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Gold in the Sun, 1900-1919

CHAPTER TEN: A ‘Magic City’ Surprises Even Those Who Built It

President Woodrow Wilson, 2600 miles away, touched an electric button that turned on a light suspended by a balloon and bathed an area of three square miles in a glow in which the “Magic City” was visible for miles at sea. The guns of Fort Rosecrans and those of Navy cruisers in the harbor sounded in unison with the explosions of 1000 mines planted around the grounds to herald the opening of the Panama-California Exposition.

A fire works display atop the Spreckels Organ Pavilion was timed to coincide with the opening of the gates to an exhibit of a replica of the Panama Canal, from which emerged the prow of an imaginary ship labeled “1915” and then, outlined in flame, was the phrase “The Land Divided–the World United–San Diego the First Port of Call.” At a brief ceremony before the opening, conducted on the steps of the Sacramento Building which faced the main Plaza de Panama, D.C. Collier told his audience:

“We are here tonight to celebrate the culmination of five years of hard work, of meeting and defeating obstacles which have been flung in our way, and discouragements which seemed always a little greater than we could overcome.”

To Mayor O’Neall, the future of San Diego as the metropolis of the West seemed assured, on a foundation of geographical location, harbor, climate, soil, and the benefits sure to flow from the exposition itself. To George W. Marston, the beauty of the architecture of Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue was a treasure for a city to enjoy. Gov. Hiram Johnson was on hand to present to the citizens of San Diego the California Building and California Tower and they were accepted by G. Aubrey Davidson, president of the exposition. Formal ceremonies were conducted the next day, with Secretary of the Treasury William Gibbs McAdoo representing President Wilson and Count del Valle de Salazar representing King Alfonso XIII of Spain.

It was the first unified exposition held in the United States. It did not, as other fairs had done, seek to bring together as many varied products and dissimilar achievements of the world as possible, but in the words of Goodhue himself:

“At San Diego, the case was different. Though rapidly increasing in population, San Diego cannot yet be considered a great city…yet it did project and did carry out a smaller exhibition, not a World’s Fair in the strictest sense of the term, but rather one that was cultural and regional. It endeavored to reflect the past of that great section of the country of which it forms the natural seaport, and to obtain insofar as this was possible, something of the effect of the old Spanish and Mission days and thus to link the spirit of the old seekers of the fabled Eldorado with that of the Twentieth Century.”

As had John Nolen and Samuel Parsons before him, Goodhue believed that Southern California’s assets were climate and location, and that these attractions were limited to a very few areas of the world, the Riviera, the bays of Naples and Salerno, some of the Greek islands, certain mountain valleys of India, the Vega of Granada and the parallel one of Shiraz. He wrote:

“Yet…except for the charm that comes from works of man softened by centuries of use, the glamour given by ages of history, the tender respect always commanded by things that are venerable–in Southern California may be found every attraction possessed by those areas.”

The population of the city at the opening of the exposition was estimated at about 74,000. This had not been enough to command large national or international participation. No foreign countries were represented by buildings, though there were many trade craft and archeological exhibits. Only six other states, Washington, Montana, Utah, Kansas, New Mexico and Nevada, participated. Arizona had not gotten around to it in time. But the representation did comprise most of the West. Larger buildings had combined exhibits from Sacramento Valley Counties, San Joaquin Valley Counties, Fern and Tulare Counties and Southern California Counties.

The success of the exposition was not in its exhibits but in its buildings and in the gardens and park grounds. In many instances its buildings suggested the architecture or distinguishing feature of historic structures in Spain, Italy and Mexico. However, many of the buildings had been reduced in scale from original plans because of cost and lack of anticipated financial participation. In some instances patios were eliminated or left unfinished. In the early years of planning and building, 50,000 trees and shrubs had been set out and when the opening approached, a million and a half more specimens as well as flowering plants were placed in harmony with the buildings and their feeling of serenity and beauty.

