The Architecture Of The Fair: Artifice and Dazzle

Historical Essay

by Gray Brechin


The Zone, looking westerly from the Van Ness entrance, lined with amusement palaces and show houses.

In contrast to previous world’s fairs that created “new” classical cities, San Francisco’s exposition had been artificially aged. Manmade travertine and marble produced the illusion of times past, and the combination of classical architecture and exotic Mediterranean influences reflected a unique romantic Californian style. As early as the Gold Rush, San Francisco drew comparisons to Constantinople; so appropriately, the fair was a temporary realization of a great imperial city which San Francisco had not become—one with great wealth and culture, well-ordered and free of corruption.


The Panama Pacific International Exposition was a communal re-creation of a make-believe past for the raw, young settlement in California, an "ancient" walled city of plaster and lath lasting only nine months and then failing as in some biblical calamity. The romanticism of the fair was uniquely Californian (Edmund Wilson wrote of the state: "It is the only place I have seen in the United States where romance seems pervasive and inevitable"16) and was the cumulative product of the court scheme, illumination, color and--most of all -- material.

Previous fairs had employed lath frameworks covered with white plaster to simulate marble. These nougat palaces fooled no one, created a fierce midday glare, yet were relatively inexpensive and quick to build and demolish.

The idea of using a different facing material originated with McKim, Mead and White's 1910 Pennsylvania Station in New York, a structure modeled after the Roman Baths of Caracalla and so vast that finishing the entire interior with Roman travertine proved entirely uneconomical. Instead, an artificial travertine was fabricated that so closely matched the real material as to be indistinguishable. When selected to design the Court of Honor ("Court of the Universe") at the Panama Pacific International Exposition, an architect in the McKim, Mead and White firm suggested the exterior use of artificial travertine for the entire fair. Paul Denivelle of New York was engaged and developed an exterior facing that assured the desired effect.

The base travertine was a mellow old ivory with horizontal striations and vesicles. It was used for wall surfaces, balustrades, fountains, and a great deal of the sculpture. Red Numidian, yellow Sienna, and other rare marbles were simulated as accents against the buff travertine ground.

Expositions since Chicago had appeared as "new" classical cities, but the Panama Pacific International Exposition's "walls, columns, and statues seem as though several centuries had linked them to the soil. What a welcome contrast to the white and garish buildings one usually finds in exposition grounds!"17 Here was a city that, even if it hadn't been built in a mythical mediaeval California, should have been.

In addition to its artificial, weather-beaten, earth-rooted age, the fair's eclecticism and setting suggested images far more exotic than previous expositions. Admittedly, the architectural vocabulary was overwhelmingly classical--the Court of the Universe suggested the forecourt of St. Peter's Basilica, the Court of the Seasons Hadrian's Villa, the Palace of Machinery the Baths of Caracalla, the Column of Progress Trajan's Column--while Mullgardt's Court of the Ages eluded classification or derivation altogether:

The Gothic clearly predominates, with traces of English, Spanish, and Portuguese elements. With further hint of Romanesque, of Moorish, and of French influence, these varying elements have been so fused in the imagination of the architect that the resultant creation is independent of them all in its daring.(18)

If any one geographic theme united the inner fair, it was the Mediterranean:

Under a dominating Moorish-Spanish general form, the single architect of the group, W. B. Faville, of San Francisco, drawing upon the famous styles of many lands and schools, has combined into an ordered and vastly impressive whole not only the structural art of the Orient and of the great Spanish builders, but also the principles of the Italian Renaissance and the architecture of Greece and Rome from which it sprang. Thus, the group is wholly Southern in its origin. There is no suggestion here of the colder Gothic architecture of the North.(19)

Indeed,- the Mediterranean inspiration was to be expected in California's climate and landscape, particularly on the shores of San Francisco Bay.

More surprising is the vaguely located "Orientalism" of the walled city.

One guidebook describes the Palace of Horticulture as "Byzantine in its architecture, suggesting the Mosque of Ahmed 1, at Constantinople, its Gallic decorations have made it essentially French in spirit."(20) The color, the travertine walls with their immense portals, the green and golden domes, the vaguely minaret-like towers and the fountains in the courtyards all conjured an Arabian Nights fantasy whether seen from within, from the Bay or from the backing ridge of Pacific Heights. "[The Exposition]," wrote journalist Ben Macomber, "reflects in its plan the walled cities of the Orient of the Mediterranean, where fountains play in the courts of palaces, in public squares and niches in the walls; and pools lie by the mosques, and in the gardens."(21)

It was thus possible for a viewer of the period to create any fantasy he or she might wish from the rich panoply of architectural allusions and illusions presented. The fair was likened to a Maxfield Parrish dream, but it was just as appropriate to see in it the superb Guerin illustrations of Levantine cities that graced Scribners Magazine prior to the fair. Guerin himself likened the fair to a gigantic Persian rug at the foot of Pacific Heights, while William D'Arcy Ryan noted the resemblance to the bazaars of Damascus, Cairo and Constantinople. It was to the latter city that the fair owed its greatest debt of inspiration.


