By Richard Miller aka Sparkletack
The Story Of Treasure Island (pt. 1) [45:01m]
I. HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT
I guess it goes without saying that we humans have done a great deal to change
the face of San Francisco since the first Europeans arrived almost 250 years
ago. But even though most of these changes are relatively recent, as a rule
we barely even notice them today. The Financial District and Embarcadero conceal
what were once open waters of the Bay. Golden Gate Park was once a dreary wasteland
of sand dunes. Rincon Hill is a shadow of its former self, its rocky heights
reduced to a mere stump with a bridge growing out of it. These alterations
are invisible to us now, and without a study of our history, it would be easy
to think that this is how things have always been.
But there is one earth-shaping venture -- just 70 years old -- that is unmistakably
the work of human hands. Its rectilinear shape makes it stand out from the
organic environment like a knife in the spoon drawer. This epic reshaping of
the natural landscape is hidden in plain sight, smack in the middle of San
Francisco Bay. I'm talking about Treasure Island.
It's easily visible from San Francisco's Embarcadero, a low-lying front porch
jutting out towards the Golden Gate Bridge from Yerba Buena Island. Palm trees
in a silhouetted row set off massive white buildings, dwarfed by the towering
silver Bay Bridge marching across the water towards Oakland. That bridge carries
over 130,000 people a day within yards of this artificial lily pad, most of
them whizzing by at 70 miles per hour without giving it a second thought.
This story gives Treasure Island that second thought. What is it? Why is it
there? And where is it going? The story of the island begins with an airport.
But to put that airport in context, let's step backwards.
II. THE ERA OF THINKING BIG
"We Must Master Our Environment"
The transcontinental railroad was completed in the middle of the nineteenth
century. The driving of the final spike in 1869 served not only to physically
stitch the two halves of the North American continent together, compressing
space and time in a single stroke, but to summon an even larger vision into
the American imagination. The physical enormity of this engineering feat
marked a turning point after which nothing would seem impossible. By 1900
the United States had become the leading industrial nation on earth, completely
transformed from its early agrarian roots. As the second phase of the industrial
revolution provided ever larger and more powerful tools with which to mold
the environment for human convenience, the size of a project was limited
only by the human capacity to conceive it. This was particularly true in
the West, where the outsize and rugged scale of the environment offered challenges
that couldn't be ignored.
A flurry of Bay Area engineering projects were born in the boom following
the end of World War I, inspired by the earth-shaping success of the 1914 Panama
Canal. The Hetch-Hetchy Valley up in the Sierra Nevada was dammed to provide
San Francisco with a reliable water supply. The San Francisco Bay was spanned
for the first time by the Dumbarton bridge, and the Carquinez bridge, the "highest
in the world" followed right on its heels. The most impressive projects
of the 1920s, though, were without question our Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland
Bay Bridges. Though our self-anointed Emperor Norton had ordered that a bridge
to Oakland be built as early as 1872, such massive and technically difficult
structures still seemed audacious a half-century later. Then when the Great
Depression struck the country in 1929, it seemed as though this kind of colossal
undertaking would simply have to wait until prosperity returned.
But with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933, a do-or-die optimism
swept the country. America would build its way out of the Depression. Roosevelt's
notion was that the American economy could be jump-started by pouring federal
money into it, and under his "New Deal", public works projects were
among the favoured recipients. The immensity of the country's financial woes
seemed to influence the scale of these ventures, again bringing intense attention
to the West, where the Depression had come late but hit hard. The awesome Hoover
Dam on the Colorado River provides one of the most impressive examples of 1930s
governmental largesse, but the focus on large-scale construction extended to
private industry as well.
In this atmosphere, despite the fact that San Francisco millionaires were
compelled to sell apples on the corners of Market Street for survival, construction
of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge began in 1933 -- at the very depth
of the Depression. It's still amazing to me that either one of those bridges
ever made it off the drawing board. The fact that both of these marvels of
nature-defying engineering were constructed simultaneously gives you some idea
of the manic mixture of desperation and hubris bred by the times. Roosevelt
captured the mood in the West perfectly, saying, "We can no longer escape
into virgin territory; we must master our environment."