The central and dominating group of buildings were the permanent structures which enclosed the Plaza de California and which included the California Tower. But the plan as a whole was designed to suggest a typical Spanish city with its tree-shaded Prado and lines of stately buildings and frequent open plazas. The Prado purposely was made narrow to help create the atmosphere of 17th Century life before the advent of the steam engine and the automobile. The principal approach was from the west over the bridge spanning Cabrillo Canyon. It was 900 feet long, 120 feet high and forty feet wide. The graceful arches were not true arches but a series of connected “T” structures. In a later book of tributes to Goodhue, George Ellery Hale, after whom the famed Hale telescope on Mount Palomar was named, and who had urged the employment of Goodhue as architect for the California Institute of Technology, wrote:

“I discovered Bertram Goodhue when I first walked across the great causeway that leads to the San Diego Exposition. This superb creation, so Spanish in feeling-yet so rarely equaled in Spain, with its stately approach, its walls springing from the hillside, its welcoming gateway, its soaring tower, and its resplendent dome, foretelling all the southernly privacy and charm of the courts that live beyond…reveal…his constructive imagination, overflowing with the vision of the Orient and South, impatient of rule and convention, free at last to utilize without restraint the exotic setting of a one-time Spanish colony.”

What Goodhue and his assistant Winslow had accomplished was to be recorded by Clarence S. Stein in a small book published in 1916 on The Architecture and the Gardens of the San Diego Exposition. He wrote:

“The architectural styles of Spain in all its various periods have been strongly marked by characteristics that differentiate them from those of Italy and France. While we find in Spain both Classic and Gothic work, whose general forms are obviously derived from these other nations, the manner of their use is characteristically national. The Oriental heritage, due to the long sojourn of the Moors in Spain, had a profound influence on the taste of the people. From these Oriental invaders the Spaniards derived the great surfaces of blank wall with occasional spots of luxuriant ornament that characterize nearly all their work. From them also comes the love of bright color shown in the use of polychrome tiles and rich fabrics, and in the painting and gilding of sculpture and ornamental motifs.”

But the delicate Plateresque style of fine ornamentation, in the manner of the ancient silversmiths, which was to be found on so many historic and magnificent Spanish buildings, practically had been abandoned at the time of the erection of the great cathedrals and public buildings in Mexico. It was replaced with a baroque which in Mexico became even more ornate and more exuberant. Stein continues:

“A truly great architecture grew up in Mexico after the time of the Conquest of Cortez. It was probably not on account of any lack of desire on the part of the early Fathers that this architecture was not transplanted to California an the days of the Missions. It is apparent in their simple crude touches of ornament, that the Padres were trying to simulate the richness of the churches of Mexico and Puebla…they were pitifully limited, however, not only in wealth but also in the skill of the workmen they had at hand.

During three centuries Aztec and Mexico artisans developed a style of artistic workmanship that combined not only the crowded–almost Oriental–splendor of Aztec carving, but much of the best of the artistic inheritance of the Spanish masters.”

The advanced baroque style was the basis of Mexican-Spanish Colonial architecture and was identified as Churrigueresque, after the Churriguera architectural family of the old city of Salamanca, Spain. There were many who called it depraved in the richness and elaborateness of design and execution, but in a sun-drenched country it provided an interplay of light and shadow contrasted with the plain surfaces of walls and towers.

As with all fairs, there was an amusement area which was located on an arm of the mesa stretching to the north, and it featured an Indian Village similar to that of the Pueblo of Taos, New Mexico. Constructed by the Santa Fe Railway, it was known as the Painted Desert and was a striking recreation of an ancient pueblo.

To the south from the central Plaza de Panama was the Spreckels Organ Pavilion, also a permanent structure. The peri-style of the pavilion was a colonnade in the Corinthian style which provided a dramatic and sweeping view of the city, bay, ocean and Mexico that all of the early planners of Balboa Park had so urged be protected.

One of the outstanding and permanent exhibits was “The Story of Man Through the Ages.” In 1912 Dr. Edgar L. Hewett, director of the School of American Archeology in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Collier had conceived the idea of a major cultural display and enlisted the aid of Dr. Alés Hrdlicka of the Smithsonian Institution. The exposition appropriated $100,000. Data was assembled from all over the world and an expedition was sent to Peru to collect osteological material illustrating prehistoric pathology and surgery of the American aborigines. A large group of sculpture by M. Mascré of Belgium was the result. Dr. Hewett himself was interested in the Mayan civilization of Central America and sent another expedition to Guatemala where casts were made of four steles and two other massive pieces. These were set up in the rotunda of the California Building. Ten other inscriptions and reliefs of ancient Guatemalan and Yucatan civilization were made and displayed.

