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The Island, Part 1

By Richard Miller aka Sparkletack

The Story of Treasure Island (pt. 1) [45:01m]


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.


"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.


A Celebration of Bridges

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

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.

Building the Island

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

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 Buena Shoals.

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.

"Pacific Unity"

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 and Asia.

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 almost chilling.

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.

Naming the Island

The 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in all its glory, with the "Tower of the Sun" standing towards the near corner.

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 Island"

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.

Let the Hype Begin

Treasure Island's official "Theme Girl" Zoe Dell Lantis flashes some leg and her trademark sparkling smile.

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 more months.

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.

The Island, Part 2

By Richard Miller aka Sparkletack

The Story of Treasure Island (pt. 2) [37:46m]


The Navy Sails In

Navy seamen drill in the square where the "Tower of the Sun" once stood. —San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Plans for the demolition of the Fair began immediately. Everything was to go except the Administration/Terminal building and hangars near the harbor, for which Pan-Am Airways and its Flying Clippers had already signed a ten-year lease. A spiderweb of runways was planned, and city officials anticipated the participation of every major airline in the country.

At the beginning of 1941, however, the Federal Government was a little edgy about the military situation in the Pacific. Rumours of submarines offshore were rampant. Across the Atlantic, the Lend Lease Program providing military and economic aid to Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union was well underway. Though the isolationist movement was still strong, it was becoming increasingly likely that the United States would eventually be drawn into the war—perhaps sooner than expected. Over a year in advance of the United States' actual involvement in combat, the Bay Area had begun a shift towards wartime production – and by the summer of 1941 it was a major "arsenal of democracy", bristling with military bases and production facilities.

Of course San Francisco had long been a Navy town. And as you know, if you’ve ever been startled out of your wits by the sudden overhead roar of the Blue Angels during the annual "Fleet Week" celebrations, to some small degree it still is. In the 1940s, San Francisco Bay was the centerpiece of West Coast naval defense, featuring Moffet Field in the south, a base at Tiburon in the north, and the newly commissioned Alameda Naval Air Station in the east. Huge ship building facilities were gearing up at Hunters Point and Mare Island, the oldest naval shipyard on the Pacific Coast. But with all this, there was not a spot in the bay more strategically located than Treasure Island—and so Rear Admiral John Greenslade, Commandant of the 12th Naval District, approached San Francisco with a proposition.

What could they say? The city agreed to put plans for the airport on hold, and—in exchange for federal funds to develop it later – to lease the island to the Navy. The lease would be valid, as Mayor Rossi reported it, "until the passing of this present national emergency". On April Fools Day, 1941, Treasure Island, along with its siamese twin Yerba Buena, became a military base known as Naval Station Treasure Island.

The Eruption of World War II

Nine months later, December 7th, 1941 suddenly became the "date which shall live in infamy". With the bombing of Hawaii's Pearl Harbour the whole Pacific erupted into war. Roosevelt's pre-Fair address two years earlier had mentioned the millions spent by the government on the island project, and had emphasized the vital importance of the Bay Area's naval fleet to America's national security. The United States was now at full-scale war with Japan, and it occurred to the Secretary of the Navy that since the Federal Government had built the island in the first place, it might be time to reconsider the terms of their rental. Yerba Buena Island had been a military base on and off for three quarters of a century, and a Navy base continuously since 1898. Four months after the lease with San Francisco had been signed, the Navy decided to simply seize Treasure Island—permanently.

The grand sum of $44,801 was offered as compensation, with the Navy filing a "declaration of taking and deposit". A San Francisco News reporter translated this into plain English: "instead of: 'We’d like to have Treasure Island, the Navy said 'The island is ours, and that’s final.'"

Of the almost eight million dollars spent to create the island and Exposition, San Francisco had invested over three and a half million of its own money on what it considered "permanent improvements". The Navy's offer, even during wartime, was hard to swallow. After a citywide storm of heated editorials about the legality of this maneuver and a flock of rumours—including the one that the Navy might offer the city one dollar for the island—a trade was offered. The Navy owned some land adjacent to the city's Mills Field airport down past South San Francisco, and having no other choice, San Francisco made the swap.

