina Moretta. She is the Photo Curator for the San Francisco Public Library. Everything in the glass cases around us are from the library’s archives. Moretta looks proud to say: “We have a lot of stuff.” Moretta mentions that this would be one of the last centennial events and it might, “Bring a tear to your eye.”
Moretta tells us of Ackley’s impressive academic resume. Ackley has graduate degrees from Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley. She has worked for Lucasfilm, the Bechtel Corporation and Autodesk. She became interested in PPIE when she was an undergraduate.
Ackley thanks Moretta for the introduction, and praises the library’s History Center and San Francisco’s City Archivist, Susan Goldstein. Ackley first came to the History Center about four years ago. Much of her research was done at the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, but “I found things here that I couldn’t find anywhere else.”
Ackley is a slim and attractive women. She’s an entertaining and personable speaker with a subtle sense of humor. The people attending are history buffs, and they’re looking forward to one of the last events held during the centennial year. It was a rainy night, but the crowd was larger than expected. They did have to bring out more chairs.
The planning of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition began as early as 1904. There was some competition from other cities to hold the fair. San Francisco just edged out New Orleans. It didn’t look like San Francisco could survive the devastation of the earthquake and fire of 1906. How could the ruined city put on an international exposition that would draw participants from around the world? City authorities and businessman persisted in their plans. They wanted a new image for the City that would replace the many pictures of the ruins and rubble of “The Paris of the West.” The outbreak of World War I threatened the fair. PPIE officials scrambled to encourage those swept up in the war to still participate. Most of them did.
The Panama-Pacific International Exposition is quite a mouthful. It needs an acronym. Ackley says, “We call it PPIE, for brevity and sanity.” Tonight’s talk would focus more on the end of PPIE, and what happened to the buildings, artifacts and the Marina neighborhood after the fair closed.
The next day, December the fourth, would be the centennial of the last day of the PPIE. 1915 had been a very wet year in the Bay Area, and that had affected attendance when the fair opened. “PPIE started in the rain, and it looked like it would end in the rain.” Ackley points out that it rained heavily the day before Closing Day. “Just like it did today!” It was expected that 450,000 would attend the Closing Day ceremonies wearing special badges. Rain was predicted, but in a last piece of Exposition magic, the day dawned clear and brilliant.
There were grand plans to make the final day of the fair special. There was a large parade that led attendees to the entrance for the last day. They were met with a twenty-one gun salute. Ackley shows slides of the parade. She points out a ring of lights around one float. Using electricity like this was still impressive back then.
There were many events at each pavilion to celebrate the end of PPIE. Starting at five o’clock there were closing ceremonies at each pavilion. It was a bittersweet day for the crowds walking the fairgrounds for the last time.
PPIE stayed open until midnight. Walter D’Arcy Ryan’s Great Scintillator lit up the Novagem Jewels for the last time. Pilot Art Smith flew over the fair, leaving trails that looked like fire in the sky. There was a massive fireworks show.
Ackley describes the last moments of the fair. At midnight the lights went out. One light remained on Descending Night, the statue by Adolph Weinman. Attendees wandered the fairgrounds for the last time. They danced until dawn. No one wanted it to end.
It was sad to see PPIE being torn down, but there was also an odd civic pride that at least there was some control over the demolition. The residents had gone through the trauma of seeing their city destroyed in 1906. Ackley says that this time it had been a conscious decision to demolish the fairgrounds, and not the whim of nature. It’s hard to believe, but The Jewel City had always been planned to be temporary. Exhibitors scrambled to sell anything they could. It was cheaper than taking it back home.
The land was all leased. The buildings had to come down. The Marina and the residential neighborhood around it would be built over the former fairgrounds. The demolition started almost immediately. A slide shows us one of the more spectacular scenes when the Towers of Italy were torn down. It had to be a jarring image for former fair goers. Some of the buildings were dynamited. Railroad tracks had been put in to get heavier exhibits and machinery into the pavilions. They were covered during the fair and now they were dug out to move rubble and heavy things out.