The Airport Connection
This was the backdrop to a 1931 meeting of the San Francisco Junior Chamber
of Commerce, convened to consider a little problem vital to the future of
San Francisco. Air traffic was on the rise in the Bay Area, as it was all
across the country, and Pan American Airways had just inaugurated the era
of international passenger service. The young businessmen in the Junior Chamber
saw clearly that San Francisco stood to profit greatly from an airport easily
accessible to the downtown area. Of course, San Francisco already had a small
airport, Mills Field down near South San Francisco. Mills was just a few
years old, established in 1927 in a desperate attempt to keep air traffic
away from Oakland, San Francisco's eternal rival. By the early thirties,
though, Mills Field had developed a bad reputation for fog and for being
a second-rate facility. These complaints were mostly undeserved, but an infamous
incident in which the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh swerved off a
runway and got stuck in the mud lowered the airport's standing even further.
Because broad, flat, and open spaces are not exactly easy to come by on the
peninsula, the Junior Chamber of Commerce kept an open mind about potential
sites. One sketch from the period show an elaborate airfield built on fill
stretching eastward from China Basin, and this was not an anomaly. As you may
recall, San Francisco has a long established tradition of filling in the bay
to create land -- compare any map of the pre-1860's city to a modern plan and
it's easy to see how the land-mass has expanded. It's not clear exactly who
came up with the winning idea, but you've probably guessed what it was.
Yerba Buena Shoals
Treasure Island in its intended final incarnation as an airport. Clippers
circle overhead, and the terminal and two hangars are clearly visible at
the southern end. - artist's conception
Today it seems like a bizarre place to plant an airport. In 1931 Yerba Buena
Shoals were completely underwater, way out in the middle of the bay, and
the Bay Bridge, which would one day link the spot to civilization, existed
only on a drawing board.
But considering the tenor of the times and San Francisco's bay-filling history,
the concept of building out there must have seemed obvious -- you can almost
imagine someone slapping his forehead: "why didn't we think of this before?" The
shoals were a 735-acre sandbar, submerged between 2 and 26 feet beneath the
surface of the bay. They had long presented a navigational hazard for mariners,
and since they couldn’t be built on or sailed over, were considered nothing
more than waste territory. Of course, the idea of planting a massive artificial
island in the middle of San Francisco Bay's fragile ecosystem is one that would
never get off the ground today, but remember, it's the thirties, we're thinking
big, and contemporary concepts of ecology or environmental protection lie a
long, long way in the future.
And so it was settled. The Junior Chamber began to lean on city officials
to have the state legislature transfer the underwater property to San Francisco.
And though that's what happened, it's just the beginning of the story. Factoring
in the speed of bureaucracy -- glacial then as it is now -- it would have taken
decades before work on the airport project would even begin.
III. AN ISLAND AND A WORLD'S FAIR
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge under construction in January of 1935.
Note Yerba Buena Island in foreground. - San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
A Celebration of Bridges
But then in 1933, a San Francisco real estate man named Joseph Dixon wrote
a letter to the editor of the San Francisco News. He pointed out that the
completion of our two gorgeous bridges, our pair of cutting-edge "wonders
of the world" was something to celebrate, and made a modest suggestion.
Why not hold a World's Fair to show them off?
This idea caught fire in San Francisco, particularly in political and business
circles. Mayor Angelo Rossi stuck a white carnation in his lapel and jumped
on board with both feet. The rest of the city, stirred by pride and local patriotism,
was right behind him. But there were other reasons to push the idea forward.
The bridges were certainly something to crow about, but at the depth of the
Depression, the thought of the money that would be attracted by an International
Exposition made the whole region salivate. And on top of that, a World's Fair
would give San Francisco a chance to proclaim itself the natural American gateway
to the Pacific, thereby staking a claim to leadership of this newly ascendant
cultural and economic region.
With the whole city whipped into an enthusiastic froth, the Bridge Celebration
Founding Committee was formed by business leaders to consider the vital question
of "Where?". A bevy of architects was engaged to review potential
locations. The government-owned military lands of the Presidio were considered,
as was the Lake Merced area in the south-east. Golden Gate Park seemed like
a natural site, with one plan even suggesting that the city acquire all the
land between the Park and City Hall, demolishing the existing structures and
rebuilding the whole swath. The bay-filled lands of China Basin and Hunters
Point were also discussed, but each of these sites had some major disadvantage.
Golden Gate Park? Too fragile! Lake Merced? Too foggy! China Basin? Too ugly!
