City Hall and Civic Center Plaza, circa 1915, courtesy, California Historical Society, CHS2015.2010

Reflecting on the Amazing Year 1915

By James W. Haas

San Francisco is celebrating the centennial of the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) but there are other dimensions to the amazing year of 1915 which are worth considering. In particular, the Exposition had a profound effect on the politics, built environment and architectural style of San Francisco.

When San Francisco received word from Congress that it could hold an Exposition in 1915, the Mayor was P.H. McCarthy, leader of the Union Labor Party who had a reputation of being highly partisan, soft on vice and incompetent in completing public works projects. Thus, the businessmen who ran the PPIE resolved to elect a new Mayor to get the City prepared and recruited their Vice President James Rolph to be their candidate. A Mission District resident and successful businessman, Rolph was the consummate politician and overwhelmed McCarthy in the Mayoral primary in September. His Republican business friendly policies and warm personality convinced the voters to reelect him four more times. He was succeeded in 1931 by his chief ally on the Supervisors, Angelo Rossi, another business orientated Republican with an outgoing personality. In fact, it would not be until 1964 that a Democrat was again elected Mayor.

Rolph’s first priority as Mayor was to create a Civic Center with a new City Hall since it would be “unthinkable” for the City to invite millions of visitors to the Exposition without City government housed in proper grand public buildings. In the months before his inauguration, Rolph used the Architects Committee of the PPIE to resolve the outstanding issues over establishing a Civic Center so in his inaugural address he declared its location. He then recruited prominent architect John Galen Howard to prepare specifications for the Civic Center and City Hall and scheduled a special election for $8.8m bond issue to pay for it on March 28, 1912 which the voters endorsed by a phenomenal 92%. This set off a push to build five buildings before the Exposition opened in February 1915. Only one, the Exposition Auditorium, was actually complete but within some years City Hall, the Public Library and the State Building were finished and by the end of the 1930s the War Memorial and two more buildings would be added to Civic Center.

Rolph’s second priority was to improve the City’s streets and transportation system. The PPIE demanded that the City arrange for adequate transport to serve the Exposition which was being built in an isolated swamp in the Marina. Rolph proposed to greatly expand the incipient Municipal Railway and asked the voters to approved a $3.5m bond issue on the August 26, 1913 ballot. The existing private street car company along with its business allies vociferously opposed the bonds but Rolph’s rapport with the voters gave him a victory of 79%. The City immediately started construction of the new lines which were in operation for the opening of the Exposition.

To design the grand buildings at the Exposition and at Civic Center, City Beautiful architects were engaged, many of whom were local and trained in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. These men set the standard for further work on public and private buildings in the City for decades. Thus, in the 1920s when the War Memorial was being conceived, it was natural to chose Arthur Brown Jr., the architect of City Hall, to design twin French Baroque buildings harmonious with City Hall. When the Art Deco style became fashionable, these men trained to work in most any style, easily adapted. San Francisco did not received its first modernist building until 1959 with the construction of the Crown Zellerbach Building.

We should thus be celebrating the centennial of the amazing year of 1915 which gave us not only the wonderful memories of the Panama Pacific International Exposition but also the most magnificent and complete Civic Center in the nation, the country’s first publicly owned municipal transportation system, problem solving public leadership and grand public architecture. These are topics worthy of reflection since they are still relevant today.

James W. Haas is a member of the City Hall Preservation Advisory Committee and is writing the definitive history of Civic Center.