The Island

The Island

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

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.

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

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 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 Sally Rand Nude Ranch—need we say more? —Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley

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.