According to a book prepared by the Defense Department in 1995, the deal was struck to the mutual satisfaction of both sides. San Francisco allegedly already knew that Treasure Island was a problematic site; there were safety risks being so close to the city and bridges; the island was too close to Oakland, which had already gone so far as to proclaim itself "Treasure Island's Mainland"; and that it was really just too small for an international airfield. It is true that World War II led to development of aeronautical technology which made the short runways of the island impractical, but to say that San Francisco was happy about the deal back then is a revision of history.

Several members of city government were up in arms, including the Public Utilities Manager and the City Attorney. Furthermore, I've read through a stack of telegrams that Walter Haas, Chairman of the Treasure Island Airport Committee fired off to Washington DC, addressed to senators, generals, and the Secretary of the Navy himself. According to Haas, Treasure Island had been declared by "technical experts of major airlines to be ideally situated for large scale transport operations." His telegrams are filled with desperation, begging the Navy to find another spot for their new base. "We wish to emphasize that there is only one site in San Francisco Bay for a downtown metropolitan air terminal and that site is Treasure Island. Its loss to us would mean that 10 years of preparation and planning for such a terminal would be permanently lost."

But the deal was done, and frankly, the general attitude of the man on the street reflected the mood of the rest of the country; this was life during wartime, and sacrifices must be made. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Treasure Island's harbor was packed with vessels of all sorts volunteered for military conversion – fishing boats would become mine sweepers and luxury yachts would serve as harbor patrol craft. Pan Am's entire Clipper fleet was pressed into service as well, and would ferry military personnel and medical supplies between San Francisco and Pearl Harbor for the duration of the war.

San Francisco would never get the "downtown, metropolitan airport" the Junior Chamber of Commerce had craved, but after the war, as you may have suspected all along, Mills Field would evolve into the modern San Francisco International Airport.

Life During Wartime

As the Navy took over they began to level most of what remained of the Exposition. Huge wrecking balls crushed the fragile buildings like stucco eggshells, and the shattered remains were unsentimentally hauled away. A few buildings were deemed useful to the military—the "Hall of Western States" became troop barracks, and the "Palace of Electricity", home of the Fair's radio station KGEI, was taken over by the Office of War Information as the first west coast facility of the Voice of America. The court in which the Tower of the Sun once stood became a parade ground, and there's an ironically lovely photo of uniformed cadets exercising under the gaze of the "Evening Star", a graceful statue of a feminine nude. And even though the monumental "Pacifica" was nominated by her sculptor for installation on Alcatraz—as a west-coast dopplegänger to New York Harbor's Statue of Liberty—she was one of the first things to go.

The riverboat Delta Queen, paddle-wheeling veteran of the Sacramento/San Francisco commute, was drafted for use as temporary troop quarters while permanent barracks were being built. The elegant Administration building was re-christened "Building One" and became the operational headquarters of the new base. Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, who at the height of the Pacific war commanded over two million sailors, 5,000 ships and 20,000 planes, had a command center in a series of armored rooms in the basement. Years after the war in 1966, Nimitz would die in retirement at "Quarters One", the circa-1900 Commandant's residence on the northern slope of Yerba Buena Island.

As the military conflict intensified, the main mission of Naval Station Treasure Island became processing troops in and out of the Pacific Theatre, and quartering them as they awaited assignment. As often as not this assignment would be to a ship still under construction at the Mare Island or Hunters Point shipyards. Over the course of the war, 4.5 million men were hustled through Treasure Island's facilities; at the peak of the Pacific Invasion, 12,000 brave and terrified men per day poured through the Golden Gate towards Japan.

Though focused on keeping the conveyer belt moving, the base served other military functions as well. All wounded sailors in the Pacific Theatre were shipped to its hospital, which, though small and understaffed, was never quite overwhelmed by the volume of casualties. Harbor patrol units, coast watchers, mine patrol forces, and anti-submarine net tenders called the base home, and it served as a docking station for the Moffett Field-based squadron of anti-submarine blimps. Treasure Island was also host to the Advance Naval Training, Fleet Operation, and Radio Operation schools. All in all, a busy little spot.

Chow line in "The Grand Hotel", the largest mess hall on the planet. —San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

The base's mess hall, appropriately once the Fair's "Food and Beverages Building", was the largest in the world, quickly earning the nickname "The Grand Hotel". A glance at the mess hall's shopping list reveals vividly the scale of the human torrent roaring through Treasure Island. Each day 4,000 pies, 5,000 pounds of fresh bread and 50,000 doughnuts were plopped onto trays; every meal required 200 gallons of gravy, 300 gallons of soup, and two tons of steak. On its busiest day, the Grand Hotel served 18,000 men in two hours—that's a rate of over two men per second! Even the Navy had been unable to foresee the demands that the war would place on Treasure Island. Before Pearl Harbor Day they had planned to staff it with fewer than 1500 men; but at its peak the island bulged to a population of 60,000 sailors and civilian employees, not counting over a thousand German prisoners of war.

