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Tracking Down the Remnants of San Francisco's World's Fair

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Today marks the 100th anniversary of the opening day of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Earlier this week we looked back at the mega-soiree that was the PPIE, taking up 635 acres of the Marina for more than nine months. The main structures were made of a glorified papier-mâché, which anyone who went through elementary school art class knows doesn't last longer than the next rainstorm. So what exactly happened to it all once the party was over? Let's find out.

As you recall, the bulk of buildings were demolished immediately after the fair wrapped up in December 1915. They were designed to be temporary, so the plan all along was to tear them down. A few remnants escaped that fate, however.

The Palace of Fine Arts, designed by Bay Area starchitect Bernard Maybeck, remained in place. During the fair it held exhibits of foreign and American artists, including paintings, sculpture, tapestries, and decorative arts. Sculptures were grouped on display in the rotunda and the colonnade. Perhaps to cut down on the threat of fire after the 1906 earthquake and fire, the entire exhibition hall structure was made of steel and concrete (the rotunda and colonnade were made of the requisite wood-staff combo).



The entirety of the Palace of Fine Arts was supposed to meet its doom at the end of the fair like all the others. But instead it was saved from demolition by the Palace Preservation League, founded by Phoebe Apperson Hearst (yes, that one). For a while the exhibit hall held a permanent art collection, and later it was converted into indoor tennis courts and then a limo motor pool. It led a weird life as a warehouse, distribution center, storage depot, and fire department headquarters.


All the while, the rotunda and colonnade, the flashy main attraction of the palace, started to decay. In 1964 philanthropist Walter Johnson championed the idea of rebuilding the Palace with more permanent materials, in what's considered one of the earliest preservation efforts in the city. Everything but the steel structure of the exhibit hall was torn down and then reconstructed in concrete, with most of the ornate detail replicated (except for the murals on the dome, two ends of the colonnade, and the ornamentation on the exhibit hall). A little over 10 years ago it was seismically restored and retrofitted, ensuring its continued survival. In fact, it's the only structure from the fair that stayed located on its original site.


Despite being the most famous, the Palace of Fine Arts isn't technically the only survivor. The Japanese Tea House was purchased by one E.D. Swift, and the entire structure was barged down the bay to Belmont. For a few years it functioned as a private residence for Swift's two daughters. It acquired a different life when Elsie Smuck bought it during Prohibition and sold bootlegged whiskey, gambling, and … ahem … ladies of the night. Once she died, in the 1940s, it became a restaurant and has survived in various incarnations since. It's been renovated and added to a bunch, but the redwood entrance and main dining room are still original.


The Japanese Commissioners' Office, a building that housed Japanese officials during the world's fair, was sold and barged to the Ardenwood farm in Fremont. The new owner, Mrs. Clara Patterson, even contracted starchitect Julia Morgan to remodel it as a residence, but died before the plans were completed. The pagoda at the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park also dates from the PPIE, even though the garden itself was created for the even earlier 1894 California Midwinter International Exposition.

Though not located on the main 635-acre Marina "campus," the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, also known as the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, has a PPIE origin story as well. The Exposition Company funded its construction as part of the Civic Center—tying the PPIE to the city's efforts to rebuild in a unified way after the 1906 earthquake and fire. If you look at the very tippy-top of the Grove Street facade, you can still see the original "Exposition Auditorium" engraving.



The fair featured tons of musical performances, complete with a 40-ton, 7,000-pipe organ. It was originally installed at the Festival Hall, but after the fair it was given to the city and moved to the Bill Graham. Despite a restoration effort in the 1980s, it was damaged pretty badly in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. There was a plan to install it on the Embarcadero as part of a new outdoor music concourse, but a lack of funds eventually thwarted the project. So while a friends group is trying to get it repaired (ideally sometime this year to celebrate its centennial), it lives in storage.

Lots of other bits and pieces were sold off after the fair ended. Whole buildings were barged away, and some became homes in Oakland, Berkeley, and Marin. Some other remnants of the fair:

• The Stockton Tunnel, Van Ness Avenue median, and huge expansions to the MUNI system were built to improve access from downtown to the fair's waterfront.

• Alma Spreckels (remember her?) was so smitten with the French Pavilion, based on Paris's Palais de la Legion d'Honneur, that she and her husband, Adolph, funded an exact replica as a memorial to World War I soldiers and as an art museum. You may know it as the Legion of Honor.

• The fair site was regraded for subdivision and redevelopment. Today's Marina Green is a remnant of some of the gardens of the fair, and the Marina Yacht Harbor was the original home to the boat slips for the fair's passengers and freight.

• Sausalito's Vina del Mar Park contains two of the original twelve full-size elephant sculptures designed by McKim, Mead & White as flagpole bases at the Court of the Universe. Sausalito architect William Faville (yes, that one) saved two of the elephants and a fountain for the park near the ferry landing—local kids named them Jumbo and Peewee. The papier-mâché didn't last long, so they were reconstructed out of concrete and eventually converted into light fixtures.

• The "Rachel" telescope in the Chabot Observatory was contracted before the PPIE, but the company that made it offered to waive the shipping fee if Chabot let them display it at the fair before installing it.

• The Overfair Railroad was a one-third-scale rail that ran throughout the fair. It was transported to the Santa Cruz Mountains near Davenport, where its operated by the Swanton Pacific Railroad Society.

· For Its 100th Birthday, Looking Back at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition [Curbed SF]
· Looking Back at Six of San Francisco's Most Epic Demolitions [Curbed SF]
· How Julia Morgan Gave California Women Space for Leisure [Curbed SF]
· Celebrate Summer with San Francisco's Lost Amusement Parks [Curbed SF]
· Behind the Hedges and Inside the History of Danielle Steel's Spreckels Mansion [Curbed SF]
· Previous Coverage of Bliss & Faville [Curbed SF]

Palace of Fine Arts

3301 Lyon St, San Francisco, CA 94123