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Panama-California Exposition

CHAPTER TWO: The Exposition Gets Under Way

After five years of unrelenting effort, San Diego celebrated the official opening of the Panama-California Exposition on January 1, 1915. At midnight, December 31, President Woodrow Wilson, in Washington, D.C., pressed a Western Union telegraph key. The signal turned on every light on the grounds and touched off a display of fireworks. The gates to the Exposition swung open. A crush of from 31,836 to 42,486 people on the grounds cheered, waved banners, threw confetti, sang “I Love You California,” and snake-danced their way to the Isthmus or fun street. Among the guests who took part in the official but sparsely attended ceremonies, beginning at 11:30 the following morning, were Secretary of the Treasury William McAdoo, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Rear Admiral T. B. Howard, Director General of the Pan-American Union John Barrett, and Spanish delegate Count del Valle de Salazar.

In his speech to the guests, wearied from the festivities of the night before, G. Aubrey Davidson, president of the Panama-California Exposition Company, declared the Exposition’s purpose was to build an empire extending from the back country of the Pacific slope to the west shores of the Missouri River. At one point Davidson said:

“Here is pictured in this happy combination of splendid temples, the story of the friars, the thrilling tale of the pioneers, the orderly conquest of commerce, coupled with the hopes of an El Dorado where life can expand in this fragrant land of opportunity. It is indeed a permanent city and every building fits into the picture.”

Secretary McAdoo, President Wilson’s personal representative, lauded the Exposition’s emphasis on Latin America for helping to bring about “a closer union of all the nations and peoples of the Americas.”

A gigantic automobile parade along Broadway in the afternoon called attention to a Point Loma road race to be held January 9. Despite the competition offered by the parade, 15,120 people on the Exposition grounds had their first real chance to see what the Exposition was all about.

Opening day visitors quickly rented all 200 of the small wicker motor chairs or “electriquettes” available from a stand on the Isthmus and used them for whirlwind tours of the grounds. The electriquettes carried two or three persons and traveled at a top speed of three and one-half miles per hour.

Seven states had put up buildings for the San Diego Exposition: California, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Washington, Montana, and Kansas. Three of these states — Washington, Montana and Kansas — are not part of the Southwest, but Arizona, which is, declined to participate. The State of California did not put exhibits in its building. Instead, 28 out of a total of 58 California counties put exhibits in the Sacramento Valley Counties Building, the San Joaquin Valley Counties Building, the Kern and Tulare Counties Building, the Alameda and Santa Clara Counties Building, and the Southern California Counties Building.

Considering that the California counties also exhibited at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, as also did 28 states and territories of the United States and 22 foreign nations, the exhibit aspects of San Diego’s Exposition were not sensational.

The Exposition covered 640 acres surrounded by rose-trellised fences. Entrances were on the west across the Cabrillo Bridge, on the north at the back of the Isthmus, and on the east end of the main avenue, El Prado, for passengers of the San Diego Electric Railway. Guidebooks referred to the east as the south entrance. Automobile parking was available on payment of a fee at north and east entrances. The west entrance, leading across Cabrillo Bridge, was used by pedestrians, but automobiles with dignitaries were allowed in.

El Prado blended semitropical planting with Spanish, Moorish, Mexican, Italian and Persian architecture to create a vision seen before that time only in paintings of imaginary cities. Landscaping was more perfunctory around the state buildings on the south plateau.

The New Mexico Building attracted attention because its plain, sturdy massing was unlike the heavily-textured buildings on El Prado. This building was the second of three replicas of the Mission of San Estevan at Acoma, the first being a warehouse at Morley, Colorado and the third being the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe. The auditorium, or church-like portion of the New Mexico Building was intended to accommodate a series of paintings by Donald Beauregard illustrating the life of St. Francis of Assisi and the martyrdom of Franciscan priests in New Mexico. Beauregard’s death rendered this project impossible. The murals were ultimately completed by Kenneth Chapman and Carlos Vierra and were hung in the auditorium of the Santa Fe Museum of Fine Arts, built to look like the New Mexico Building in Balboa Park. A New Mexico Mission series painted by Karl Fleischer, and paintings by Ernest Blumenschein, Victor Higgins, Bert Phillips, Joseph Sharp and Walter Ufer were used to replace the Beauregard panels in San Diego.

