The Panama-Pacific International Exposition

The City of San Francisco had the honor of hosting an international world’s fair in 1915.  It was called the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.  It ran from February 20 through December 4, 1915.  It was to commemorate the completion of the Panama Canal.

It also commemorated the reconstruction of the City after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

The world’s fair was held in the landfill area that is now the Marina in San Francisco.  Part of the fair was held on the Presidio of San Francisco, on what was later to become Crissy Army Airfield.

The world’s fair encompassed more than 600 acres and was visited by 18 million people.  It was an architectural and artistic triumph.  It celebrated the arts and industry of the world.  Although it was held during World War I, the world’s fair was considered a financial success, attracting visitors from around the world.

To commemorate the world’s fair, we restored several galleries at the Presidio Army Museum in 1976-77.  The galleries were originally part of the old hospital steward’s quarters, which were originally located next to the Presidio hospital.  As part of the installation, we retrieved another historic diorama from storage at the California Maritime Museum, then a City facility.  The diorama depicted a birds-eye view of the world’s fair.  The diorama was restored and dedicated with the galleries in 1979.  Again, I had the opportunity to work with artist and historian Brian Chin in the restoration of the historic diorama. 

San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific Exposition

“All the beauty of the world has been sifted and the finest assembled here.’’

Now at Presidio Army Museum - Magnificent Diorama and
Photographic Display of San Francisco’s 1915 World’s Fair

The Fort Point Salvo
Newsletter of the Fort Point and Army Museum Association
Volume 4, No. 5
July 1979

It was the greatest ever World’s Fair - unmatched anywhere. It was distinguished from all other expositions in America and Europe by the unity of its beautiful architectural scheme and the harmony of its colors, keyed to nature’s coloring of the San Francisco landscape. Its exterior appearance from architectural, color, and texture standpoints was judged by international critics to be a thing of great beauty.

But it was far more than that. It was the outpouring of the nation’s pride and joy at the completion of the Panama Canal which “stirred and enlarged the imaginations of men as no other task had done.”

The great Fair caught and held the amazed interest of every visitor.  Far before the days of radio and television, it had not been seen and prejudged beforehand. There was something in all the 400,000 things exhibited that was brand new to almost everyone who saw them!

The great diorama of the 1915 World’s Fair is the most exquisitely detailed work of fine artist and display designer, Mr. Jay Green. It is outstanding among the 10 historical dioramas he created for San Francisco’s exhibit at the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. It was made available to our Presidio Army Museum through the good offices of Mr. Jack Spring, Superintendent of the San Francisco Park and Recreation Department. Its restoration and installation was made possible by a $3,000 gift from the Presidio Society for which we are deeply grateful.

Panama-Pacific International Exposition rightly displayed in Army Museum

It was such a wonderful happening, San Francisco’s 1915 Exposition needs to be recalled. And where better to do it than in our Presidio Army Museum?

To begin with, the Panama Canal was built by the United States Army Engineers and its Zone made safe from jungle fevers by the Army Medical Corps.

When San Francisco’s leaders began to plan the Fair one of the first organizations they turned to was the Army. A third of the Exposition was built on Army property - the Presidio and Fort Mason.

The Army and Navy were major contributors and participants from the start. It was the Army Signal Corps, for example, which was responsible for the beautiful ever-changing night lighting of the Exposition. It was the Navy that sent its colliers to bring to San Francisco the wonderful exhibits from foreign lands. It was the Navy also that impressed millions of visitors with the might of our fleet on tours of the famous battleship Oregon anchored just off the fairgrounds (now the Marina).

And not to be forgotten is Army Master Sergeant Edward J. Whitehead, now 97, who was called in at the last moment to get the wiring set so that all the lights would go on when President Woodrow Wilson threw the switch in Washington, February 20, 1915.

The total effect of San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition was summed up one evening in a single sentence by a cultured and widely traveled visitor. She was walking in the colonnade of the Palace of Fine Arts which still looks out on its lovely lagoon. She watched the beams of far off searchlights pick out the columns of Bernard Maybeck’s masterpiece, sparkle on the water of the lagoon and touch the domes and arches on the other side. Suddenly she turned to her escort and exclaimed, “Why, all the beauty of the world has been sifted and the finest of it assembled here!” And so, it was.

The idea of a surpassing International Exposition to mark the opening of the Panama Canal was broached in 1904 by R. B. Hale, a leading San Francisco merchant. Even though the City was leveled shortly thereafter by the great Fire and Earthquake of 1906, his idea did not die.

