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All's Fair in San Francisco

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Picture of the Palace of Fine Arts

By 1910, San Francisco had finished rebuilding after the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire. So it was time to throw a big party that would show the world that the city was back. Photograph of the Palace of Fine Arts At the beginning of the twentieth century, cities around the world hosted “expositions” that could draw millions of visitors (and, not coincidentally, bring millions of dollars to the local economy). And the most lavish kind of exposition was an “international exposition”— a World’s Fair. The Panama Canal, then under construction, provided the perfect theme for what was touted as the largest and most lavish international exposition of the new century. The canal opened in August 1914, by which time the lengthy preparations for San Francisco’s big bash were nearly complete.

The Panama Pacific International Exposition opened on 20 February 1915. During the nine months of the fair, some 18 million people visited eleven “exhibit palaces” (temporary museums). There were also pavilions with displays from 21 countries, all 48 states, and every California county. On 4 December, a bugler played Taps after a final fireworks show to bring the extravaganza to a close. Then the construction crews got back to work tearing it all down. (Fair-goers who wanted to continue their celebration of the Panama Canal could travel 740 kilometers south to the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego. That fair opened three weeks after the San Francisco exposition, and continued through the end of 1916. Some of the buildings from the Panama-California Exposition remain popular attractions in the Balboa Park museum mall).

Picture of columns of the Palace of Fine Arts Detail of the Palace of Fine Arts rotunda Of all the Exposition buildings, the Palace of Fine Arts was uniquely popular. During the fair, Phoebe Apperson Hearst (mother of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst) founded a group that worked successfully to save the building from the wrecking ball. This exhibition palace was originally a museum that displayed an extensive collection of art treasures. The eclectic architect Bernard Maybeck gave it a decorative facade that invoked nineteenth-century Romantic notions of faded Greco-Roman splendor. During the fair, gondolas ferried visitors to and from the museum across a lagoon that reflected the facade’s eight rotundas and the colonnades that connected them.

Picture of the Palace of Fine Arts Like the other temporary Exposition structures, the Palace of Fine Arts facade was made of staff, a mixture of plaster and burlap over a wood frame. So it soon began to crumble, aided by vandals and a lack of maintenance. Since Maybeck had intended the Palace to crumble into a ruin at the end of the fair, he suggested planting a redwood grove that would grow as the structures decayed. But by the early 1960s, supporters raised enough money to restore a single domed rotunda and colonnade in permanent steel and concrete. The main museum building became the Exploratorium, a “hands-on” science museum that delights children. The outdoor park became a popular spot for weddings and family picnics.

Even steel and concrete deteriorate after a few decades. The rebuilt Palace was undergoing its own extensive renovation when I visited it in October 2008, which unfortunately limited what I could explore and photograph. Visit the Palace of Fine Arts early in the morning. It’s less crowded, and the concrete that’s a bland white at noon takes on a golden hue.


Picture of Japanese Tea Garden San Francisco hosted four expositions before the Panama Pacific. The 1909 Portolá Festival and the 1910 Admission Day Festival may have been small-scale warm-ups for the 1915 Big Event; like the 1898 California Golden Jubilee, they left nothing behind and seem to have been largely forgotten. But San Francisco’s first World’s Fair, the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894, left a very popular legacy.

Golden Gate Park was the fairground for the Midwinter Exposition, which actually lasted well into the summer. The construction of Central Park in New York, which began in 1860, made a large urban park de rigueur for any major American city. San Francisco’s “me too” started out as 4.1 square kilometers of sand dunes— larger than New York’s Central Park— on the west side of the San Francisco peninsula. The park served the city’s political as well as recreational needs: Since the land was then outside the city limits, it would also provide a ready excuse for expansion. By 1894, the park was landscaped and planted with trees, but it remained mostly undeveloped. That made it an ideal site for the first Exposition on the West Coast.