But Yerba Buena Shoals.... hmm! A barge was dispatched to the spot, and a little
test drilling showed that the shoals could indeed support a man-made island.
As the World's Fair debate raged on, the Junior Chamber of Commerce was still
thinking airport. Citizens tend to doze off at the very mention of a public
works project, but the Junior Chamber quickly realized that World's Fair-fever
provided a wonderful opportunity to kick-start their airport dream. In fact,
if they could get, say, 400 acres of Yerba Buena Shoals filled for the Fair,
their airport could take over the artificial island the moment it was over...
and if one of the ventures lost money it could pay the expenses of the other!
The idea was a natural, though admittedly that term sounds a bit odd in reference
to a manufactured land-mass. The World's Fair site would be right in the middle
of the bay, more or less equally accessible from all parts of the Bay Area.
Legions of ferry boats already cut through these waters at an astonishing rate,
shuttling 250,000 people a day across the bay. The Bay Bridge had been designed
to use Yerba Buena Island as a stepping stone, and now that opportune placement
would provide a convenient link to the Fair from both sides of the Bay. Visitors
would even be able to take the train, since in those good old days, public
transportation in the form of rail -- part of the old "Key System" --
was planned to roll along the bridge's lower deck.
Endorsement of the new island wasn't to be that easy, of course. As soon as
the mid-bay plan for the Fair was revealed by the Bridge Celebration Committee,
objections began to fly. Many were concerned that a site outside of the city
might "bring a profit to Oakland at the expense of San Francisco"!
With some foresight, a member of the Junior Chamber retorted, "the time
has come for San Francisco to throw off the yoke of provincialism and smug
satisfaction and work in harmony with her sister cities ... to achieve her
desired greatness, now threatened by ... Southern California." The San
Francisco Board of Supervisors were hopelessly deadlocked. After days of conflict,
they abdicated the final decision, throwing up their hands and putting the
matter to a public vote. The conclusion? The good people of San Francisco were
in favour of building the new island -- but they didn't want to pay for it.
Prying Open the Checkbook
So. The proposed Fair now had an address, but not a cent available to raise
it from beneath the waters of the bay. Meanwhile, however, the exploratory
committee formed by Mayor Rossi had become a corporation, with insurance
man Leland Cutler at its head. As the representative of San Francisco Bay
Exposition, Inc., Cutler had immediately begun an assault on the coffers
of Washington DC. Even with a World's Fair in New York also in the works,
the Feds were receptive. The huge employment numbers promised by the project
were attractive, but it was the investment in infrastructure that really
got them to bite -- the airport. Cutler returned home with a verbal promise
from President Roosevelt himself for $3.8 million, to be delivered on condition
that matching funds of three-quarters of a million come from San Francisco.
For a little perspective, if we crank that sum into contemporary dollars,
even using a conservative metric it comes to well over $50 million. According
to Richard Reinhardt, local author and historian, the men of San Francisco's
Republican-dominated Exposition Corporation were at first reluctant to trust
a Democratic President, but Roosevelt was as good as his word; in 1935, his
administration formally approved the island-building project.
"And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto
one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so." That's how Genesis
1:9 reads, but God probably didn't mind having his place usurped by the Army
Corps of Engineers. The construction of the island had originally fallen to
the New Deal put-folks-to-work agency known as the WPA, the Works Progress
Administration. Now, I'm not sure if they'd imagined that the job could be
done by a bunch of guys with rubber boots and tin buckets, but after taking
a closer look, the WPA decided that the scope of the project was way out of
their league. Yerba Buena Island was still property of the United States government,
so it seemed logical that the Secretary of War authorize the Army Corps of
Engineers to take over. By the time it was finally begun, this artificial island
would represent one of the most complicated multi-agency projects ever attempted
in California, encompassing the WPA, the Exposition Corporation, the San Francisco
Public Utilities Commission, the Federal Public Works Administration, the Navy,
and of course the Army Engineers. It's incredible that any project of such
complexity could succeed with so many cooks in the kitchen, but the construction
of our little island stands out as a stellar example of choosing the right
group for the job and getting out of the way.