Neither Fire nor Earthquake Could Stop the Exposition

Three years later, October 1909, President Taft at a banquet at the Fairmont Hotel announced that the Panama Canal would be opened to commerce January 1, 1915. Despite the fact that San Francisco was still only a half-rebuilt city of gaunt steel girders, a mass meeting was called and an Exposition Company organized forthwith.

At a second mass meeting April 28, 1910, $4,089,000 was subscribed in less than two hours. The Panama Pacific International Exposition (or PPIE for short) was underway.

All of California enthusiastically joined in. Governor Gillett called the state legislature into special session to place before the people propositions that would allow San Francisco to issue Exposition bonds in the amount of $5,000,000 and the state to raise another $5,000,000 by special tax. In November both sums were voted . By year end the Exposition Company had more than $16,000,000 to its account.

Then came the struggle for Congressional approval. New Orleans demanded the right to celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal. All her resources and those of San Francisco were marshalled for the battle. In the course of which California gave her word that she would not ask the nation for help in financing the Exposition. She won out. On January 31, 1911, the House of Representatives designated San Francisco the City in which the Panama-Pacific International Exposition should be held in 1915.

California kept her word. Her people footed the entire bill for the great World’s Fair estimated at $50,000,000 exclusive of the value of exhibits.

To Build a Magic City Looking on the Bay

It took six months to choose a site. A tract including portions of Golden Gate Park, Lincoln Park, the Presidio and Harbor View was almost decided upon. Finally, the directors settled on a portion of the Presidio and Fort Mason and Harbor View, a natural amphitheater looking out on the blue island-dotted Bay (now the Marina District).

Next came the organization of the architectural staff. It was composed of McKim, Mead and White, Henry Bacon and Thomas Hastings of New York; Robert Farquhar of Los Angeles; George W. Kelham, Chief of Exposition Architecture, Willis Polk, Chief Design Architect, William B. Faville, Clarence R. Ward, Arthur Brown and Bernard R. Maybeck, Designer of the Palace of Fine Arts, from San Francisco. Edward H. Bennett, an associate of Burnham of Chicago, made the final ground plan for the Exposition Group. Keynote of the scheme which was carried out was furnished by Ernest Coxhead of San Francisco.

Jules Guerin and K.T.F. Bitter headed the Departments of Color and Sculpture respectively. John McLaren, long-time superintendent of Golden Gate Park, was put in charge of Landscape Engineering and W.D.A. Ryan planned the Illumination. They went to work and built the greatest of World’s Fairs in just three years!

Unity of Design Not Seen Before

The architectural scheme, new to exposition planning, was a unit in which all the arts were needed and all combined to a single end. Each building, court, sculpture garden and mass of foliage was designed as part of a balanced composition. The aim of architect, colorist, sculptor and landscape engineer was to make the landscape an integral part of the Exposition picture. In other words, to fit the Exposition to the landscape.

The Mediterranean setting offered by the sloping bench of land down to the Golden Gate suggested the scheme of an Oriental city, its great buildings walled in and sheltering flowering courts and sparkling fountains.

There was no monotony, for working within the general scheme each architect and artist was free to express his own personality and imagination. As a result, the varied forms and colors in the different buildings and courts blended into the whole picture of a magic Arabian Nights city set in a vast amphitheater of hills and bay, arched by the blue California sky.

Jules Guerin Adds Glorious Color

By comparison, previous expositions in the United States and Europe had been almost colorless. Fine artist Jules Guerin used the Panama-Pacific Exposition as a canvas on which to spread glorious color.

First he decided that the basic material of the buildings should be an imitation of the travertine of ancient Roman palaces. On this delicate old ivory background he laid a series of warm, yet quiet, Oriental hues.

His color scheme covered everything from the domes of the buildings down to the sand in the driveways and the uniforms of the Exposition guards.

The walls, the flags and pennants that waved over the buildings, the shields and other emblems of heraldry all followed the Guerin plan. The flowers in the gardens conformed to it; the statuary was tinted in accordance with it. Even the renowned artists whose murals adorned courts and arches followed the Guerin color series.

The scheme was very simple - only eight colors were used: French green, oxidized copper green, blue green, pinkish-red-gold, wall red in three tones, yellow-golden orange, deep carnelian blue, gray, similar to travertine, marble tint, Verde-Antique, a shade of green.

The whole effect led John H. Williams in his introduction to Ben Macomber’s fine book, “The Jewel City” to write of the World’s Fair, “Its spell is the charm of color, and the grandeur of noble proportions, harmonizing great architectural units; its lesson is the compelling value, demonstrated on a vast scale, of exquisite taste.”