In scope San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition did not compare with San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific Exposition which opened on February 20 and which attracted exhibits from twenty-three foreign nations, including six from Latin America, and from twenty states of the union. Its fair, with an ultimate cost of nearly $25,000,000, was done in the grand manner of traditional world fairs as befitting a city of more than a half million population and which, despite the rapid growth of Los Angeles, still dominated the financial, economic and cultural life of the Pacific Coast.

It was some time before the word of the San Diego exposition spread across the country. The early attendance figures were disappointing. The average daily attendance in the first month was 4783. In early February it dropped to 4360. It was recalled that Mayor O’Neall had promised that if elected, and regardless of the exposition, he would bring about industrial development to assure the future of the city. San Diego did have many visitors, though not as many as had been expected, and they brought no new businesses nor smokestacks. The improvements to the harbor, on which the trade through the Panama Canal was to depend also had lagged behind schedule and Edwin Capps had been fired as chief engineer.

Capps vowed vengeance and entered the race for mayor, but the influence of Collier, the director-general of the exposition, was thrown behind John S. Ackerman. In a statement, Collier pointed out:

“We feel that Mr. O’Neall, with the best of intentions in the world, has been lamentably lacking in execution. It is not through any fault of intention, perhaps, but it is a fact nevertheless, that little has been accomplished, and that the opportunity for change in the mayor’s office is to be welcomed. The time is ripe for a new business mayor…If we want factories for San Diego, if we want great improvements of other sorts, if we want a metropolis, in brief, Ackerman is the man we should elect.”

O’Neall withdrew. However, Ackerman failed of election. Capps, long an advocate of promoting the tourist business though it was he who had planned the waterfront development which violated the original Nolen Plan of beautification, became mayor of San Diego for the second time. By March, however, exposition attendance was improving and Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane, while a guest at a luncheon at the exposition, said:

“You have done something here that the whole world will know about and before very long you are to have a larger number of people in summer than in winter. They are to learn by personal experience how equable this climate is and that the Pacific Coast has a summer climate that has not its equal on the Atlantic.”

Soon afterward came Vice President Thomas Riley Marshall, who had been President Wilson’s representative at the opening of the San Francisco Fair, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, assistant Secretary of the Navy, for his second visit to the grounds. Roosevelt took the occasion to announce that a Naval dirigible base probably would be established at San Diego and that the United States’ main battleship fleet soon would pass through the Panama Canal and San Diego would be the first port of call.

While attendance perhaps was not all that had been hoped for, the exposition was beginning to return dividends of another kind. Present at the time were the Second Battalion of the Fourth Regiment of United States Marines, under the command of Col. Joseph H. Pendleton, and a squadron of the First Cavalry of the United States Army. At a luncheon in the exposition’s Cristobal Cafe, Col. Pendleton told San Diego’s representative in Congress, William Kettner, that he had been advocating a site in San Diego for location of a second Marine Advance Base. In his memoirs Kettner says that it was he who first suggested a site in the tidelands area known as “Dutch Flats,” along the north shore of the bay. When the commandant of the Marine Corps, Maj. Gen. George Barnett, visited the exposition, Pendleton took the matter up with him and won his support. They soon had the help of Roosevelt who already had become enthusiastic about San Diego and believed that the Naval Training Center should be moved there from Goat Island in San Francisco Bay.

By April, Davidson, as president, was able to announce that the exposition had made a profit of $40,000 in the first three months, and effectively quieted rumors that it might be closed.

The Saturday Evening Post delivered the national recognition that San Diego so needed. In editorial, it stated:

“Speaking of expositions, we hope that none of those who are attracted to the coast by the fair at San Francisco will miss the one at San Diego. The buildings there are beautiful, the setting is lovely…you can fall in love with it…the note of San Diego’s fair is simply charm.”