The symbolism of the Golden Gate is apparent in its name. Shortly before the Gold Rush, John C. Fremont had christened the remarkable water gap "Chrysopylae"' in clear reference to the harbor at ancient Constantinople--"Chrysoceras," or Golden Horn. The name was prophetic, for here was a new gateway between East and West predestined for a city of imperial dimensions and pretensions. In a poem published in the Overland Monthly in 1888 and 1907, the cities "At the Golden Horn and the Golden Gate" are characteristically contrasted; Istanbul is noted for its torpid decay and apathy, while San Francisco "[Joys] in her birthright, unafraid/She bares her bosom to the Western sea." The poem ends with the sententious stanza:

Deepens the shadow of the night of fate,

And darkness closes round the Golden Horn:

But radiantly above the Golden Gate

Breaks the resplendence of a glorious morn.22

On the far Pacific Slope, it was widely believed, America would fall heir to the wealth and culture of fabled Byzantium or Rome without their hoary depravity. That promise-and the reality of the jerrybuilt city that actually rose beside the great Gate-is one of the oldest and most consistent themes in San Francisco commentary. As early as 1871, Henry George ruefully remarked that San Francisco had "an opportunity to build up a great city, in which tenement houses and blind alleys would be unknown; in which there would be less poverty, suffering, crime and social and political corruption than in any city of our time, of equal numbers."(23) The city that actually sprawled across the dunes, hills and marshes of the Peninsula was a flagrant admission of failure; its gridiron of streets was imposed "as one might constrict the wayward fancies of a gypsy maiden to the cold, tight-laced ethics of a Puritanical creed,"(24) and its corruption, vice and violence gained it a worldwide reputation.

As a make-believe imperial city, the fair was pervaded with images of Manifest Destiny, Social Darwinism, racism and conquest. The implications of its location by the symbolic Gate, like that of the Gate-oriented university across the Bay in Berkeley, were not missed. Whether through military conquest or commerce, San Francisco would become the bazaar of the Pacific Basin by the superior virtue of Anglo-Saxon enterprise. William D'Arcy Ryan noted in 1913 that ". . . the Exposition ... will be set actually beside salt water, on the ultimate frontier of the race's march eastward from its cradle in Asia, on the final coast where only the sea intervenes between it and what surveyors call 'the point of commencement'."(25)

Fronting on the Bay with the summit of Tamalpais, the promontories and islands of Marin and the mysterious distances of San Pablo Bay and the interior valleys beyond, the jeweled city could be whatever or whenever one wanted it to be. Architect William Woolett conjured images only slightly more fevered than those of other observers:

In the panorama of this exposition we may in our imagination see in sumptuous array of color, vast bundles of oriental stuffs, vistas of palaces and temples and arcaded halls, and the garden of Babylon and visions of Atlanta come true near the cobalt waters of the Pacific. We may sprinkle this oriental melee of color with gems of the Indus, whilst the galleys of victorious fleets laden with captured splendors vie with each other for landing space at the steps of the Great Water Gate. "(26)

The Panama Pacific International Exposition was, above all, a brief realization of the Byzantine myth of perfection in which millions of spectators participated for nine months. Superbly ordered, it was everything that San Francisco was not and has never been; it was a model of cooperative amity in which everything worked efficiently, it was colorful and majestic, its public gestures were lordly, it appeared to be both ancient and perdurable, and it seemed to be the ideal marriage of art and industry. This perfect union, despite jarring particulars such as the Zone, made the walled city seem an artifice of eternity that strikingly resembled William Butler Yeats' own vision of Byzantium. Its soft and mysterious lighting indeed suggested that

At midnight on the Emperor's pavement flit

Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,

while its sculpture quite literally hailed the superman.

It is this self-conscious "artifice of eternity," created by a rare collaboration of artists, engineers, gardeners, businessmen and politicians, that accounted for the unanimous love that the fair inspired and the vivid memories it engendered even in toddlers. Far more than Disneyland, or anything else since 1915, it seems to have been a magic kingdom whose power lay in its evocation of time as well as of place.

--by Gray Brechin, (from "Sailing to Byzantium: The Architecture of the Fair" in The Anthropology of World's Fairs, edited by Burton Benedict)

More PPIE and footnotes

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