Treasure Island breaks the surface of the bay in the spring of 1936. Note
the floating pipe pointing at its center, and the unfinished eastern span
of the Bay Bridge in the background. - National Archives
Building the Island
The Army Engineers had at first hoped to contract much of the work out to
local dredging companies, but finding no takers for the risky venture, took
on the job themselves. Assembling the necessary array of large equipment was
easier said than done. The two bridges that the island was intended to celebrate
were still under construction, and much of the San Francisco Bay's maritime
building resources were already occupied. Not to worry; Colonel Fred Butler
issued a few well-chosen orders, and a fleet of government dredges and barges
began to converge on the shoals from up and down the West Coast.
On February 11, 1936, a day of pomp and circumstance was planned to accompany
the first load of fill onto the site. Mother Nature seemed to resent the gesture,
and the largest storm in over a decade drenched the Bay Area. Enthusiasm was
undampened on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, however, which
shrieked "Fair Officially Started!" The reporter gushed:
"When pretty close to a hundred silk hats will get up before breakfast,
skid across town to a pier shed half submerged in water, grab a toehold on
a water taxi pointing towards heaven one second and a firehouse the next, go
out in the middle of the bay and take their morning shower outdoors for the
sake of saying the exposition is officially started, they must be one of two
things: they must be crazy, or they must be imbued with a lofty purpose."
That lofty purpose was the inauguration of the construction of the largest
artificial island on earth, and the "silk hats" were worn by Mayor
Rossi, Leland Cutler, and dozens of other San Francisco businessmen and politicos,
each determined to associate themselves with the popular project. The mayors
of cities from Oakland to San Jose made their perilous way out to the middle
of the bay as well, along with a phalanx of military brass hats representing
the Navy, the Army, and the Army Corps of Engineers.
A pumping dredge sucks up sand from the bay floor and blasts it onto the
emerging island. - San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library
Though Mayor Rossi did manage to cut the pink ribbon symbolically draped over
the controls of the US Army dredge, his speech was cut short by the downpour.
The wisecracking Chronicle reporter noted that, "Mayor Rossi did start
to open his mouth, but when the third cubic foot of water and the second mackerel
passed his Adam's apple, he gave up."
That rainy February day marked the beginning of months of ceaseless labor.
Clamshell dredges scooped up bulging mouthfuls from nearby sandbars and dumped
them onto barges headed for the building site. Huge floating pipes snaked their
way across the bay, connected to a flotilla of pipeline dredges. These sucked
up staggering quantities of sand and sediment directly from the bay floor,
using massive pumps to disgorge the muck directly into the waters over Yerba
When the first soggy lump of the nascent island broke the surface later that
spring, Leland Cutler, already in high promotional gear, was there in a rowboat
to plant the American flag in the virgin "soil" and smile for photographers.
The simple but ingenious design for the island called for the erection of
long stone seawalls, which would contain the fill in a kind of artificial atoll.
287,000 tons of rock quarried from Napa, Greenbrae, and McNear's Point were
delivered on barges and sunk in razor-straight lines, building up a rocky wall
to the height of 14 feet. The outline was simple; picture a rectangle with
three of the four corners snipped off. The southernmost corner, left unsnipped,
was linked to Yerba Buena Island by a sloping causeway. The narrow rectangular
slot delineated by the causeway and the two islands was designed to act as
a protected harbor. The whole, elongated stop-sign shape measured three-quarters
of a mile wide by one mile long. Admittedly, it does look like something designed
by an engineer. Though a curvier, more island-shaped island might have been
nice, that rectilinear shape lent itself to construction; straight lines are
easier than curved ones, and cheaper too.
As the enormous pipes vacuumed up the sea floor, they often performed a sort
of inadvertent archeology. Human bones were dumped onto the site, most likely
the remnants of early Native American tribes. Another find was a prehistoric
mammoth tusk, certified by scientists at UC Berkeley as having lived in the
late Pleistocene period -- around 250,000 years ago. Millions of pounds of
very modern fish were also caught in the flow. Countless seagulls already made
their living by scavenging ferryboat garbage, and a huge proportion of their
number -- attracted by this fishy windfall -- made the construction site their
new permanent cafeteria. The sheer quantity of food drove the big birds wild,
and attacks on workers who happened to be in the way were so fierce that they
were issued "seagull suits" for protection.
The island was completed on August 24, 1937 -- in just 18 and a half months.