And from Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of “Little House on the Prairie” among other works, in a letter to her husband back on their Missouri farm, “The coloring is so soft and wonderful. Blues and reds, greens and yellows and browns and grays are all blended into one perfect whole without a jar anywhere. It is fairyland!”

Magic Gardens for the ‘‘Jewel City”

A great part of this “Fairyland” was created by John McLaren’s lovely gardens surrounding all the buildings, filling the courts and bordering the avenues. For multitudes of visitors they were the most wonderful things about the Exposition.

As soon as he took over the landscaping of the Fair, McLaren sent scouts throughout the west seeking the best specimens of large decorative plants and trees to be carefully boxed and replanted in the Fairgrounds. He also established a temporary nursery in Golden Gate Park.

Then he worked out his strategy. No general ever planned a campaign more thoroughly and imaginatively than he planned his 10 months sequence of flowers.

How this was achieved is described in a page from Ben Macomber’s ‘‘Jewel City” which is quoted here in part:

“The season opened in the great sunken garden of the court of the Universe with solid masses of rhododendron. The Court of the Ages was a pink flare of hyacinths, which, with an exquisite sense of the desert feeling of the court, were stripped of their leaves and left to stand on bare stalks. The South Gardens and the Court of Flowers were a golden glow of Daffodils. Daffodils, too, were everywhere else, with rhododendron just breaking into bloom. The daffodil show lasted several weeks until, over night, it was replaced by acres of yellow tulips blooming above thick mats of pansies. This magic change was merely the result of McLaren’s forethought. The daffodils had all been set at the right time to bloom when the Exposition opened. The pansies were set with them, but were unnoticed beneath the taller daffodils. Unnoticed also were the tulips, steadily shooting upward to be ready in bloom the moment the daffodils began to fail. One night and morning scores of workmen clipped off the fading daffodils, and left a yellow sea of tulips with cups just opening. When the tulips faded early, because of continued rains, the solid masses of pansies remained to keep up the golden show. With the end of the yellow period came three months of pink flowers, to be followed in the closing third of the Exposition’s life by a show of variegated blooms.”

Even the Flowers were “Rehearsed”

“McLaren actually rehearsed the whole floral scheme of the Exposition three seasons beforehand. To a day, he knew the time that would elapse between the planting and the blooming of any flower he planned to use. Thus, he scheduled his gardening for the whole season so that the gardens should always be in full bloom. In McLaren ‘s program there were ten months of constant bloom, without a break, without a wait. No such gardening was ever seen before.”

Eleven Great Palaces for 60,000 Exhibitors

Straight ahead of the crowds entering the Exposition through the main gate at the foot of Scott Street stood the majestic Tower of Jewels - 435 feet high. Before it, to the left, was the Palace of Horticulture, and to the right, the Festival Hall.

Behind the Tower of Jewels stretched the exquisite Court of the Universe whose four corners were occupied by the palaces of Agriculture, Liberal Arts, Transportation and Manufacturing.

(Editor’s Note: The latter two palaces held particular interest for your reporter then aged 10. In the Transportation Palace was a complete Ford motor car assembly line from which a shiny black Model T rolled off every 10 minutes, coughed, chugged and was driven away.

In the Manufacturers Palace was the Keen Kutter Cutlery exhibit, an animated model of Niagra made of glittering knife blades. Now, there was a waterfall that meant business! When this reporter saw a motion picture of the real Horseshoe Falls in another exhibit, he was singularly unimpressed. Somehow it lacked something. It didn’t have those flashing blades.)

To the left of the Court of the Universe a broad avenue led to the Court of Seasons in which the Palaces of Education and Food Products were located. On the left was the lagoon and Bernard Maybeck’s beautiful Palace of Fine Arts. Beyond that, the Esplanade, Avenue of the States and Avenue of Nations led westward through Presidio land to Crissy Field. In this area were the exhibit buildings of the 26 states and United States territories, and the pavilions of the 26 foreign nations participating in the Fair.

For France, as Great a Victory as a Battle Won

At the outbreak of World War I (1914) all thought of participating was dropped. But later our American Ambassador, Mr. Myron Herrick, persuaded the French Government to reconsider. Plans were cabled from Paris and the French Pavilion, a replica of France’s Palace of the Legion of Honor, was built in 60 days!

