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For Its 100th Birthday, Looking Back at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition

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This Friday marks the 100th anniversary of opening day for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Held in today's Marina District, the 1915 world's fair was the city's chance to prove that it could pick itself up after the 1906 earthquake and fire and transform from a rough-and-ready Western pioneer town into a global metropolis. Let's take a look back at San Francisco's Jewel City.

World's fairs originated in the European tradition of national exhibitions, starting in France and England in the 1850s. They were, basically, a way for different countries to show off to one another. Later fairs focused more on cultural diversity, but San Francisco's 1915 fair was all about showing off the goods.

San Francisco wasn't the only city hoping to host the 1915 fair. New Orleans gave it a run for its money, and San Diego also lobbied as the first US port of call for ships traveling north after passing westward through the Panama Canal. Even though SF got the official backing of Congress to host, San Diego put on its own simultaneous fair on a much smaller scale in Balboa Park.



The Panama-Pacific International Exposition ran between February 20 and December 4 in 1915. It was supposed to celebrate the 1914 completion of the Panama Canal, but everyone saw it as a way for SF to demonstrate its recovery after 1906. Organizers decided to build the fairgrounds in what's now the Marina by filling in mud flats and clearing city blocks.



It took more than three years to build everything, and the structures were made out of staff (basically a papier-mâché made out of burlap). As with previous fairs, the buildings were designed to be temporary and dismantled after the fair was over.

Photos via Bancroft Library, Charles C. Moore albums

GE designed a new lighting scheme with thousands of colored spotlights to give the buildings a magical glow in the evenings. When the fog came in, 48 spotlights of seven different colors lit up the sky. The main attraction was the 435-foot Tower of Jewels, which was covered with 100,000 cut-glass "jewels" that dangled individually to shimmer in the light.

Photos via Bancroft Library, Charles C. Moore albums

There were other palaces, courts, and state and foreign buildings throughout the 635-acre fair, including its own railroad system. Today's most famous surviving structure (sort of) was the Palace of Fine Arts, which we'll cover in more detail on Friday. The biggest was the Palace of Machinery. It was the largest structure in the world at the time, and was the first building to have a plane fly through it.


There was lots to do at the fair, according to the National Park Service:

Visitors to the Panama-Pacific International Exposition could stroll through California's "Big Trees" inside the Southern Pacific Railroad exhibit or see the replica of the Greek Parthenon with columns made of redwood trunks. They could spend the night in a full-scale replica of the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone National Park or meet Blackfoot Indians at the Glacier National Park exhibit. For a taste of internationalism, they could view a working model of the Panama Canal, experience Samoan dancing and Sumo wrestling, or visit the Persian and Siamese exhibits. The French exhibit hall was a replica of the Hotel de Salm in Paris, where Napoleon's Order of the Legion of Honor was headquartered.


The California Historical Society is hosting a slew of events this month to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the world's fair. Check out the lineup, this way.

UPDATE (2/18/15): Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this post incorrectly implied that the Palace of Fine Arts was the only surviving structure from the exposition. There were other remnants from the fair, which we'll cover in more detail on Friday. We regret the error.

· The Panama-Pacific International Exposition [San Francisco Memories]
· 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition [NPS]
· PPIE: The City That Knows How [SFPL]
· The Panama-Pacific International Exposition at San Francisco, 1915 [Internet Archive]
· Looking Back at Six of San Francisco's Most Epic Demolitions [Curbed SF]
· San Francisco: San Francisco and the 1915 World's Fair [California Historical Society]

Palace of Fine Arts

3301 Lyon St, San Francisco, CA 94123