The World's Fair That Raised San Francisco From the Ashes

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, held in San Francisco. Most people just called it the World’s Fair. The purpose of the exposition was to celebrate the Panama Canal and the ease of travel it brought, but the fair also celebrated San Francisco rising from the ashes of the devastating earthquake of 1906. What would amount to an entire city elsewhere was built for the fair, only to be torn down afterward.

All these structures and their lushly landscaped courtyards were united by an earth-tone color scheme devised by muralist Jules Guérin, the Director of Color, to reflect the California landscape. “I saw the vibrant tints of the native wild flowers, the soft brown of the surrounding hills, the gold of the orangeries, the blue of the sea; and I determined that, just as a musician builds his symphony around a motif or chord, so must I strike a chord of color and build my symphony on this,” Guérin wrote. Architect Bernard Maybeck, who designed the Palace of Fine Arts, likened the entire assemblage to a cloissoné brooch, with its many Italianate, Islamic, and French-inspired buildings all clad in faux-travertine.

The most eye-catching bauble of all was clearly the 435-foot-tall Tower of Jewels, a mishmash of architectural references whose exterior was covered by 102,000 two-inch cut glass “Novagems.” Constructed to hang on small hooks and sparkle like a coating of colorful sequins, these oversized glass “gemstones” were also sold as souvenirs of the PPIE. Emily Post described the building as a diamond and turquoise wedding cake. The Novagem gimmick was put forth by the fair’s lighting director, Walter D’Arcy Ryan, who referred to their effect as “augmented daylight.”

There were also several fabulous light shows to dazzle visitors, exhibitions of modern technology, pavilions of foreign culture (some of which were quite offensive), stunt pilots, art, music, and a 5-acre scale model of the Panama Canal -that worked! Collectors Weekly talked to curator Erin Garcia and author Laura Ackley about the fair and what it meant to San Francisco 100 years ago.  


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