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Treasure Island, "The Magic City"

Welcome to Curbed's ongoing series titled Hidden History, where Curbed highlights a Bay Area location with a secret past. Maybe it's no longer there, maybe it's been converted into something else, but each spot holds a place in Bay Area history - even if not many people know it. Have a suggestion or know a place with a secret history? The tipline's always open or you can leave a comment after the jump.


Last week we reported that Lennar's Treasure Island deal has fallen through now that it lost financial backing. Since things won't be changing there for a while, we thought we'd take a look back at Treasure Island's glory days, when it was the site of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition.

Dredging to create Treasure Island, 1936 [Photo: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY]

Prior to 1936, Treasure Island didn't even exist. It was initially planned as an airport for Pan American World Airways flying boats, but instead was created from fill dredged from the bay for The Golden Gate International Exposition. The fair ran from February 18, 1939 through November, and opened again from May through September 1940. The whole thing was a planned celebration of recently constructed Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay bridges, but the "Pageant of the Pacific" focus was on all the countries and continents surrounding the Pacific. Following the Great Depression, the fair provided work for lots of architects, engineers, craftsmen, and artists who utilized Asian, Central American, and South Pacific imagery (including Diego Rivera's Pan American Unity mural). Arthur Brown, of City Hall and Coit Tower fame, designed some of the major buildings like the Tower of the Sun and the Court of Honor. The fair was lit at night, creating a illuminated island earning it the nickname of "the Magic City."

[Photos: SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY] After the World's Fair, the site was planned to be used as an airport, but the US Navy offered to trade their Mills Field on the Peninsula as an airport site (now SFO) for ownership of the island. During World War II, it became a Navy military base serving as an electronics and radio communications training school and sailor port for surface ships and submarines. They built a training center for nuclear decontamination, with a full-size mockup of a navy ship dubbed the USS Pandemonium. The island was later used as shipboard fire fighting and damage control training.

Treasure Island Redevelopment Plan [Photo: Treasure Island Development Authority]

In 1996, Treasure Island (and the Presidio) were decommissioned and opened to public. Major development plans were hatched for the island, including 8,000 housing units, 140,000 square feet of new commercial and retail space, up to 100,000 square feet of new office space, adaptive reuse of 311,000 square feet of commercial, retail, and flex space, roughly 500 hotel rooms, new and upgraded public and community facilities, 300 acres of new parks and public spaces, waterside facilities for the Treasure Island Sailing Center, and a new Ferry Terminal. The city agreed to pay the Navy $55 million over 10 years for ownership of the island, plus a good $50 million after the project. Who knows what will happen now.

· History of Treasure and Yerba Buena Islands [Treasure Island Development Authority]
· The Island [Treasure Island Museum Association]
· Treasure Island Fair: Golden Gate International Exposition [Found SF]
· Radiation worries on Treasure Island [SF Gate]
· Previous coverage of Treasure Island [Curbed SF archives]