All told twenty million cubic yards of sea bottom had been dredged, dug, dumped
and poured inside the rocky walls. The sea-soaked muck was too salty too support
any life but marsh grass, so engineers drilled 300 wells and pumped millions
of gallons of briny water from the bowels of the island. As a final step, the
surface was frosted like a chocolate cake with 50,000 cubic yards of topsoil
-- rich, earthy loam imported from the Sacramento Delta. And with that, the
Army Corps of Engineers were finished, having performed their task with jaw-dropping
efficiency, 15 days ahead of schedule and $4100 under budget.
Groundbreaking ceremony, August 1936. As evidenced by the Japanese and Nazi
flags, the United States is not yet formally involved with the wars in Europe
A formal ground-breaking was held on the new island with the surface still
damp. With the newly completed Bay Bridge serving as a dramatic backdrop
the ceremony was attended by mayors, businessmen and consular diplomats from
each of the countries preparing to participate in the Fair, whose theme had
by this time been officially designated as "Pacific Unity". I must
confess that I had something of a shock when I saw a photo of this event.
The Governor of California is there, Mayor Rossi, a brass band, a troop of
boy scouts... but what really grabs your attention are two of the dozen flags
flying in the background; the rising sun of Imperial Japan and the menacing
black and red swastika of Nazi Germany.
It's difficult to imagine a more inauspicious time to open an international
exposition: evidence that the world was dissolving into violence was all around.
As a flamboyantly gold-plated shovel broke the fresh ground of our idealized
island, Hitler was negotiating with Stalin over how to carve up Eastern Europe,
Italy and Spain were plunging into fascism, and the Japanese occupation of
China and the rape of Nanking made the concept of "Pacific Unity" sound
The idea of celebrating brotherhood and peace on an island full of grand buildings,
commercial hucksterism and gay frivolity seems naive today, almost sweetly
optimistic. The country's capacity to be swept away by spectacle, pageantry
and grand themes was petering out in the face of a ruthlessly unsentimental
Modern Era -- this sliver of time between the Depression and World War II was
perhaps its last gasp. The day of the grand World's Fair was over, but somehow,
nobody knew it yet.
The 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in all its glory, with the "Tower
of the Sun" standing towards the near corner.
Naming the Island
As the island was taking shape, another group put the finishing touches on
its own plans, feverishly at work planning the Fair to end all fairs. Architects,
sculptors, horticulturalists, but most visibly, publicists put their shoulders
to the wheel. Clyde Vandeburg was the head of the publicity machine, and
it turns out that he was the man responsible for something I've always wondered
about; how the island got its name. There's a letter on file in the San Francisco
Library History Room in which Vandeburg points out that the official name
of his organization -- "The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridges Corporation
and Golden Gate International Exposition" -- was just too long to fit
on a letterhead!
But seriously, folks. Something a little punchier was needed for publicity
reasons. I've speculated that Treasure Island was named for Robert Louis Stevenson's
famous children's book about adventure and pirate gold. There is already a
real (if murky) history of treasure buried on Yerba Buena, treasure of the
very best kind: undiscovered! And since the whole affair was to be called "The
Pageant of the Pacific", Vandeburg was searching for a name redolent of
palm trees, sandy beaches, and warm tropical breezes -- as well as something
with a little spark and excitement. Did it matter that pirates never really
operated in the Pacific Ocean? Robert Louis Stevenson's brief stay in San Francisco
provided a tenuous link to a name that fit the criteria like a glove: "Treasure
A more practical reason was suggested after the fact by none other than ex-president
Herbert Hoover. As a California native and friend to the Bay Area -- as president
he'd made the Bay Bridge possible -- Hoover was invited to attend the ground-breaking
of the Mines and Minerals exhibition building. Hoover had once worked out West
as a mining engineer, and showed up in full gold miner's drag. It occurred
to him that the "Treasure Island" moniker was literally accurate;
the sand and earth used as fill for the island had been washed down from the
same gold-veined hills that spawned the 1849 gold rush. He examined the soil
and remarked "if a man worked hard 10 hours a day he could probably pan
about a dollar's worth of gold on Treasure Island!" Since he just happened
to have the right tool handy, he squatted down and panned a couple of specks
of genuine yellow on the spot. The official name of the Fair remained the "Golden
Gate International Exposition", but not a soul ever called it that. To
one and all its name would forever be synonymous with the island.
Treasure Island's official "Theme Girl" Zoe Dell Lantis flashes
some leg and her trademark sparkling smile.