Just a year into the campaign Treasure Island had already grown into a self-sufficient city, with just about everything a sailor could need crammed into an area measuring less than one square mile; two restaurants, five barber shops, tailors, cobblers, a florist, a malt shop, a gas station, a Bank of America branch, a colossal general store, and much more. That malt shop was heaven to war-weary sailors just back from the sweltering tropics, and could sell as many as 10,000 cold ones a day. On the other hand, the clothing department could issue almost a hundred thousand heavy wool pea-coats a year for the freezing San Francisco "summers". The Island fielded baseball, football, and basketball teams, and in another kind of recreation, by war's end over 2200 newlyweds would be married at the non-denominational chapel—a chapel in which, years later, infamous heiress Patty Hearst would marry her bodyguard after release from prison. Entertainment was provided by bowling alleys, arts and crafts studios and movie theatres, not to mention performances by the San Francisco Symphony and the famed traveling USO shows, featuring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Glenn Miller, the Marx Brothers, Carmen Miranda, and oh so much more!

You all know how the war turned out. On May 8th, 1945, Germany surrendered to the Allied Forces, ending the war in Europe. A month later President Harry S Truman arrived in San Francisco for the signing of the United Nations Charter. And on August 15, Emperor Hirohito announced the unconditional surrender of Japan, bringing the bloodbath in the Pacific to a close.

With the announcement of the surrender, spontaneous demonstrations broke out all over San Francisco. The city's air raid sirens shrieked with joy, and ticker tape and shredded telephone books rained from office buildings onto the streets of the Financial District. As night fell the celebration took an ugly turn, dashing hopes for a little bit of peace on the planet—at least in San Francisco. Alcohol-fueled riots broke out and servicemen rampaged along Market Street, attacking automobiles and streetcars, looting stores, and tearing down posters that reminded them of the war. Over a hundred windows were smashed, and countless people were injured. By the time the violence had ended days later, a thousand people were injured, and eleven were dead.

On Treasure Island, three separate surgical teams worked round the clock on casualties of the victory "celebrations", and an entire ward was dedicated to patients suffering from fractured jaws. After four years of a dark and bitter war, V-J Day was—ironically—the busiest in the history of the Treasure Island hospital.

The Postwar Era

One of a series of mock atomic bomb tests performed in 1957. —San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Along with the rest of the country, San Francisco and the Treasure Island Naval Base gradually recovered from the wounds of the war and shifted into peacetime mode. The population of the island shrank to just 4,000 personnel, and settled into a monotonous military routine. This was disrupted in the early post-war days by nothing more exciting than the fire of '47, which filled the sky over San Francisco Bay with dense black smoke and destroyed what remained of the "temporary" Exposition-era structures—including the famous "Grand Hotel".

At the beginning of the Cold War—that frosty fifty years of indirect conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union—Treasure Island was primarily used as a naval training and administrative center. But as the cold war began to heat up, first with the Korean War in the early fifties, and then towards the end of the decade in Vietnam, Treasure Island resumed its role of processing sailors on their way to combat. The atomic age also made its presence felt. Training exercises began in which sailors practiced the decontamination of radioactive vessels—using real radioactive materials. And during 1957, a series of mushroom clouds bloomed above the island. To glance up from a stroll along the Embarcadero and catch sight of one of those must have just about frozen the blood in any onlooker's post-Hiroshima veins! Fortunately for the physical (if not mental) health of San Franciscans, these explosions were not atomic blasts, but conventional imitations detonated for "demonstration and training" purposes.

The fact that the Bay Area was essentially an armed military camp lies at odds with the heartland's perception of San Francisco as the center of the peacenik lunatic fringe. This contradiction was probably most stark during the Vietnam War. While San Francisco was awash in the summer of love, and student anti-war activists invaded UC Berkeley's Sproul Hall, Treasure Island carried on sending warships to Southeast Asia. The demonstrations, marches, and protests of the '60s barely touched the island, though there was at least one interesting incident in 1968. Treasure Island, along with other installations around the bay was "bombed" with thousands of leaflets announcing a GI & Veterans March for Peace... and it was apparently an inside job.