Picture of the reflected temple gate in the Japanese Tea Garden Like the Panama Pacific Exposition, the Midwinter Expo had exhibits representing every state, every California county, and 37 foreign countries. Photo of Japanese Tea Garden reflecting pond Among the foreign exhibits was a Japanese village designed by Makoto Hagiwara, a Japanese-born landscape architect and gardener. When the Exposition ended, the park superintendent suggested that Hagiwara develop the exhibit into a permanent Japanese Tea Garden. Hagiwara expanded the original 4,000 square meters into a two-hectare “stroll garden” in the 17th-century Edo style. Serene paths wind through groves of pine and bamboo, including a waterfall, a reflecting pond with goldfish, and a tea house (the original Exposition pavilion). Picture of the Buddhist pagoda in the Japanese Tea Garden Detail photo of the Buddhist pagoda in the Japanese Tea Garden

Hagiwara built a home in the garden. After he died in 1925, his family continued to develop and improve the garden. In 1942, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered everyone with Japanese ancestry on the West Coast into internment camps in the California desert. In the same spirit of wartime patriotism, the vacant Hagiwara home was demolished, along with the adjacent Shinto shrine and various other inappropriate items. And the Japanese Tea Garden was renamed the Oriental Tea Garden. Picture of the temple gate in the Japanese Tea Garden

With the rehabilitation of Japan after the war, it was possible to restore the Tea Garden to its Japanese form. The Hagiwara family returned to clean up what was vandalized and neglected. Other Japanese artisans brought in their own improvements, including a “dry” Zen garden and a Buddhist pagoda (or “treasure tower”) that replaced Hagiwara’s Shinto shrine.

The Japanese Tea Garden is the likely birthplace of the fortune cookies served at nearly every Chinese restaurant (although there are other claims to their origin). Some time after the Midwinter Exposition, Makoto Hagiwara began offering sembei at the tea house. Sembei are folded, waffle-like crackers with a paper fortune inside, traditionally eaten at Shinto shrines in Japan during the New Year holiday. Hagiwara’s version was sweeter than than the Japanese crackers, which could include salty miso. During World War II, the Chinese entrepreneurs who took over both the Oriental Tea Garden and the abandoned Japanese bakeries marketed the cookies to restaurants in California. From there, fortune cookies became an icon of Chinese restaurants everywhere in the world— except for China.


Picture of the Conservatory of Flowers Photo of the Conservatory of Flowers Picture of the Conservatory of Flowers exterior detail Photograph of the Conservatory of Flowers exterior detail One of the oldest structures in Golden Gate Park is another “me too.” In 1848, Kew Gardens in London completed its Palm House, a large glasshouse with a high dome to accommodate tall palm trees. That started a Victorian craze for large glasshouse “conservatories,” where exotic tropical flora could grow in places with decidedly non-tropical climates. James Lick, whose real estate investments made him the richest man in California, decided that a conservatory would be just the thing for his estate in Santa Clara (in today’s Silicon Valley). So he ordered one from Europe, which was shipped “around the Horn.” When Lick died in 1876, the 16,800 window panes and other materials were in shipping crates, awaiting assembly. A group of San Francisco businessmen bought the conservatory kit in 1877, and donated to the city for the then-new Golden Gate Park. Construction of the Conservatory of Flowers was complete in 1879.

Victorian conservatories were usually made of wrought iron, to better resist the heat and humidity inside. But this one was originally made of California redwood. It survived the 1906 earthquake intact— perhaps because of the flexible wooden frame?— but suffered from two large fires (the first of which destroyed the original dome) and the effects of storms, heat, humidity, and time. It underwent the latest of several renovations between 1999 and 2003. The Conservatory’s collection currently includes over 1,700 species of tropical plants, including 700 varieties of orchids. The gleaming white exterior and its landscaped grounds offer visitors a pleasant echo of the Victorian era.

Despite the name, Golden Gate Park is nowhere near the famous Golden Gate Bridge. But there is a large park at the south end of the bridge, the Presidio of San Francisco. Formerly a military base, it’s part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area under National Park Service administration.


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