The Golden Gate International Exposition
1939 – 1940
Two World’s Fairs
Was the Golden Gate International Exposition a world’s fair? Its planners started in
1933, but never got around to requesting official status from the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE), the French organization that regulates world’s fairs. “The World of Tomorrow” in New York got a later start, but applied to the BIE and became the official world’s fair of 1939-40.
The New York fair was bigger in every way—1,202 acres to Treasure Island’s 450, 44
million in attendance to Treasure Island’s 17 million. More participants, more exhibitors,
more entertainment. And true to its BIE status, the NYWF was genuinely a world’s fair,
representing many more international and American participants than the Treasure Island fair, which was essential a regional phenomenon. Its geographic and political focus was on the western US, and it looked further west to the Pacific and the future.
Although the New York fair also welcomed participating countries from the Pacific, its
vision was firmly planted in America’s European past. While a handful of European
countries had pavilions at the GGIE, it was genuinely a “Pageant of the Pacific.” The
GGIE called itself a “World’s Fair,” but officially, it was not.
Opening of the Golden Gate International Exposition
The Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) opened on February 18, 1939. Unlike cities in the east and midwest, San Francisco opened its three major expositions in the winter, attracting visitors from colder climates. February 18 had been the opening date of the Panama Pacific International Exposition of 1915, still bright in the memories of many San Franciscans, who were ready to welcome the beauty and excitement of a world’s fair into their lives. The GGIE had a total attendance of more than 17 million people over 14 months. In addition to its “Pacific Theme” and vision of “Pacific Unity,” the fair provided a glimpse into all that was exciting and new in science and technology, the arts and entertainment, and many nations participated.
The GGIE’s full title, chosen in a public contest, was Golden Gate International Exposition: A Pageant of the Pacific. The title honored San Francisco as “a metropolis of the Pacific Coast.” The Pacific motif came to govern much of the fair’s art, architecture, and programming. It was conveyed by two primary sites at the fair: The Court of Pacifica and the Pacific Area.
The 80-foot goddess of Pacific unity dominated the Court of Pacifica. At Pacifica’s feet was a sparkling, tiered fountain populated by twenty sculptures representing peoples of the Pacific. The enormous “Peacemakers” low-relief mural epitomized spiritual values of the Orient and Occident, represented by a forty-foot Buddha and a kneeling, white-robed woman.
While imaginative art conveyed the Pacific motif in the Court of Pacifica, the Pacific Area was home to the pavilions and exhibits of participating Pacific countries. These reflected traditional architectural styles of their cultures. At the center of this area was “Pacific House,” the exposition’s intellectual and educational cornerstone, offering lectures, concerts, a library, and social gatherings featuring distinguished guests. Massive maps in distinctive media illustrated the dynamic relationships among the countries and peoples of the Pacific.
The fair’s publicists gave the name Pacifica to the GGIE’s architectural style, noting that it embodied “building motifs from both the eastern and western shores of the Pacific.” Design elements from ancient cultures were nothing new in Art Deco architecture, but this style suited the GGIE. Combined with the fair’s lighting effects, the results were spectacular. Donald Macky’s “Elephant Towers,” which suggested Mayan pyramids surmounted by Malaysian elephants, and William Merchant and Bernard Maybeck’s “Temples of the East,” with their lotus entryways and gilded finials, formed gateways to the exhibit palaces. The palaces themselves were designed to resemble an ancient walled city.
Elsewhere a miscellany of classical and current architectural styles prevailed. The overall layout of the exhibit palaces followed a classical symmetry. Soaring over it all was the 300-foot Tower of the Sun. Surmounted by a gold-plated phoenix, the tower’s lantern held a 44-bell carillon, destined for permanent installation at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
Of note were Timothy Pflueger’s International Style Federal Building, with Herman Volz’s WPA-funded mural covering the front walls. The building that received the most praise from architectural critics was William Wurster’s “Yerba Buena Clubhouse,” an airy, asymmetrical modern building of wood and glass.
An Exposition During Time of War
Over its two seasons, the GGIE welcomed twenty-two participant countries from around the Pacific. That number dwindled as world tensions grew. Of eleven participating European countries, several remained active in both years even after German Conquest.