Death of a Cold War Base

An aging base waits in limbo. —Richard Miller

Following the end of the Vietnam war, life on the Naval base carried on as usual, but the environment surrounding it had dramatically changed. According to the Navy's official history of its Bay Area facilities, the mood of the region was characterized by "disillusionment bordering on open hostility toward the military " . This was ongoing throughout the 1970s, but probably reached its most recent peak in the '80s with the rejection of the battleship "Missouri" from the San Francisco Bay. Though this hostility has been somewhat ameliorated by the passage of time, Treasure Island's military days were already numbered.

Following the untidy disintegration of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon—under President Bush the elder—decided to purge some of the costly barnacles of the country's half-century military buildup. The old and ponderous world-war fighting military had in some ways become an anachronism, and there was plenty of money that could be saved by shutting a few of the old bases down. To that end the "Base Realignment and Closure Commission" was created in 1988. Every few years since its inception the group has offered a new list of military installations for closure.

In the Bay Area, San Francisco's Presidio Army Base was on the very first one. On the third go-round in 1993, Treasure Island's number came up, along with the Alameda Naval Air Station and Mare Island shipyards. The two older facilities were decommissioned first, so Treasure Island, the youngest naval installation in the bay would be the very last to go.

At dusk on May 8, 1997, in a full-dress Naval ceremony, the flag of Naval Station Treasure Island was lowered for the final time, as the mournful notes of a single bugle drifted out across the bay. The island would be staffed by a skeleton crew of sailors for the next few months, until October 1st, when the legal return of Treasure Island to San Francisco would finally take place.


San Francisco's "Newest Neighborhood"

The city's movers and shakers salivated at the thought of this almost unbearably prime real estate falling into the public domain. It was obviously a little bit late for the international airport plan, so San Franciscans unleashed a flood of ideas for the island, some perhaps more practical than others. These early suggestions included turning the place into an Olympic training facility, a gigantic theme park, a new headquarters for the United Nations, a women's prison, and a site for a new ballpark for the San Francisco Giants—thankfully no longer necessary! A couple of other early notions involved swapping the property for the Headwaters redwood grove up in Humboldt County, or turning it into a floating casino—both of those from ex-mayor Willie Brown. When the dust settled, the early consensus was to develop a private/public partnership to fill the acreage with housing, parks and other amenities, turning the island into "San Francisco's newest neighborhood".

But not so fast. Though the island had become a naval base almost literally overnight, the reverse of that process was not going to be easy. For one thing, a half century of accumulated federal red tape meant that, in the words of one city official, negotiating with the Navy involved going back to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. That's the 1848 deal by which the United States had acquired California from Mexico, and he was only half-joking. In addition, years of intensive military occupation meant that the island was a toxic waste disaster, deeply contaminated by heavy-duty carcinogens such as asbestos, lead, dioxins, PCBs and possibly even radioactive waste. Thankfully federal law mandates that such contamination be cleaned up before a final transfer may take place, but though the government had saved billions of dollars through country-wide base closures, the Navy didn't like the idea of spending money just to give the island away. $120 million have been spent on cleanup as of 2006, but the net result of the Navy's resistance has been over a decade of foot-dragging, costing the Bay Area millions in unrealized income. And to make matters worse, negotiations between the City of San Francisco's Treasure Island Development Authority (TIDA) and the group of investors officially designated to redevelop the island moved at a snail's pace, giving the Navy further excuse for delay.

If you read the newspapers in San Francisco during the late '90s then you probably got sick of hearing about Treasure Island's future. The whole thing devolved into a political soap opera, generating miles of digital newsprint. Allegations of corruption, mismanagement, and "sweetheart deals" dogged the administrations of both Mayor Brown and of Gavin Newsom. San Francisco, the Navy, and the TIDA were targets of severe criticism from just about everyone, from environmental activists to a seemingly endless array of other interest organizations. Community input was taken into consideration as plans were developed for the site, but since just about every group in the Bay Area has some interest in the island's future, the resulting gridlock should not have been surprising—in San Francisco, this is business as usual. For details on this disheartening saga, feel free to browse the online archives of SFGate.com. As the political wars were being waged on the mainland, the island languished in a kind of limbo, a ghost town owned by the absentee Navy, promised to the city, but serving just about no one.