In it, France poured out her priceless treasures. August Rodin’s great bronze “The Thinker” stood in the Court of Honor (and now stands in the court of our own Palace of the Legion of Honor at Land’s End). Paintings by Monet, Meissonier, Detaille, de Neuville and many other French masters were in the galleries. Magnificent old tapestries adorned the walls of the great hall. Two shrines held relics of Lafayette and Rochambeau sent by their descendants. Busts of Washington and Franklin stood on either side of the heroic figure of France at the entrance.

Articles that French taste elevates almost to the level of art - exquisite jewelry, perfumes, millinery, fashions, fine fabrics were shown in the Palace wings beside the Court of Honor. French industrial exhibits, of course, were in other Exposition Palaces.

In the midst of a devastating war, France still found time to pay this tribute to her long-standing friendship with the United States. It has been said that her appearance in San Francisco told as much about her indomitable spirit as a victory in battle.

Turning Right at the Tower of Jewels

Going back to the main entrance to the Fair, on the right of the Tower of Jewels and the Court of the Universe was the Court of Ages which contained the Palaces of Mines and Metallurgy. Facing them both on their right was the tremendous Palace of Machinery.

In all, 60,000 exhibitors displayed 400,000 articles at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Only the article judged best in its class was chosen for exhibition.

Past the Palace of Machinery, on right to Fort Mason was the Joy Zone - a solid mile of carnival.

The Whole Panama Canal Seen at Once!

In the Zone, for some reason, was located one of the most important exhibits in the Fair, an exact scale model of the Panama Canal which covered five acres! It was a working reproduction of the great waterway and the Canal Zone. There was real water in both oceans, Gatun Lake, the Chagres River and the Canal itself. Electric cars carried Fair visitors around the scene and showed them the Canal Zone through a 24-hour span - morning, noon and night. In one way it was even better than an actual trip through the Canal for it gave visitors a broad overall view impossible to get from any point on the Isthmus of Panama.

Something New Going on Every Minute

No static spectacle for visitors to explore, the great Fair was an exciting parade of events that came to them and swept them along with it.

There was an almost continuous 10-month’s sports program. The International Olympic Committee conferred the right to hold the Modern Pentathlon at the Fair, (the first time it was ever held outside Greece).

The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) held its national championships in gymnastics, basketball, wrestling, track and field at the Fair.

The 400-mile Grand Prix automobile race was run over a 4-mile course on the grounds. It was won by Darius Resta driving a Peugeot at a breath-taking average speed of 56 miles per hour. He also won the Vanderbilt Cup Race run over the same course.

There were three months of championship polo, there were two horse racing meetings - one in the spring and one in the fall.

There were five weeks of professional and amateur tournament golf. The Amateur Championship was won by San Francisco Olympic Club’s Harry Davis who beat out Chick Evans and H. Chandler Egan.

There was yacht racing day after day. And aviation! Undaunted by the fatal crash of Lincoln Beachey in the first month of the Fair, young Art Smith took over and “thrilled thousands in daily flights and skiey acrobatics including crazy dips and loops, startling dashes to the earth and illuminated flights through the night air.”

And the Music Played On ... and On

In a trip utterly new to great orchestras the Boston Symphony came out for 13 concerts at the Fair. Bands seemed to be playing everywhere and massed band concerts by John Phillips Sousa’s, Conway’s, Cassasa’s and other concert and military bands thrilled the crowds.

Edwin Henry Lemore of London, acclaimed the greatest organist of the time, came in September to give a hundred recitals.

Madam Schumann-Heink sang for 3,000 children in Festival Hall.

Gabriel Pares and his famous Republican Guard Band of Paris were on hand. The Ogden Tabernacle Choir of 300 voices and many other fine musical organizations were performing almost daily.

The great Fair literally surrounded its visitors with beauty - with wonders - with pleasure. As one of them, tired and happy, summed it up: “the world’s most famous bands are playing; aviators are showing their command of the air a mile over your head; soldiers, marines , cowboys, Indians are marching and riding all about you!”

That was San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It was simply wonderful!

When the bugle sounded taps at midnight, December 4, 1915, there was not a dry eye in the closing night throng, the last of 18,876,438 visitors.


On a cold rainy morning last February, Eric Saul, Assistant Curator/Director of our Presidio Army Museum, and six soldiers pulled up at the rear of San Francisco Maritime Museum in an Army truck. Their task: to take out a large diorama of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition and transport it to the Presidio. The task was made no easier by two facts: the “miniature” diorama was over 800 pounds of wood and plaster and was stored in a crowded vault beneath the Museum. After several hours however, the deed was done and San Francisco’s 1915 World’s Fair was safely emplaced in its new home, the Presidio Army Museum.