Let the Hype Begin
The ballyhoo and hype surrounding the event flooded every conceivable media
outlet, and the whole city was infected. Theme songs were written, celebrities
showed up, and shop-owners changed the names of their operations to "Expo" this
and "World's Fair" that. Official visits were made separately by
both Roosevelts, Franklin and Eleanor. As a publicity man, Vandeburg knew
what would really sell, so he hired a perky young ballet dancer named Zoe
Dell Lantis to become "Treasure Island's Theme Girl". Wearing a
pirate hat, cuffed boots and short shorts, Zoe became the hardest working
buccaneer in show business, criss-crossing first the state and then the country.
She was the most-photographed person of 1939, happily hammering "Treasure
Island" into the consciousness of an entire population with long legs
and a big bright smile.
Planning and construction continued at a pace even more frenetic than the
publicity blitz. At the south end of the island, adjacent to the harbour, the
WPA had already begun the three buildings intended to outlive the Fair -- and
indeed they're still there. Timothy Pflueger's tall and elegantly semi-circular
Administration building would serve as the terminal for the post-Fair airport,
and you can still see the glass-windowed air traffic control tower at its top.
Behind this classic of "streamline moderne" stood two massive rectangular
buildings. These were intended to devolve into aircraft hangars, but first
served the Fair as the "Palace of Fine and Decorative Arts" and,
appropriately, the "Hall of Air Transportation". Since the north
end of the island was actually still sinking as construction began, that end
was relegated to use as a parking lot and carnival zone. In the acres between,
a temporary wonderland of lath and stucco was soon to arise.
A "Magic City"
The New York World's Fair, scheduled to open just two months after Treasure
Island, had already claimed the Future as its theme. Historian Reinhardt
recalls that "there was widespread indignation that New York had tried
to steal our thunder", but San Francisco had already staked its claim
to an imaginary multi-cultural past.
The architects charged with developing the visual style of the fair were the
cream of the San Francisco old school, George Kelham, Timothy Pflueger, Arthur
Brown and others. Many of them had worked on San Francisco's previous World's
Fair, the classically romantic Pan-Pacific Exhibition of 1915. Their task was
to reflect the Fair's theme by blending sources from all around the Pacific
Rim into a "new" architectural style: "Pacifica". There
wasn't a whiff of Frank Lloyd Wright in this bunch, and the result of their
labors was a kind of monumental orientalist fantasy, an art deco hallucination
of a walled imperial city.
The walls were in part a practical consideration. If you've ever been to Treasure
Island, you know that the afternoon wind roars across with startling ferocity
pretty much every day of the year. A wall of staggered baffles on the windward
side of the Fair was the result of careful experimentation with a cardboard
model and electric fan.
Once through the gates, romantic vistas of pools, fountains and gardens would
reveal themselves to the visitor through a series of courtyards and grand avenues,
all organized around a huge cylindrical bell tower reminiscent of an art-deco
rocket -- the 400 foot high "Tower of the Sun". A pair of mammoth
ziggurats topped with cubist elephants would flank the Tower, creating an awe-inspiring
centerpiece. The island's nomenclature -- the Court of the Moon and Stars,
the Enchanted Garden, the Avenue of the Seven Seas -- revealed something of
the island's retro-romantic flavour. Chunky, stylized sculptures by Bay Area
artists were to be generously distributed throughout the magic city, trumped
by the gigantic stone "Pacifica". This 40-foot Polynesian goddess
played the role of the island's muse, the physical embodiment of the "Pan-Pacific" theme.
The overall aesthetic was evocative of Cecil B. deMille's 1927 Technicolor
movie epic "The Ten Commandments", becoming a fantasy island that
historian Harold Gilliam would later compare to Coleridge's "Pleasure
Dome of Kubla Khan".
The 40-foot "Tower of the Sun" looms over the "Court of Reflections" - Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley
Some observers have seen overtones of fascist architecture in the inhumanly
clean lines and awe-inspiring imperial scale of the place. To my mind, the
veneer of fanciful eastern-inspired decoration, shallow or even kitschy though
it may seem to our jaded eyes, rescues it from that sordid company. I mean,
what self-respecting fascist builds a ziggurat with an elephant perched on
top? The populist art and architecture of the Fair were universally despised
or dismissed by its contemporary critics, but all the same, the "Magic
City" was to be beloved by fairgoers.