The Johore Pavilion was the first to close after the outbreak of war in 1939. In 1940,
countries new to the GGIE moved into pavilions vacated by 1939 participants. As Hitler
rumbled through Europe, the Estonian Village “with grim irony” installed adjustable rubber boundaries around Germany on its map of Europe (Magic City). On Bastille Day 1940, representatives of conquered European countries marched in the parade. A keynote speaker stated that “The spirit that stormed the Bastille will rise again, and destroy the restrainers of French liberties” (SF Examiner, 1940)
China did not participate in the GGIE due to exhaustion from the Japanese invasion, but
Chinese residents of San Francisco built and operated a Chinese Village. Historians
discovered in 2003 that Japan’s motive for its expensive and elaborate GGIE pavilion
was to provide a sense of “harmony to deflect attention from the international shock
about the atrocities of Japanese expansion in other parts of Asia” (PBS History Detectives).
Art of the Exposition
Coming as it did during the Depression, the GGIE was a boon for local employees. Thousands of people found work on Treasure Island. Scores of local artists, men and women, received commissions to create the island’s many sculptures and murals
Of the local artists commissioned for projects in the Court of Pacifica, more than half were women, and one of the men was African American. Women artists worked alongside men in many venues, including the Temple Compound, where Jacques Schnier and Lulu Braghetta created enormous gilded panels, “The Dance of Life” and the “Path of Darkness.”
Women in modest poses were popular in Classical and Beaux Arts sculptures, including “Girl and the Rainbow,” “Girl and the Penguin,” and “The Evening Star,” each in its own fountain or reflective pool.
The theme of the American West appeared in Maynard Dixon’s “Grass Land” and “Ploughed Land,” in which Native American deities blessed the land with sun and rain. Herman Volz’s WPA-funded “Conquest of the West” covered the front walls of the Federal Building. Ernest Born’s “Industries of the San Francisco Bay Area” encircled Robert Howard’s “Whales” in the rotunda of the San Francisco Building.
Only a few pieces are known to survive.
The Palace of Fine and Decorative Arts
The Art Palace featured art from all eras, loaned from collections worldwide. The Pacific Cultures Exhibition (1939) was curated by Langdon Warner, Harvard scholar and archaeologist, and one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones. This popular exhibition featured art from Asia, the Pacific, and South and Central America.
In 1939, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus came to Treasure Island because Benito Mussolini had arranged for a group of “masterworks” to take a world tour. The Italian government immediately passed a law prohibiting the exportation of these masterpieces, so subsequent art lovers must travel to Italy to see them.
The art palace also offered a photography exhibit curated by Ansel Adams, animated art from the Walt Disney Studios, and the Thorne Miniature Rooms, among many other collections.
In 1940, “Art in Action” presented painters, weavers, sculptors, and more in a theater of live art. Visitors watched as Dudley Carter carved logs with his double-bitted axe, and as Diego Rivera and assistants created his enormous “Pan American Unity” fresco, currently on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Construction of a permanent location for the fresco at City College of San Francisco has been beset by difficulties for more than eight decades.
Entertainment & Performances
The possibilities for entertainment on Treasure Island were close to endless. If you had a taste for high art, the San Francisco Symphony, opera and ballet performed regularly. If semi-nude young women were your thing, several opportunities were available in the Gayway, Treasure Island’s carnival zone. Most popular was Sally Rand’s Nude Ranch, where women clad in pistol belts and little else cavorted with donkeys and twirled lariats at a discreet distance from onlookers.
The family could enjoy the Cavalcades, spectacles of western (1939) or American (1940) history performed live on a stage 400 feet wide. The puppets in Levi Straus and Company’s mechanical rodeo (in Vacationland) sat on a fence and watched the antics of a horse and mule on a stage decorated with 501® jeans. A Mickey Mouse cartoon advertised Nabisco cookies.
Diversity came to Treasure Island in many forms. The Swing Mikado, produced by the Federal Theater Project, presented a new staging of Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera set on a Pacific island, and featuring an all African American cast with contemporary music and dance styles. A three-day “Negro Music Festival” traced the history of African American music from ancient Africa to contemporary swing music. International music, dance and drama performances were available daily in the Pacific Area pavilions. No wonder tickets were sold in books of 15 and visitors returned day after day!
Don’t miss our online exhibit about the GGIE’s performing arts, “As Sounds Go By”!