San Francisco has played host to three World’s Fairs, each of which left a lasting mark on our city by the Bay. These events were massive expositions designed to showcase the achievements of nations and the latest advances in art and science. These fairs changed the landscape of our city in both obvious and subtle ways. Some of the surviving sites became museums, public parks, concert venues, and even a sprawling island. Here are a few of our favorites.
1894 California Midwinter International Exposition
San Francisco’s first World’s Fair was seen as a way to stimulate California’s economy during a difficult time and lure Winter-weary East Coast residents out to California’s temperate climate. The fair was hosted in Golden Gate Park and is responsible for some of the area’s most famous landmarks.
1. Music Concourse
The sunken oval green space between the de Young Museum and the California Academy of Sciences was the site of SF’s first World’s Fair. The most impressive relic of this era is The Spreckels Temple of Music, an ornate bandshell that was completed in 1900. You can still enjoy free concerts at this iconic location.
Location: Golden Gate Park
2. Japanese Tea Garden
Originally called the “Japanese Village” the garden was built to showcase Japanese-style gardening. When the fair closed, superintendent John McLaren allowed Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara to create and maintain a permanent Japanese-style garden on the site. Mr. Hagiwara poured his own money, time, and expertise into the garden and expanded it to its current 5-acre footprint where he lived with his family. Unfortunately, Mr. Hagiwara and his family were forced to move to internment camps during WWII, losing all rights to the area and the ability to return. The legacy of what Mr. Hagiwara built and maintained has endured and the garden and tea house are both open to the public.
Location: 75 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr.
3. de Young Museum
The fair’s original Fine Arts Building became the de Young Museum after the fair ended. The first museum was built in the Egyptian Revival style, rebuilt in 1919 as a Spanish Plateresque style building, and rebuilt a final time in 2005 with its current copper skin and grand tower. Through the structure bears little resemblance to the original a few features like the original palm trees and the Pool of Enchantment have been retained or reconstructed on the museum grounds.
Location: 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Dr.
Only a few of the fair’s many sculptures such as the Doré Vase (pictured above) have survived. The vase was created by French sculptor Gustave Doré and is an 11-foot bronze sculpture that speaks to the valued process of winemaking. Other surviving relics include the Apple Cider Press, Roman Gladiator, and two sphinxes that were part of the original Fine Arts Building’s Egyptian theme. These are the oldest objects in the music concourse area and are free to view and open to the public.
Location: de Young Museum grounds, just below the tower.
5. Prayer Book Cross
This 64-foot-tall Celtic cross sits atop a 150-foot-high knoll and above picturesque Rainbow Falls. It was built to commemorate the first-known use of the Book of Common Prayer in an English-speaking service on North America’s West Coast. The cross was built out of 68 blocks of Colusa sandstone and was dedicated at the opening of the Midwinter Exposition. The falls are easily viewed from JFK Drive, but the cross is often obscured by trees. A small trail will take you to the base of the cross.
Location: JFK Drive at Crossover Drive.
1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition
SF’s second World’s Fair was held to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal and an opportunity to showcase our recovery from the devastating 1906 earthquake. This fair was held along the waterfront between Fort Mason and The Presidio, an area that we now called the Marina District.
6. Palace of Fine Arts
The Palace of Fine Arts is one of our most famous landmarks and a reminder of the fair’s opulence and grand scale. Architect Bernard R. Maybeck designed the Palace of Fine Arts as a decaying Roman ruin situated in a semicircle around a manmade lagoon. When the fair ended, prominent philanthropist Phoebe Hearst helped to preserve the beloved Palace structure and saved it from demolition. Years later the plaster structure naturally fell into ruin and was completely rebuilt out of concrete in 1964 thanks to a $2 million philanthropic gift. The Palace is free and open to the public night and day.
Location: 3601 Lyon Street on the eastern edge of the Presidio.