The Future did manage to sneak into the Fair's design through innovative lighting
and a vivid color scheme -- this involving nineteen tints of sparkling spray-on
Zonolite, ranging from "Santa Clara Apricot" to "Death Valley
Mauve". A WPA sponsored writing project reported:
"The island's colors, stimulating, unforgettable, represent the first
extensive application of chromotherapy—the science of health treatment
by color usage. In the daytime the effects are gained with flowers and tinted
walls; at night, with fluorescent tubes, with the new “black light,“ with
ultra-violet floods, underwater lamps, translucent glass fabric pillars, and
cylindrical lanterns 75 feet high. The $1,000,000 illumination program presents
at nightfall the illusion of a magic city of light, floating on the waters
of San Francisco Bay."
The dazzling light and color were reinforced by hundreds of thousands of plants
from all around the globe -- orchids, hibiscus, palm trees and countless more.
Twenty-five acres on the San Francisco side of the island were covered by multi-colored
iceplant, a fairgoer-favourite known as the Magic Carpet. This plant was so
exotic to 1930s eyes that countless people were moved to take cuttings home,
which may explain the ubiquity of the plant in California today. Some of that
original stock can still be seen along the seawall, along with a number of
surviving trees from the "Avenue of Palms". Most of the more exotic
species had been carefully nurtured in nurseries all around Northern California
just for the occasion, but many trees and shrubs were actually donated by public-spirited
citizens from their own front yards.
Opening Day, 1939
The night before the long-anticipated opening day, the Pacific theme was
given a final polish. At precisely 10:30 pm on February 18, 1939, a photoelectric
cell in Bombay caught the rays of the sun and hurled a radio signal across
the Pacific. On Treasure Island, the darkened fairyland was suddenly bathed
in brilliant light, and the carillon atop the Tower of the Sun began to ring.
This 44-bell carillon would retire to its final home in the bell-tower of
Grace Cathedral at the Fair's end, and as it pealed "The Bells of Treasure
Island", San Francisco held its breath in anticipation.
The Sally Rand Nude Ranch - need we say more? - Courtesy of the Bancroft
Library, University of California Berkeley
The next morning Governor Culbert Olson thrust a $35,000 jeweled key into
the lock of a gilded miniature Golden Gate Bridge, and the Fair was officially
underway. Publicist Leland Cutler had been terrified that his months of relentless
hype were going to be too successful. A radio announcement warned of tremendous
traffic jams and advised people to stay away or prepare for the worst. The
warnings worked so well that the ticket booth -- located beneath a streetcar-sized
cash register -- received just a little over half of the 200,000 visitors expected
to arrive that day. Though this disappointing turnout foreshadowed financial
disaster, few of the millions of visitors, clad in hats, ties, and their Sunday
best, would regret forking over their fifty cents admission -- each one had
experienced something that they would remember forever.
The Kaleidoscopic Fair
Just what that "something" turned out to be was as various as the
individuals who passed through the gates. The sights, sounds and smells of
the Treasure Island Fair presented such a kaleidoscope of experience that hundreds
of pages could be written without exhausting the subject -- and in fact, they
have. It wasn't just about architecture and a half-baked dream of Pacific unity
-- the whole point of a World's Fair is to show off new technology and entertain
the masses. The island was packed with a myriad of shows and attractions both
highbrow and low, as well as exhibits from 36 foreign countries and a motley
assembly of commercial enterprises. Let me give you just a taste of the bizarre
variety offered on those 400 acres:
A working dairy. A Lucite Packard. An art gallery with both Botticelli's "Birth
of Venus" and Salvador Dali's "Construction with Soft Beans" on
display. The Sally Rand "Nude Ranch", featuring scantily clad beauties
twirling lariats and riding burros. A socialist mural by Diego Rivera, painted
as the fairgoers watched (it's now on display at San Francisco City College).
An attempt to break the world record for catching a baseball -- dropped 800
feet from the Goodyear blimp (the would-be recipient, Seals catcher Joe Sprinz,
lost the ball in the sun and got his cheek smashed in). The "Gayway",
40 acres of chaotic, disorganized fun complete with thrill rides, freak shows
and teeth-rotting candy. An earnestly polite Japanese pavilion, attempting
diplomacy as armies marched. A cigarette-smoking robot. A marionette rodeo.
