John McLaren: Landscape Magician of the 1915 Exposition

Sunset Magazine said that John McLaren, Chief of Landscape for the San Francisco World’s Fair, needed to use the “technical training of an engineer, a gardener, and a botanist” to realize his astounding and revolutionary plans for the landscape design of the great celebration.

On the gala Opening Day, February 20, the PPIE’s flower beds flourished with golden color in homage to the Golden State. The 15-acre “South Gardens,” designed in the formal French manner, greeted crowds streaming through the main entrance with a tapestry of several hundred thousand gilded blooms. A mass of bright upright daffodils covered the beds. Yet a few weeks later, when the daffodils were losing their luster, they mysteriously disappeared one night to be suddenly supplanted the next morning by a profusion of yellow tulips. And when the tulips were spoiled by rains, a cloak of bright pansies took their place overnight.

This ability to maintain the flower beds in constant bloom while changing their varieties with such rapidity was major puzzle for PPIE guests. McLaren had conspired with Jules Guérin, Chief of Color, to plan a rotation of plantings in keeping with the colors of the Exposition buildings and the turning of the seasons. In the South Gardens alone, the plantings transitioned from the gold of Opening day to brilliant red, then to palest pink as the nine months of the Fair passed. Many of the necessary hundreds of thousands of seedlings were cultivated in Golden Gate Park, where McLaren had been Superintendent since 1887. Since then he had transformed great swaths of the park from inhospitable dunes into a verdant playground for San Franciscans, with bridges, lakes, waterfalls, trees, and fern-lined dells.

McLaren’s secret was a system of planting that relied on his thorough knowledge of each plant’s blooming habits. In the South Gardens, his large team of gardeners had planted the daffodils, tulips, and pansies simultaneously before the Exposition opened. The daffodils bloomed first, and as they wilted, the Chief sent his corps out at night to clip them off and pitch them onto trucks for removal, leaving the tulips, which had been sprouting beneath the daffodils, to burst forth seemingly instantaneously. Similar overnight removal of the tulips revealed the aureate carpet of pansies growing lower still. Each rotation required about 250,000 plants, and The American Florist estimated that approximately two million flowers were used in the South Gardens over the run of the Fair. The canny McLaren used the same quick-change technique not only through the cycles of the South Gardens, but also in several of the opulent courts.

Published with the permission of the California Garden & Landscape History Society, this excerpt is from Laura Ackley’s article, “John McLaren: Landscape Magician of the 1915 Exposition,” which appeared in the summer 2015 issue of Eden, the Society’s quarterly journal.



Learn more about one group’s efforts to create a floral arrangement at the Conservancy of Flowers in Golden Gate Park here.