Treasure Island in Limbo

The streamline moderne World's Fair Administration Building as it stands in 2007—note the original air traffic control tower still on the roof. —Richard Miller

Well, that's not precisely true. During the past decade Treasure Island has probably been best known as a prime location for movie and television projects. A couple of films were shot before the decommissioning of the base, most notably "The Caine Mutiny" in 1954 and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade", in which the former World's Fair Administration Building—digitally draped with swastika banners—played the role of the Berlin Airport. Since 1997, though, the old hangars have served as sound stages for a wide array of productions, sweetening the delayed hand-over of the island somewhat by injecting a little cash into the local economy. A short list of these would include "Rent", "Monk", "The Incredible Hulk", "Battlebots", "Nash Bridges", "Patch Adams", "The Parent Trap", and, regrettably, "Flubber".

The long-term plan for redevelopment seems to indicate that the film industry will continue to be welcome, and San Francisco's official city website promotes the island as being "at the forefront of Mayor Gavin Newsom's commitment to revitalize San Francisco's film industry and to make San Francisco the premier filming destination in the country"—something I think most local citizens would endorse.

One side effect of the island's current state of limbo has been the closure of the Treasure Island Museum. This wonderful facility, located in the Administration Building, was established back in 1974 as an official naval history museum. With the announcement of the base closure in '93, the non-profit "Treasure Island Museum Association" took over the operation. A treasure trove of memorabilia from the World's Fair and Flying Clipper eras were on display alongside historical military artifacts and extensive archives. With the decommissioning of the base in '97, the Navy closed the museum and exiled the collection to basement storage lockers. Though a couple of sleek statues left over from the World's Fair stand guard outside, there's not much left to see. Negotiations are ongoing, but as of today, there is no guarantee that the collection will remain on the island, or even in California. And in the interim, it remains hidden from the public. Treasure Island was designated California State Historic Landmark 987 in 1989, and I keep my fingers crossed that the museum will one day reopen, making the island's colorful history real for future generations.

In the Meantime

Alongside the occasional invasions of movie people, somewhere around two thousand people call Treasure Island home today. These include an assortment of government employees—teachers, firefighters, police officers—and other random folks who've made the move to enjoy relatively inexpensive housing, million dollar views and the quiet, almost small-town ambience left in the absence of the Navy. The Administration Building serves as offices for a private agency responsible for renting this city-controlled housing stock to the general public. Substantial subsidies offered by the nonprofit Treasure Island Homeless Development Initiative support a population of once-homeless people as well. And according to the current director of Island Operations, there's also a single wild deer lurking somewhere on the base, though how she got there is anybody's guess! A pair of restaurants, a gym, chapel, marina, and a couple of baseball fields—on which I myself have enjoyed a game or two—more or less complete the available amenities.

The atmosphere out on the island is a little surreal right now. There's a feeling of suspended animation, of a kind of vacuum, a geographical space outside of time. When the clock begins to roll forward again, most of the current residents will be given an option to stay... but the new phase is going to come as a bit of a shock.

The Future of Treasure Island

As of today, the middle of 2007, the Treasure Island political soap opera appears to be on track for some kind of resolution. After well over a decade of contention, as well as thousands of community meetings, the future of Treasure Island is finally starting to coalesce.

The filing of an environmental impact report in 2005 resulted in the agreement that Treasure Island, along with Yerba Buena, will be turned over to the city in 2008—this time for real. The Navy agreed to accept $40 million to relinquish their hold on the island, on condition that the toxic waste left behind be remediated by its new owners. This gave the go-ahead for TIDA's final redevelopment plans—under constant redevelopment themselves since the agency's inception—to be presented to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for approval last year. With some reservations, that blueprint was approved. Keeping in mind that San Francisco politics are less stable than the ground the city is built on, here's the plan:

The island of the future—San Francisco's newest neighborhood. —Skidmore, Owings and Merrill