The El Prado symphony of green vines and bright flowers climbing over soft white walls, of florid sculptured ornament around building openings, and of striped blue and orange draperies hanging from doors and windows delighted spectators. Red bougainvillea pranced along El Prado while purple bougainvillea danced in the Plaza de Panama. Clipped black acacias in front of buildings imposed order on the riotous blooms. Rose, clematis, jasmine and honeysuckle, growing inside the grass-covered patios of the Science and Education Building, entranced passers-by. Opposite, in a formal English garden, called unaccountably “Montezuma,” red geraniums, white marguerites, and multicolored columbines heightened the visitor’s pleasure.

Working at night, head nurseryman Paul Thiene supervised the planting of plants, shrubs, trees and vines. He made sure that their colors were complementary and that their growth was uniform. In case some of the plants failed to bloom, Thiene kept about 10,000 geraniums ready for replacement in the nursery.

Unlike buildings designed by Frank P. Allen, Jr., Bertram Goodhue kept his signature California Building and Fine Arts Building and the wings enclosing them bare of flowering plants. To Goodhue the shapes and volumes of buildings were more important than the plants that obscured them from view.

The scale of the San Diego Exposition was small and its atmosphere friendly. Though it was likely first-day visitors were too preoccupied to enjoy them, footpaths, shaded by acacia, pepper, and eucalyptus trees, wound behind buildings. Seats and ledges were within easy reach. Trees in Palm Canyon, near the west end of El Prado, grasses in Spanish Canyon, near the east end of El Prado, and flowers in formal and informal gardens, near the California, Fine Arts, Indian Arts, and Southern California Counties Buildings offered visitors contact with nature.

A wildflower bed running northeast from the California Building sparkled with yellow mustard, baby blue eyes, white forget-me-nots, purple lupines, and wild Canterbury Bells.

A Botanical Building, made of redwood lath and steel trusses painted to match the redwood, was dramatically recessed on the north side of El Prado. The vaulted main building was fronted by a white-stucco arcade with two Persian-style domes to mark entrances, and highlighted in Persian fashion by a reflecting lagoon. Bamboo, palm, aralia, and pitcher-shaped, insect-eating nepenthes grew inside the front, lath-enclosed structure and in the glass greenhouse in back.

An ornate Japanese temple with an elaborate hip and gable roof, east of the Botanical Building, was used as a tea house. It was bordered by a flowing stream with large carp swimming in it, a half-moon bridge, a bronze crane and stone lanterns, emerging from a background of cedar and wisteria.

At night the stunning daytime colors gave way to black and white chiaroscuro. Electric lights outlined the silhouette of the Spreckels Organ Pavilion. Along the main avenue, more than 1,000 lamps with pear-shaped globes on stately pillars, and bracket lamps and braziers in the arcades, gave the buildings a soft glow. The haunting Churrigueresque relief of the Prado buildings was at its best at night under a full moon.

A 2,500 ft. pleasure street, called “the Isthmus,” running from the formal gardens behind the Southern California Counties Building to the north gate, could have been called “The Cynosure,” for it was the primary goal of opening-day visitors. Most of its attractions were ready. These included a China Town, with an underground opium den where effigies in wax showed the horrors of addiction; a replica of a Pala gem mine; a ride called “The Toadstool,” consisting of a whirring disc on which few could keep their balance; another ride called “Climbing the Yelps,” which simulated a descent into an erupting volcano; a Ferris wheel; a roller coaster in Anfalulu Land, nearly 6,000 ft. in length and equipped with a sound apparatus that ground out “We Don’t Know Where We’re Going But We’re On Our Way”; a historic display called “The Story of the Missions”; an ostrich farm in a building modeled after an Egyptian pyramid; a motion picture studio where films of scenes along the Isthmus were made daily; a Hawaiian Village with the entrance in the shape of a volcano like Kilauea; and an aquarium presided over by King Neptune, consisting of tanks of ocean-filled water in one of which a helmeted diver rescued a waxen damsel from a sunken stateroom.

Concessions not ready on opening day, but ready by the end of the month, were a dance hall called “The Divided Dime,” where a couple could dance for five cents; a 250-ft. long replica of the Panama Canal with ships moving up and down in the locks; and a “War of the Worlds” fantasy in which New York City in the year 2000 was destroyed by Asians and Africans who arrived in battleships and airplanes.

About 300 Indians from Apache, Navajo, Supai, Tewa, and Tiwa tribes resided in replicas of tepees, mounds or pueblos, built by the Santa Fe Railway, near the north gate. The Indians wove rugs and blankets, shaped pottery, pounded silver and copper into jewelry and ornaments, performed ceremonial dances, and offered prayers to their gods from sunken kivas. Ever on the alert, critic Geddes Smith noted the steamer trunks and kitchen clocks inside the Indians’ primitive homes.