But that was only the beginning of the story. For what they had brought back- was a half-smashed model, that displayed its nearly 40 years of neglect with a vengeance. Eric Saul knew what he had ahead of him. Not only would the diorama have to be entirely refurbished, but the gallery that was to display it had to be totally renovated. Saul painted and patched the hundred year old walls and supervised workmen who renovated the ancient wooden floor. Then the exhibit cases and mural panels were moved in. With the foundation work completed, Saul was ready to tackle the job of restoring the diorama itself to its former shine and glory.

The 1915 Fair diorama, originally built for the Treasure Island Exposition in 1939, had been attacked by vandals, drowned in a thick coat of soot, and subjected to the ravages of time. It was a virtual wreck: many buildings smashed, some missing, bits of crushed bric-a-brac, little pieces of diorama, all daring the restorer to find where they belonged and put them back in order. The visitors Saul brought to the Museum workroom to see this scene of devastation agreed that the task ahead was virtually impossible.

But the hand-wringers overlooked one thing: Eric Saul loves San Francisco history and his life is preserving and restoring it. Actually, he could do the job, for he had gained valuable experience restoring the two other Museum dioramas, “The San Francisco Presidio circa 1806” and “The Fire of 1906 as seen from Nob Hill”. And so what if they were less complex than this one, at least the 1915 Fair model would be the ultimate challenge.

Through the later days of February, Eric spent time visiting the California Historical Society, the San Francisco Public Library and the Pioneers Museum, researching models of missing buildings. He also picked up photographs taken of the actual Fair, photos which were to be displayed in the diorama’s gallery.

With plans drawn up, the Presidio Museum brought in artist and model builder Brian Chin, who had done such fine work in restoring the Nob Hill diorama, to do the actual fabrication of the 1915 Fair’s missing structures.

In the meanwhile, Saul busied himself with the repairing and retouching of some of the damaged model buildings. Gaping holes and slashes wreaked by the vandals, were filled in with plaster. Wanting to maintain as much of the original pieces and paint as possible, Saul painstakingly sifted through the crushed remains and put together model parts like a jigsaw puzzle. Many hours were spent in mixing paint so that it perfectly matched the hues master colorist Jules Guerin used for the Fair itself.

After three or four weeks of hard work, the restorers could see that their efforts were paying off. By the first week of May, the diorama was rapidly proceeding to its final form. The missing buildings, such as the beautiful Tower of Jewels and the highly detailed Mullgardt tower, as well as the familiar Palace of Fine Arts dome, all missing since their trashing by vandals nearly two decades ago, had been resurrected and placed in their important positions in the new display. By the first week in June, Saul was capping off his efforts by recoloring all the roadways and lawns in the model, to add freshness and life to a 12 foot by 6-foot, 800-pound diorama that only months before had seemed destined for an eternity of darkness, dust and decay.

And thus, the master architects and builders of San Francisco’s great 1915 World’s Fair are remembered by its 1979 “rebuilders”, Eric Saul and Brian Chin.

“Turning now to the Presidio Army Museum,” Dean continued, “Director Eric Saul and his staff have worked wonders in the conversion of the old Wright Army Hospital built by the US Army Engineers over a century ago into a Museum which has become one of the first 10 in the United States Army to be officially “certified” by the Center of Military History. We have there artifacts, in total over 14,000 of them, as well as dioramas depicting the Spanish, Mexican and United States history of San Francisco and the Presidio.

“This year, as you see from this issue of SALVO, we have opened a new gallery to display the magnificent diorama of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. This Exposition needs to be remembered. It was one of the very best of all International Expositions and marked a tremendous achievement for San Francisco, itself just rising from the ashes of the great Fire and Earthquake. We installed the Exposition gallery in the Presidio Army Museum as a fitting tribute to our Army which built the Panama Canal and contributed mightily to the Exposition. I want to thank personally the Presidio Society whose generous donation of $3,000 made the project a success.

“Incidentally, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition marked the beginning of transcontinental telephone service. A strand of the wire which brought the first message from Theodore N. Vail, President, AT&T in New York to Mayor James Rolfe at the 1915 World’s Fair has been made available to our gallery by Mr. Gordon Hough of The Pacific Telephone Company. Among others who talked on that historic first call were Alexander Graham Bell from New York to his assistant Watson who had been sent to San Francisco.

“And now, before I call on our National Park Service Director Bill Whalen, let me tell you again we need more members in our Association like you. Please ask a friend to join.”