Treasure Island, along with Yerba Buena, will be transformed into a self-sufficient, ultra modern community for 13,500 San Franciscans—a population larger than my own hometown. The three World's Fair survivors will be left in place, but the grid of antiquated Navy-era structures will be replaced by roughly 6,000 residential units and 300 acres of open space, including organic gardens, bike paths, playgrounds, and even wetlands. Sustainable technology such as solar power and a wind farm are highlighted in the design, as well as the use of green construction methods. Several distinct neighborhoods, complete with townhouses, flats, and residential towers will radiate from a central retail-oriented core, featuring a 40-story tower reminiscent of the Golden Gate Exposition's "Tower of the Sun". In an effort to echo the density mainland San Franciscans are accustomed to, most housing will be clustered within a 10-minute walk from the new western-facing ferry terminal. To blunt the impact of a flood of new commuters on the Bay Bridge, emphasis will be placed on ferry and bus transit, and a congestion pricing scheme—similar to that recently imposed in London—would charge a nominal fee to motorists entering and exiting the island during commute hours.

If you're already starting to pack your bags, keep in mind that although thirty percent of the new units will be available at below-market rates, you can bet that the remainder will start at six figures and head north from there. If all goes well, the first lucky new residents will move in by 2013, and the project as a whole is slated for completion by 2022.

The whole thing is projected to cost $1.2 billion dollars. Since this is not the kind of pocket change San Francisco has lying around, a private development group has been involved more or less from day one. One member of this team, the Lennar Corporation, is a specialist in the rehabilitation of military bases. Already deeply insinuated into local politics, they've scored just about every other Bay Area military base deal as well. A less controversial member is Wilson Meany Sullivan, the local firm responsible for the wonderful restoration of the San Francisco Ferry Building. Together the group will pony up $500 million for the rights to transform Treasure Island—and San Francisco will borrow $700 million in bonds to make up its share.

A Calculated Risk

But the best laid plans of mice, men, and real estate developers have a way of going awry. The environmental contamination issue is far from being resolved. Though the worst areas are currently fenced off, there's no predicting precisely what chemical horrors will be discovered as the cleanup continues. The ability of the island to survive an earthquake is also in question. Constructed like an elevated mud pie, on opening day of the World's Fair in 1939 the island rose 14 feet above the bay. Its non-engineered fill was already slowly sinking when the Loma Prieta earthquake struck in 1989, and today its height has slumped to just nine feet. A quake on a fault located closer to the island could cause the same kind of devastating soil liquefaction seen that year in the Marina district. To prevent disaster, a big chunk of that $1.2 billion dollars will be spent on a 50-foot zone of seismic reinforcements, including 35-foot cement stabilizing columns to be driven into the earth all around the island's perimeter. And finally, it wasn't a coincidence that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger chose Treasure Island as the site to sign California’s landmark anti-global warming bill late last year. If the inconvenient truth of rising sea levels is not brought under control, living on Treasure Island will mean investing in a pair of hip waders—at best.

The developers are betting half a billion dollars that the plan will succeed in spite of these risks. They anticipate a pay-off of $370 million in profits by 2022. San Francisco, on the other hand, is operating on faith—hoping, praying and crossing its collective fingers that this plan, arguably the most ambitious since the building of Treasure Island over 70 years ago, will prove successful. The computer-generated renderings of the project—realized by the San Francisco office of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—do look amazing. That island looks like the future.

For all the uncertainties, problems yet to be revealed, and the many nits that will be picked with this ongoing enterprise, the one truth is that this is an incredibly exciting phase in the history of the Bay Area. It seems like we're a long way from the Junior Chamber of Commerce's half-baked idea for an airport back in 1931—but then again, perhaps not. After all, the essential characteristics of San Francisco over the decades are undoubtedly metamorphosis and mutation. The changes coming to Treasure Island are as inevitable as the earthquakes and fires, the conflicting cultural forces and violent economic trends which have unsystematically edited, erased and rewritten our city since its birth 170 years ago. Will the Treasure Island project succeed? Well, the future is not really my area, but I do know this: the result will be interesting, and I don't think any of us can wait to find out what happens next in San Francisco's newest neighborhood.

Postscript - 7.14.2010

The details of the multimillion-dollar land swap between The City and the Navy for Treasure Island have been hammered out, setting the stage for development at the Bay island to move forward. The city of San Francisco will shell out $55 million over 10 years to the Navy for ownership of Treasure Island. The project, which will take 10 to 20 years to finish, will include 6,000 residences, three hotels, a marina, a commercial town center and nearly 300 acres of parks and open space. The project is hoped to create the “most ecologically sustainable community in the world.”

Read more at the San Francisco Examiner.

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.
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