Besides living demonstrations of Indians, the Exposition offered living demonstrations of 500 U.S. Marines in a tent city on the brow of a hill south of the state buildings on the lower plateau, and of four troops of the First Cavalry, U.S. Army, in a model camp on the west slope of Florida Canyon, outside Exposition grounds. Marines and cavalrymen were getting settled on opening day and preparing themselves for the parades, drills and band concerts they would give throughout the year.

Some first-day visitors must have left their electriquettes long enough to look at indoor exhibits. If they did, they were rewarded for the 50 cents (adult) and 25 cents (children) admission they paid to enter the Exposition. Displays inside the California Building, just beyond the West Gate, documented the culture of the Maya Indians. In the central auditorium, huge palms provided a backdrop for reproductions of four stelae and two monoliths from Quirigua in Guatemala. Sculptured friezes by Jean Beman Smith and Sally James Farnham, and paintings of scenes from Maya life by Carlos Vierra, looked down from walls and balconies.

The Fine Arts Building, on the south side of the Plaza de California, offered American paintings by William Glackens, Robert Henri, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Joseph Sharp and John Sloan, exponents in various ways of American Impressionism, the Ashcan School of American realism, and the scenery around Taos, New Mexico. New York art critic Christian Brinton thought the paintings were inferior in design and feeling to the Indian pottery, rugs, baskets and utensils in the other buildings. Unbeknown to Brinton, many of the artists incorporated Indian subjects in their paintings.

On the lower floor of the Fine Arts Building, the Pioneer Society of San Diego exhibited an Indian raft made of tule and balsa, a large photographic view of San Diego in 1869, court records dating from 1850, and portraits of men and women connected with the early history of San Diego.

As one entered El Prado, the Science and Education Building on the north and the Indian Arts Building on the south, beyond the Montezuma Gardens, continued the anthropological themes introduced in the California Building. Exhibits in these buildings had been selected by Dr. Edgar L. Hewett, of the Archaeological Institute of America, and Dr. Ales Hrdlicka, of the U.S. National Museum, during trips they or scientists commissioned by them made to southeastern Europe, Siberia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Africa, Peru and Guatemala.

Ten models of precursors of present-day man by Belgian sculptor Louis Mascre, in the Science and Education Building, illustrated “The Evolution of Man.” Sets of 45 male and 45 females busts, cast from living models, portrayed man’s development from birth onward in supposedly “pure” white, Indian and black races. An exhibit of skulls from Peru showed Pre-Columbian surgery. Addressing a contemporary issue, panels, donated by child welfare organizations, advocated the prevention of infant mortality and the abolition of child labor.

The Indian Arts Building, as the name implied, concentrated on interpreting the life of American Indians. A series of diagrams depicted Indian symbolism; panels by Gerald Cassidy showed the habitations of Cliff Dwellers; and photographs by Roland W. Reed and Edward S. Curtis presented dramatic, complimentary views of the Indians.

The Plaza de Panama was the hub of the Panama-California Exposition. It extended south by means of an esplanade to the Plaza de los Estados, in front of the Organ Pavilion. On special occasions, such as the opening night ceremony, a sea of humanity filled the area. When it was not being used by dignitaries for speeches, by the armed services for drills, by acrobats and athletes for sports, by bands for concerts, by soldiers, sailors and civilians for dances, or by exhibitors for shows, the Plaza de Panama was filled with strolling musicians, guards dressed as Spanish grenadiers, ladies with bright parasols, children and adults feeding pigeons, and electriquettes going in all directions.

The Sacramento Valley Building occupied the place of honor at the head of the Plaza de Panama. It was a long, symmetrical, Italian-Renaissance building with a deep alcove, set above rows of steps and festooned with gay rococo ornament. While other buildings around the Plaza differed in elevation and style from the Sacramento Building, they made good neighbors.

By the time the visitor had reached the Plaza de Panama from the west, he had passed beyond the educational exhibits. The commercial, state and county exhibits that remained put their stress on practical matters.

The Kyosan Kai Company of Japan placed rare collections of cloisonne, chinaware, cabinets, tapestries and screens in the Foreign Arts Building on the southeast side of the Plaza de Panama. A gigantic case of carved cherry with inlaid wood in the center, containing finely carved ivories, was valued at $10,000. The same Company also operated a Chinese exhibit in the building, featuring bronzes, silks and paintings, and the Tea Pavilion and “The Streets of Joy” concession on the Isthmus where patrons enjoyed the scenery of Old Japan, admired women dressed in kimonos, listened to musicians play the samisen, and played games of chance.

