Less than half a century before the fair opened, San Francisco had transformed itself from a small frontier town to a bustling city boasting the most active mint in the nation. 2 Drawing, perhaps, on this past success, civic leaders rose to the challenge to create a new identity for a city ravaged by natural disaster—a cultural and economic hub capable of playing a major role in regional, national, and international affairs.
Perseverance and Fortitude
From the first proposal in 1904 to erect a commemorative fair in San Francisco, local businessmen were undaunted in their pursuit to acquire the necessary funds. Of the nearly $50 million it cost to build the fair, the city and state gave approximately $17.5 million. Concessionaires and exhibitors accounted for the rest. 3
Fair planners matched this optimism. Although three sites were originally intended to house the fairgrounds, the planners selected Harbor View, a marshy section of the city’s northern shore known today as the Marina District. In just three years, laborers cleared the area of structures and debris and filled the mud flats with sand dredged from the bay.
Though the excavation did not match that of the Panama Canal in scope and complexity, the fair’s boosters drew parallels with the Herculean efforts to build the canal. Perham Nahl’s image of a muscular Hercules parting the continents to form the canal appeared on the cover of the official guide book and as a poster. Nahl titled his lithograph The Thirteenth Labor of Hercules, a reference to the canal itself, more than fifty years in the making.
The city even confronted the global effects of World War I and local strife from political scandal, labor unrest, and prevailing biases of race, gender, and class while hosting the fair—a grand citadel of eleven exhibition palaces, twenty-one foreign pavilions, forty-eight state buildings, and a 65-acre amusement zone.
Talent and Ingenuity
In its technological, artistic, and architectural innovations, the PPIE offered fairgoers an experience unlike their encounters at past world’s fairs. According to historical geographer Gray Brechin, the site plan itself was "one of the most brilliant layouts ever created for a world’s fair" and was innovative to a remarkable degree: in its compact design, illumination, color scheme, and building materials and architectural styles. 4
Indeed, the fairground was a mini-metropolis of inspirational architecture and design, destined, like all world’s fairs, for eventual demolition. But so compelling was its effect on visitors that preservation efforts began before the fair even closed. Organizations such as the Exposition Preservation League, led by Phoebe Apperson Hearst, honorary president of the exposition’s Woman’s Board, saved some of the fair’s artifacts from demolition.
No artifact has inspired more passion than the beloved Palace of Fine Arts, constructed to exhibit works of art and the only fair building still situated on its original site. Designed by Bernard Maybeck (1862–1957), the Palace was a tour de force of technical and inspirational architecture. In its Greco-Romanesque rotunda, grounds, and colored exhibition walls, Maybeck aspired to find "forms of architecture and gardening for the general composition of the Fine Arts Palace and lake that will best convey the same impression to the heart and mind as those impressions made by the works of art inside." 5