Building a World’s Fair: A Closer Look

by Arnold Woods

San Francisco loves a fair. On three occasions, it held a World’s Fair to bring people from around the world to the City. The first one, the 1894 Midwinter Fair, was a way to show off Golden Gate Park, which the City had been building for nearly 25 years and was finally in shape to present to the world. The second one, the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, technically celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal the year before, but really was a ceremonial reopening of San Francisco after it rebuilt itself following the 1906 earthquake. When the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges were built in the 1930s, San Francisco threw another World’s Fair to celebrate their opening. This time it was called the Golden Gate International Exposition, aka, the GGIE.
 

Tower of the Sun framing during construction of the Golden Gate International Exposition, September 19, 1938.Tower of the Sun framing during construction of the Golden Gate International Exposition, September 19, 1938. (wnp100.00636; Morton-Waters Co., photographers – SCRAP Negative Collection / Courtesy of SCRAP)
 

Since it was a celebration of the two bridges, sites near both bridges were considered, as well as Golden Gate Park, Lake Merced, and Islais Creek.1” A vote was held to determine the site of the Fair and voters overwhelming chose the new island that was being constructed on Yerba Buena Shoals, the rocky waters north of Yerba Buena Island.2 A contest was held to name the Fair. A sales clerk named Elizabeth Whitney won the contest with her submission of “The Golden Gate International Exposition: A Pageant of the Pacific.3
 

Construction of the Tower of the Sun and Elephant Gate entrance to the Golden Gate International Exposition, circa 1938.Construction of the Tower of the Sun and Elephant Gate entrance to the Golden Gate International Exposition, circa 1938. (wnp14.0279; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

The transformation of Yerba Buena Shoals into Treasure Island was a massive project involving 287,000 tons of quarried rock sunk around the shoals to create a rock wall for the island and then dredging 20 million cubic yards of sea bottom and dumping it within those walls to create the island’s base level.4 After the sand was “unsalted” through a leeching process, 50,000 cubic yards of loam was added to make the soil suitable for plants. Once Treasure Island was completed, construction of the World’s Fair began.
 

Mayor Angelo Rossi, John McLaren, and others on Treasure Island during construction of the Golden Gate International Exposition, March 29, 1938.Mayor Angelo Rossi, John McLaren, and others on Treasure Island during construction of the Golden Gate International Exposition, March 29, 1938 (wnp14.0271; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

For the construction, an architectural commission was appointed, composed of noted architects Arthur Brown, Jr., Lewis P. Hobart, George W. Kelham, William G. Merchant, Timothy L. Pflueger, and Ernest E. Weihe.5 This commission selected an overall Mayan theme for the buildings at the exposition, but they modernized it with some Asian and Cambodian influences. They wanted a design that was unique and dramatic while still being practical.
 

Golden Gate International Exposition buildings under construction, circa 1938.Golden Gate International Exposition buildings under construction, circa 1938. (wnp70.0735; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection / Courtesy of Molly Blaisdell)
 

One thing about the new island was that it was situated where winds coming through the Golden Gate would bear down directly upon it. As such, part of the plan for the fairgrounds was to build a wall of buildings of some height on the western side of the island to provide wind protection. There were twelve exhibit “palaces” erected, mostly connected with each other, on grounds that were more than half a mile long and a third of a mile wide.
 

Aerial of Golden Gate International Exposition fairgrounds, possibly during construction, circa 1938.Aerial of Golden Gate International Exposition fairgrounds, possibly during construction, circa 1938 (wnp27.7595; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

Construction carried on for most of 1938 and into 1939. In fact, on opening day, February 18, 1939, there were still doing the finishing touches.6 The gates officially opened at 8:00 a.m., but workers’ and visitors’ cars were coming in as early as 6:30 a.m. Ferries from San Francisco and Oakland also brought the throngs that crowded the GGIE on day one.
 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's motorcade leaving GGIE fairgrounds, July 14, 1938.President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s motorcade leaving GGIE fairgrounds, July 14, 1938. (wnp27.2675; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

President Franklin D. Roosevelt opened the GGIE, by radio from Key West, Florida, and his address blared to the crowds from the Federal Building at the fair. Roosevelt had visited the site the prior year on July 14, 1938 for a luncheon in the Administration Building with 1000 guests.7 For the opening, the President declared Treasure Island “one of the world’s major democracies and a vital symbol of international peace.7
 

Crowd watching parade at Golden Gate International Exposition, June 1940.Crowd watching parade at Golden Gate International Exposition, June 1940. (wnp14.13133; Courtesy of a Private Collector)
 

The GGIE closed on October 29, 1939…for the first time. It was revived for awhile in 1940 before closing permanently. It would be, at the time of this writing, the last World’s Fair held here. San Francisco still loves a fair though. We may not have huge ones like the World’s Fair anymore, but there are lots of smaller ones happening every year.
 

See also, Woody LaBounty’s closer look at the GGIE at Night.

Notes:

1. “Study of Sites For Span Fetes Is Arranged,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 22, 1934, p. 17.

2. “Mainland Sites, Bond Issue for Fair Voted Down,” San Francisco Chronicle, May 3, 1935, p. 1.

3. “Golden Gate International Exposition,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 4, 1936, p. 3.

4.Trails End for ’39ers,” The Museum of the City of San Francisco website.

5. “Treasure Island ‘The Magic City,’ 1939-1940; The Story of the Golden Gate International Exposition,” by Jack James and Earle Vonard Weller, Pisani Printing 1941, p. 25 et seq.

6. “The Exposition Is Open! Crowds Swarm Onto Isle,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 19, 1939, pp. 1, 7, News section.

7. “Half Million People Line Streets to Greet Roosevelt,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 15, 1938, pp. 1-2.

8. “F.R. Proclaims Treasure Isle A Democracy,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 19, 1939, p. 1.