Something was amiss in the exhibits in the Home Economy Building, across El Prado from the Foreign Arts Building. Except for a mention in the Guidebook, the exhibits were not described in newspapers. In contrast to the “arts” in the Foreign Arts Building, exhibits in the Home Economy Building featured the latest in sinks, stoves, vacuum cleaners and refrigerators. Curiously, in a building catering to women, one of the biggest exhibits was entitled “Cigars.”

The U.S. Navy, a major exhibitor in the Commerce and Industries Building, near the east end of El Prado, showed fieldpieces, Gatling guns, rifles, a collection of shells and machetes, diving suits, and models of the armored cruiser San Diego and the dreadnought North Dakota. The U.S. Mint, in the same building, displayed a currency machine that turned out engraved Exposition emblems in silk, and a coin machine that turned out thousands of metal souvenir Exposition coins.

Manufacturing companies put industrial exhibits in the Commerce and Industries Building and the Varied Industries and Food Products Building, on opposite sides of El Prado. Moreland Motor Truck Company in the Commerce and Industries Building showed how a new gasifier in its trucks could ignite a spray of distillate fuel and keep the engine going. In the Varied Industries and Food Products Building, Pioneer Paper Company subjected roofing paper to intense heat to illustrate its lasting qualities, Globe Mills Company baked bread, Genesee Pure Food Company packed products with the aid of machinery, and Towle Products Company made maple syrup and sugar inside a log cabin. Free samples given away by exhibitors ensured large crowds in front of displays.

New Mexico offered lectures and movies in the auditorium of its building and displayed gold ore and large blocks of meerschaum in its mineral exhibit. On the second floor, the newly established U.S. Forestry Service showed what it was doing to conserve forests. In the Utah Building, a bas-relief of the state weighing five tons and a depiction of an irrigation project fascinated visitors. A miniature oil well in the Kern and Tulare Counties Building extracted oil from the earth. Exhibits in other state and country buildings consisted of fruits and vegetables arranged in colorful piles and grain stored in glass-fronted bins or arched sheaves. The Southern California Counties exhibits were most like those of a country fair, with showcases of china painting, hemstitched aprons, an inlaid table made of 2,866 pieces of wood, cows made of creamery butter, and elephants made of English walnut trees, a five-acre Model Farm and bungalow, a Tractor Field and building, a Lipton Tea Plantation from Ceylon, and a five-acre International Harvester field, orchard and building bordered the Alameda. These displays of agricultural knowledge attempted to win converts to the back-to-the-land movement. Though the philosophy of the Little Landers of San Ysidro was being promoted, the Little Landers were not represented. Indeed the collapse of the Little Lander experiment provided evidence that contradicted the assumption that small subsistence farmers could become rich in an area where large agricultural land holdings were the rule rather than the exception.

The Cafe Cristobal at the entrance to the Alameda and the Alhambra Cafeteria at the entrance to the Isthmus were the Exposition’s main restaurants. The Cristobal was the Exposition’s social center where celebrities were feted and “society night” dances were held. Between courses patrons did the one-step and fox trot to the music of Professor E. C. Kammermeyer’s 10-piece orchestra. Over 2,000 people tried to get reservations for the opening night New Year’s Eve celebration. This created a problem as the cafe had seats for only 600. Somehow the cafe managed to hold and serve for an early dinner more than 1,000 beautifully gowned women, naval officers in full dress, and male guests in formal attire. Most of the diners left the cafe to attend the organ dedication at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, beginning at 9:00 p.m., and the inaugural ceremonies in the Plaza de Panama, beginning at 11:00 p.m.

The official banquet at the Cristobal on the evening of January 1 was for males only. Attendance was down to about 500. Simultaneously with the men’s banquet, about 350 women held their own meeting at the U.S. Grant Hotel in downtown San Diego. Here they entertained the wives of visiting celebrities after they had found out the Alhambra Cafeteria could not be adapted for such a function. Another 3,500 women, who were not invited, crowded the hotel lobby and the street outside. The men’s dinner was replete with camaraderie, toasting, long speeches, and the singing of an unauthorized version of “Tipperary” which ended: “It’s a long way to San Diego but we’re all right there.” The women, led by Mrs. Earl A. Garrettson, substituted short introductions, the singing of sentimental lyrics by talented vocalists, and the dancing of five pretty girls dressed as wood nymphs.