But to Dick Ferris, the discharged publicist who had sought to capitalize on the revolution in Baja California, it was a “grand show for the highbrows.”

San Diegans were moving quickly to capitalize on the exposition and to make sure that the city became the terminus of the proposed Southern auto route to the Pacific Coast. Congress was expected to appropriate huge sums for participation with the various states in creating a national highway system and Los Angeles was advocating a route through Phoenix and crossing the Colorado River at Blythe instead of going through Tucson and crossing the river at Yuma.

The State of California had agreed to share in the costs of bridging the Colorado at Yuma with Arizona and the federal government but at the last moment Gov. Johnson abruptly withdrew his state’s support, on the contention that the bridge would cost more than anticipated. Angered San Diegans raised $25,000 through donations to meet the state’s promised share of the cost and the bridge was completed. Later, they were reimbursed by the State Legislature.

On this side of the bridge, however, were the sand hills. They required a detour of forty-six miles on the route from Yuma to San Diego and often were the reason for the diversion of auto traffic to Los Angeles by way of the Salton Sea and San Bernardino. A number of years before roads within Imperial Valley had been laid with brush and it was suggested that the same technique could be used on the sand hills, by laying a road of planks. Again this required voluntary action and contributions. Supervisor Ed Boyd of Imperial County diverted funds available in his road district and obtained volunteer labor, and Fletcher and other interested San Diegans raised $17,000 and residents of Yuma $3,000 to pay for the lumber. The first spike was driven on February 13. Within three weeks a flimsy, two-track road of planks had been laid for six miles across the rolling, yellow sand. It was made of two-by-twelve planks nailed to cross ties which provided two tracks each twenty-five inches wide. It required a steady hand at the wheel to keep an auto on the tracks in the face of adverse weather and terrain.

It demonstrated, however, that a modern road could successfully be built across shifting sand hills. When the new bridge at Yuma was dedicated on May 24, San Diego and Imperial Counties had a usable route running directly from Yuma to the mountains, to press their bid for inclusion in the proposed Southern highway route.

May brought the largest exposition attendance since the opening, 179,440, and an average daily attendance of 5800. By July the total attendance was approaching the million mark. A visit by William Jennings Bryan was followed by one by Theodore Roosevelt, the former president, who interspersed criticisms of the foreign policies of President Wilson with praise for San Diego and its exposition. In an address to a nighttime crowd at the Organ Pavilion on July 27, he said:

“We would not be here today had peace been bought at any price…the building of the canal to make a short route between the Atlantic and Pacific had been talked about for centuries, or ever since Balboa discovered the Pacific. If we had continued the conversations, you in San Diego would not this evening be holding an exposition.”

He said that San Diegans had created a beautiful exposition in a place made beautiful by nature:

“It is literally an astounding feat for a city which we hope in the lifetime of you present will reach a half million population, but which doesn’t quite come up to that mark now. It is so beautiful that I wish to make an earnest plea…I hope that not only will you keep these buildings running for another year but you will keep these buildings of rare, phenomenal taste and beauty permanently…I hope that you of San Diego whose city is just entering on its great period of development will recognize what so many old communities have failed to recognize; that beauty is not only well worth while for its own sake, but that it is valuable commercially.”

Then, as a president who fought the trusts and advocated conservation and the public development of the arid West, he warned San Diego that its waterfront was an asset to be treasured:

“Keep your waterfront and develop it that it may add to the beauty of your city…and do not let a number of private individuals usurp it and make it hideous with building and then force your children to pay them an exorbitant sum to get rid of the ugliness they have created.”

The next day was an important one in the naval history of the community. The first battleship squadron ever to enter the harbor, comprised of the U.S.S. Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin, dropped anchor in man-o’-war fashion, bringing the first, second and third classes of midshipmen from the United States Naval Academy, on the first such visit to the Pacific Coast, and they were reviewed by Roosevelt in Plaza de Panama.