Premature babies in glass incubators. Bing Crosby, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman.
Tourists ferried from court to court by rickshaw or brightly painted Elephant
Train. Billy Rose's water drenched Aquacade, featuring future movie starlet
Esther Williams cavorting with Tarzan himself, Johnny Weissmuller. A thousand-pound
fruitcake. Ford's 27 millionth motorcar. The Queen of the Nudists, failing
a bid to swim the bay on account of imminent frostbite. Live concerts. Daily
parades. Live kangaroos. And oh so much more....
The China Clipper, namesake of Pan-Am's famous fleet of flying boats, floats
in the "Port of the Trade Winds".
An extra dimension of entertainment was offered by the presence of five new
Boeing 314 Flying Clippers at the "Port of the Trade Winds". Cross-Pacific
air travel was strictly a luxury item, partaken of by millionaires and movie
stars, but these beautiful streamlined flying boats foreshadowed Treasure Island's
planned future as an airport and, crossing the Pacific to Hawaii, the Philippines,
and Hong Kong, provided concrete evidence that the "Pacific Unity" theme
could be more than just words.
World's Fair, v2: 1940
Unfortunately, the one thing apparently not available at the Exposition was
profit. The 1939 Fair closed six weeks early and over four million dollars
in debt. The primary balm to disappointed investors was a certain schadenfreude
in knowing that the New York Fair was in even worse shape.
Still, the same desperate optimism that had launched the project in the first
place resulted in taking another shot. Major changes were required, of course
-- bright new paint, fresh new acts and crazier gimmicks all around. The dismal
progress of the war in Europe and Asia meant that Latin America became the
primary Pacific Rim focus. But though so many exhibits and shows were replaced
that there was almost no continuity between the two fairs, in the memories
of most of its 16 million visitors, the two merged into one. The Golden Gate
International Exposition, 1940 Edition, opened in June and ran for just four
The high point may have been an enormous live concert in the Fair's final
week, featuring many of the greatest stars of the day. Judy Garland, Johnny
Mercer, Jerome Kern, and WC Handy were among the performers, but the climax
was delivered by the frail Irving Berlin. He performed "God Bless America",
a song he'd written just two years earlier as an American hymn of peace. In
the face of a world filled with conflict, the United States had already adopted
it as a new national anthem. A very young Herb Caen was on hand as well, reviewing
the concerts for the San Francisco Chronicle and capturing the power of the
moment: "Hundreds started to sing with him. Then thousands. And when he
came to the end of his song, 15,000 Americans were on their feet singing with
him. Then it was all over."
And with that, so was the Fair. Though the California Chamber of Commerce
would put a brave face on it, citing all manner of positive by-products for
the state, by almost any financial standard the $50 million event was a flop.
The End of an Idealistic Era
It's hard to know what to say about the Golden Gate International Exposition
-- it was a sprawling, messy affair, not amenable to a neat summing-up. On
the one hand, it was a parochial dinosaur and a terrific commercial failure;
on the other, the "Magic City" was one of the most gorgeous, evocative,
and seductive events the city had ever seen. As it fades into history, the
'39 Fair has become one of the most beloved moments in San Francisco's story,
inspiring volumes of nostalgia, fanatical collections of memorabilia, and
a celebration of the event as the symbolic end of an era. And of course,
thousands of people were kept off of bread lines by either the WPA or by
employment in one of the Fair's hundreds of exhibits and attractions. But
for the purposes of our story, the ultimate consequence of that ephemeral
Fair is still floating in the middle of the bay -- Treasure Island.
On September 29, 1940, the lights of the Golden Gate International Exposition
went out forever. As the merchants and exhibitors packed their bags and glumly
counted their receipts, Nazi Germany had begun a terror bombing campaign from
the skies above London. And across the Pacific, Imperial Japan was planning
a surprise attack on a United States naval base in Hawaii, turning the concept
of "Pacific Unity" into a hollow joke.
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Richard Miller delights in San Francisco stories: digging them up, researching the bejeezus out of them, and retelling them. A California native with two decades of San Francisco under his belt, Miller launched his popular Sparkletack podcast to share his love for the fun, fascinating and occasionally bizarre tales of the city. Delivered with enthusiasm and a dash of wry humor, they've attracted a rapidly expanding collection of expats and San Franciscophiles from around the world."