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The Panama Pacific International Exposition

The Panama Pacific International Exposition, 1906. Library of Congress.

Plans for an international exhibition to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal were first discussed in 1904 — a decade before the canal's construction would be done. The canal's celebrated chief engineer, John Stevens, had not even been hired. Then, due to the earthquake 1906, San Franciscans had to delay their grand plans for what was to become the Panama Pacific International Exposition.

By 1909 the city had recovered sufficiently for its residents to focus on the exhibition again. They wanted to put the earthquake's devastation behind them, and show the world the progress of their recovery. On April 18, 1910 -- the fourth anniversary of the earthquake -- the city's residents held a special fund-raising event, where they purchased over $4 million worth of exposition bonds.

Before construction could begin, the exhibition's location needed congressional approval. To beat New Orleans in the competition, the San Francisco city government appropriated $5 million in city funds to the exposition. The California state legislature pledged an additional $5 million.

Construction for the Exposition began in 1911. President William Howard Taft traveled to San Francisco for the groundbreaking ceremony, which was held at Golden Gate Park. The Exposition's location was later changed to Harbor View, the site of today's Marina District.

San Franciscans looked forward to the exposition with excited impatience. In the days leading up to its opening, headlines in the San Francisco Examiner chronicled the arriving wonders. "Swedish Hall of Fame is Installed at Fair." "Honduras to Send Orchids and Gems." "Oregon Sends Expert to Institute Kitchen." "From All Directions Trains Are Bringing Throngs." The paper even reported that Lloyds of London was offering odds on whether it would rain on opening day.

The sun broke through threatening clouds and the Panama Pacific International Exposition opened on February 20, 1915, covering 635 acres of San Francisco's waterfront. Constructed in the Beaux-Arts style, the buildings were designed to harmonize with the local landscape's delicate pastel and earth-tone coloring.

Winifred Black, a well-known journalistic crusader of the day who wrote under the pseudonym "Annie Laurie," expressed San Franciscans' pride in the exposition's opening ceremonies and fantastic setting. "Grandpa and grandma wouldn't have stayed at home from that celebration if you had offered them non assessable stock in every paying mine in California," she wrote. "You could see it all -- the sullen blue-green of the Presidio forest... the gray-veiled city... the silver of the gleaming bay... the purple majesty of the far mountains, the tender green of the Marin hills... and the [Exposition's] city of delight."

The ten major exhibit halls formed a large rectangle surrounded by several courtyards. On the east end of the rectangle stood Machinery Hall. Its enormous eight-acre interior was so large that an airplane could fly through it. On the rectangle's west end stood the Palace of Fine Arts, which housed paintings and sculpture. Its displays included works by Cezanne, Monet, and Van Gogh.

The Exposition's most spectacular structure was the Tower of Jewels, which occupied the center of the large rectangular area. Standing 43 floors high, the Tower's exterior was decorated with more than 100,000 glass beads of various colors, which were strung on wires so they would blow in the wind. To enhance their shimmering effect, tiny mirrors were placed behind the beads.

On the eastern edge of the rectangle, "The Zone" contained a roller coaster, refreshment stands, and amusement arcades. A working scale model of the Panama Canal was also on display there. The Zone stirred up a small revolution among socialites who wished to attend a formal dinner but still enjoy the Zone's pleasures before and afterward. "Wouldn't it be ridiculous to 'do' the Zone in evening clothes?" asked the San Francisco Examiner. Mrs. Marshal Hale, quoted in the same article, said, "I believe fashion should give way to pleasure and convenience," indicating she planned to wear an informal "tailored gown."

Not everyone enjoyed the exposition. One item in the San Francisco Examiner described the Santa Fe Railroad Company's exhibit on the New Mexico landscape, installed by Herman Schweizer of Albuquerque. "To make the scene more realistic Schweizer has brought a number of New Mexican Indians to San Francisco," the paper reported. Though nearly four decades had passed since Native Americans were put on display at Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exposition, the plight of America's original occupants had not improved.

Besides its scientific and cultural exhibits, the Exposition boasted a racetrack, stadium, and airfield. A Civic Auditorium had also been constructed, at a cost of $1,350,000. Twenty-nine states had pavilions on display. Although the outbreak of World War I caused many foreign countries to withdraw from the Exposition, 25 still managed to send exhibits for their pavilions.

The Panama Pacific International Exposition closed on December 4, 1915. With nearly 20 million visitors, it was one of the most successful expositions of the era. The Civic Auditorium and the Palace of Fine Arts remain standing as San Francisco landmarks to this day. The rest of the buildings were torn down to make way for shops and housing.

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