The Spanish-style Alhambra Cafeteria, designed by Max E. Parker, designer of many concession buildings, had a seating capacity of 1,200 and catered to those who wanted their meals quickly. Diners could view a rose-covered pergola and the citrus orchards on the west and the formal gardens of the Southern California Counties on the south.

The Exposition Board of Directors was reluctant to allow women representation in the direction of the Exposition. This obstinacy led Miss Alice Klauber to form the San Diego County Women’s Association and to notify the Board that if provision were not made for women during 1915, the Association would advertise the fact in every women’s club in the United States. Not surprisingly, the Board came around.

San Diego women wanted to provide rest rooms and comfort facilities for women and children, to protect single women from the perils of the city, and to entertain Exposition visitors. These concerns led to the development of several women-oriented rooms on the grounds. The Women’s Christian Temperance Union maintained a room for women in the Science and Education Building; the Young Women’s Christian Association a room in the Varied Industries Building; the Christian Science Church a room in the Commerce and Industries Building; and the Southern California Counties Committee a room in their building. Women frequently used rooms in the Model Bungalow for gatherings.

The two rooms at the Exposition that evoked the most comment were the rooms of the Daughters of the American Revolution — described in the San Diego Union as being in the upper balcony of the Arts and Crafts, or Indian Arts Building, and in the Los Angeles Times as being in the Fine Arts Building — and the Official Women’s Board Headquarters on the west side and upper balcony of the California Quadrangle. Being in a Spanish-Mission style building did not deter the DAR from converting their room into an American colonial sitting room. Under the supervision of Mrs. Horace B. Day, chapter members made seats, rugs, curtains, and rare antiques that looked as if they belonged in Williamsburg, Virginia. Members hoped their room would become the official reception room for visitors.

The DAR was doomed to disappointment for the most striking interior in the Exposition was in the room occupied by the Women’s Official Board, sequel to Alice Klauber’s Association. The success of this room was due to Miss Klauber. Using the colors of an old Indian rug, she painted the walls in shades of gray and black and used a persimmon red dye on hangings and cushions. She employed real persimmons, ripe pumpkins and French marigolds as motifs. A rosewood piano case in the room that had been converted into a handsome desk inspired a reporter to write: “It is safe to say that by the time the Exposition is over, there won’t be an old piano left in the west, they will all be writing desks.”

Under the direction of Mrs. George M. McKenzie, head of the social committee, two San Diego women acted as hostesses in the “Persimmon Room” every day of the year, including opening day when the Women’s Official Board extended its hospitality to Mrs. William G. McAdoo, wife of the Secretary of the Treasury and daughter of President Wilson.

The Women’s Board also maintained a silence room on the lower level of their headquarters. Here a nurse in charge watched over women resting on cots.

San Diego women did much to make the Exposition an endearing experience. Men made the buildings, but women decorated them. Alice Klauber oversaw the art exhibits and lectures, and Gertrude Gilbert, head of the Amphion Music Club, arranged for the appearance of concert artists.

One of the most distinctive features of an Exposition rich in distinctive features was the Organ Pavilion at the south end of the esplanade connecting to the Plaza de Panama. Like their father, Claus Spreckels, who in 1900 gave an outdoor Music Temple to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, John D. and Adolph B. Spreckels gave the Organ Pavilion in Balboa Park to “the people of San Diego.”

John D. Spreckels also hired Dr. Humphrey J. Stewart, a distinguished organist and composer, to give daily concerts throughout 1915. These concerts continued, at the expense of the Spreckels interests, until September 1, 1929.

Speaking to a reporter as he listened to the opening strains of “Adeste Fideles” during a practice session before the official 7:00 p.m. Exposition Opening, December 31, 1914, John D. Spreckels said his gift of the organ to San Diego was the finest achievement of his life.

The people who entered the grounds on New Year’s Eve, December 31, 1914, and opening day, January 1, 1915, had every reason to be proud. San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition of 1915 was not the world’s fair it had in 1909 set out to be; yet it had not become so diminished that its original idea was lost. The determined men and women who participated in the San Diego Exposition — the financiers who raised the money, the architects who designed and the workers who constructed the buildings, the gardeners who planted the grounds, the people from the counties, states and businesses who put up exhibits, the concessionaires on the Isthmus who provided fast-paced hilarity, and the people of San Diego and of the Southwest who attended the Exposition’s daily events — transformed the Exposition from a regional and transitory Fair into an event that has outlived the memory of many larger and wealthier expositions, and that has left a lasting mark on the Southwest.