7. Bill Graham Civic Auditorium
The Bill Graham Civic Auditorium was miles from the exposition site but proceeds from the event directly funded its construction. With its completion, SF finally had a large indoor space to gather and host everything from political conventions to concerts. The Civic Auditorium was re-named in 1992 to honor the recent death of beloved local impresario and rock concert promoter Bill Graham. The venue is owned by the city but managed by Another Planet Entertainment, which continues to host some of SF’s largest indoor concerts.
Location: 99 Grove Street
8. Legion of Honor Museum
Unlike the Palace of Fine Arts, the Legion of Honor isn’t located in its original location. Instead, Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, wife of the sugar magnate Adolph B. Spreckels, commissioned a full-scale replica of the fair’s French Pavilion to be built atop Lincoln Park. The Legion of Honor is itself a three-quarter scale version of the famed Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris. Today it’s home to the Legion of Honor museum which houses a collection of 4,000 years of ancient and European art.
Location: 100 34th Avenue
The World’s Fair didn’t create Muni, but it paved the way for its rapid expansion from a single line into a total of six permanent lines. The image above is part of Muni’s fleet of historic streetcars from around the world. This particular train was built in SF in 1914 and would have transported excited guests to and from the exposition. You can still ride these historic trains on the F-Market line between Fisherman’s Wharf and The Castro.
Location: F-Market Muni Route
10. Marina District
If you’ve ever enjoyed a picnic on Marina Green, you have the World’s Fair to thank for it. It’s one of the fair’s many garden elements that has survived the otherwise vast re-grading and redevelopment of the area that would become the Marina District. The 700-slip yacht harbor is also a relic of this era, which was originally built for the fair’s passenger and freight slips.
Location: Marina District
1939 Golden Gate International Exposition
SF’s third World’s Fair was held to celebrate the completion of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge which were celebrated as the longest and tallest bridges ever built. This fair prompted one of the most impressive construction projects in SF history, creating a glistening 400-acre city for the event.
11. Treasure Island
Treasure Island was built specifically for the World’s Fair. At the time of its construction, it was the world’s largest artificial island and remains an impressive feat of engineering. The Yerba Buena Shoals were transformed into Treasure Island by filling the interior with dredged bay sand and piling up rocks along the perimeter to create stability. Treasure Island was originally intended to be San Francisco’s Airport but the U.S Navy took control of the island at the start of WWII. Today it’s home to multiple wineries, cafes, homes, a yacht harbor, and a music festival.
Location: Treasure Island
12. Administration Building
The Administration Building, also known as Building 1, was built and used as an air terminal during the fair. The Navy used Building 1 as Administration Building until 1997 when the island was sold to San Francisco. The iconic building has been used in several movies including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (top image above), The Parent Trap, and the TV series The OA. The site is open to the public and is home of both the Treasure Island Museum and Wood’s Beer.
Location: 1 Avenue of the Palms on Treasure Island
13. Pacific Unity Sculptures
Sculptures played a huge role at the fair, representing major geographical areas of the Pacific. “Tree of Life,” (pictured above) was created by artist Jacques Schnier and was created to represent India. The sculptures paid tribute to the common man and featured a stripped-down, streamlined and heroic look. These sculptures survived because they were made of cast stone rather than the quickly-decaying plater like most of the fair’s structures. These sculptures are free to view and located in front of the Administration Building.
Location: 1 Avenue of the Palms on Treasure Island
14. The Hall of Transportation and The Palace of Fine and Decorative Arts
The two large airplane hangars on Treasure Island once served as the fair’s Hall of Transportation and the Palace of Fine and Decorative Arts. The two building’s most famous modern uses have been as sound stages for the film The Matrix, specifically the groundbreaking “bullet-time” visual effect. Several other TV and film productions have used these sound stages over the years including Rent and The Pursuit of Happiness. Buildings 2 and 3 are currently home to several wineries including SF Wine Group that use the space for both productions and to host tastings.
Location: 30 Avenue G
Featured image: @legionofhonor via Instagram. Photo by @garysextonphotography