Most of the buildings were destroyed, but some were sold and relocated. Some of them were moved and used as private homes. A slide shows us the odd view ferry riders had when the Ohio Building was carried across the Bay with the help of a tug boat.
There are some surviving buildings in the Bay Area. “The Victor Talking Machine Temple” is now in San Rafael at Fifth Avenue and H Street. The pagoda from the Japan Pavilion was moved to Golden Gate Park and is still there today. The plaza in Sausalito has one of the remaining pieces from PPIE. The two elephant flagpole bases and fountain were once in the Court of the Universe. They were barged across the Bay and later renovated.
Ackley shows us a slide of some of the iconic sculptures of the fair abandoned to the elements on the Marina. They were “left to deteriorate.” One of the statues is James Earl Fraser’s “The End of the Trail.” An Indian slumps on his horse in exhaustion and defeat. The statue was sold to Visalia. They made a replica and sold the original to the National Cowboy & Western Museum in Oklahoma City.
Ackley went to the Cowboy museum and saw the original stature. She says it’s very impressive to see in person. The Indian warrior on horseback is thirty-five feet tall. The plinth base it’s on is ten feet tall. She’s embarrassed to admit she didn’t get a picture!
The Palace of Fine Arts was saved after a campaign led by Phoebe Apperson Hearst. Its burlap exterior began to crumble in the elements of the Marina of San Francisco. It was saved and made more permanent after another public crusade in the early Sixties.
A woman asks about the fate of The Palace of Fine Arts today. A new tenant must be found and many are concerned about having a hotel or restaurant in the facility.
Ackley points out that a building must pay for itself or it doesn’t work. The building will be neglected and deteriorate. The Palace was home to the Exploratorium for years, but the children’s science museum had moved to larger quarters on San Francisco Bay. The Palace of Fine Arts building had been used as a storage space and even as a garage for a while. There have been rumors that the lagoon and rotunda would be radically changed. “They are not tearing down the rotunda! Tell people that!”
The new tenant will be responsible for any necessary seismic retrofit and other upkeep costs. The controversy makes blood boil among Marina residents. The traffic a new attraction would draw would be a problem.
Another question. Can some of the areas of the liquefaction that caused most of the damage from the earthquake of 1989 show up on the plans and maps for PPIE?Ackley says that early plans for PPIE showed lagoons and small bodies of water that had to be drained. They were the same problem areas during the earthquake in 1989. She points out that most of San Francisco was on dry land back then. Very little of The City was landfill, and they had no idea liquefaction would be such a problem.
The buildings of PPIE were always meant to be temporary. They didn’t really have foundations. The bigger buildings did have supports driven into the clay of what would become the Marina, but they would be torn down shortly after the fair.
Could you see any of the effects of World War I at the PPIE? Ackley told us that fair organizers had to scramble after the outbreak of the war to end all wars. Germany canceled. It would be a rash indulgence during wartime. There was some German art at PPIE, but there was no official participation. After much persuasion, France agreed to send most of its planned exhibits. There were still empty spaces at PPIE where countries at war had to cancel.
Last question: What were the socioeconomic problems at PPIE? Where people denied admittance because of race? This was a time of real discrimination in the United States. Were some people barred from entering? Ackley says no. No one was denied entrance because of race, but the price of a ticket did keep some of the lower classes from going to the fair. It was a different time. Some of the facades of attractions in the amusement section were bizarre racial caricatures of the day. One exhibit in “The Joy Zone” was a simulated opium den from Chinatown. Citizens in Chinatown complained and the attraction was closed.
There would be another last question. An earlier slide had shown very creative floats made for the parade on Closing Day. Some of them had a string of lights along them. How had the lights been lit? They used batteries! It was probably quite an effect at the time.
It felt like the Q&A could have gone on much longer, but Laura Ackley had books to sign.
The next day, December 4, was the centennial of the closing day at PPIE. The lights under the numbers 1915 were turned off, and they would soon be taken down. Some people showed up in period costume for the ceremony, and a celebration was held at the nearby California Historical Society. The centennial of one of San Francisco’s brightest years was over.