Roosevelt’s suggestion that the park buildings be retained had not entered public discussion, though with the arrival of summer tourists, who swelled exposition attendance to 229,604 in August, there was considerable discussion about extending the fair for another year. The fair at San Francisco was due to close after a year of operation and it was thought that some of the national and foreign exhibits could be brought to San Diego.

The principal buildings, other than those of the California quadrangle, were considered of temporary construction and even their creators had no illusions about their permanency. As Goodhue himself wrote:

“It must be remembered that exposition architecture differs from that of our everyday world in being essentially of that fabric of a dream–not to endure but to produce a merely temporary effect. It should provide, after the fashion that stage scenery provides, illusion rather than reality.”

The designs of the bridge, the California State Building, the California Tower and the Fine Arts Building were intended to express permanence, and the gardens, avenues, pathways, pools and watercourses had been laid out so that when the other sites were cleared of the temporary structures, the whole could easily be brought into a general park design.

Emily Post in Collier’s Magazine wrote vividly of her impressions:

“The composite impression of it is a garden of dense shiny green in great mass and profusion against low…buildings of gray white, no color except gray and green until you come into the central plaza filled with pigeons as in St. Mark’s in Venice, and see a blaze of orange-and-blue striped awnings, stripes nearly a foot wide…In curtains hanging behind the balustrade of another building just around the corner the same vivid sweep of blue repeats again…the San Diego Exposition was pure delight. Its simplicity and faultless harmony of color brought out all its values startingly.”

On September 16, former President Taft addressed a large audience at the Spreckels Organ Pavilion and recalled his long familiarity with San Diego, where his father, mother and sister had lived for some time. Though he did not directly allude to the circumstances in which Congress had failed to approve an invitation to Latin American countries to participate in the exposition, Taft did say:

“You may feel great satisfaction that you have had courage in the face of all the obstacles that have presented themselves in the creation of this beautiful city, that you had nerved yourself to go on, and have vindicated yourselves before the world against what we may call ill judged criticism.”

By this time the interest of Los Angeles in San Diego’s exposition had become considerable, as it was drawing southward the Eastern and Midwestern visitors who had come to see the San Francisco fair. Forgotten for the time were old rivalries that had found San Diego bested at every turn by the commercial ambitions of its larger neighbor. In October a hundred prominent Los Angeles citizens, among them Harrison Gray Otis of the Los Angeles Times, met with San Diego exposition officials and pledged to raise $150,000 as a contribution to assure its continuation for another year. Guy Barham, publisher of the Los Angeles Herald, said:

“We all agree that this is a big thing for Southern California and ought to be done. Then let’s get in there with that old-time California spirit and do it. I’ve heard enough to say to these San Diego men: “Go back and tell the people of San Diego that the exposition goes on for another year.” “

It was William Randolph Hearst, the publisher, who was instrumental in seeing that the Liberty Bell was sent to the San Diego exposition in November, as he had helped to defray the expense of bringing it to the Pacific Coast and the San Francisco fair. He assured Davidson that he was so impressed with the exposition his newspapers would do everything possible to publicize it.

To stimulate interest in driving to the exposition over the Southern route, following the building of the bridge across the Colorado River and the plank road over the sand hills, but primarily to emphasize San Diego’s campaign to be the terminus of a Southern national highway planned under anticipated congressional appropriations, a cross-country auto tour was organized by the Cabrillo Commercial Club. Ed Fletcher warned that as far as federal funds were concerned, San Francisco’s Lincoln Highway Association might get there “first with the most” if San Diego did not act quickly. An auto bearing Fletcher, Wilbur Hall, a magazine writer, and William G. Gross, a former actor after whom Grossmont was named, and with Harry Taylor as driver, left San Diego on November 2. While Fletcher did not make the entire journey, the car arrived in Washington, D.C., after twenty-three and a half days, for an average of 133 miles a day. They carried a message of the importance of a national highway from New York to San Diego by way of Washington, El Paso, Phoenix and Yuma. That they had crossed the country at the approach of winter, and had experienced no difficulties, told its own story to the nation’s capital.

The future, though, was uncertain. The war in Europe was rising in intensity. The Panama Canal was not yet experiencing a heavy commercial traffic, because of continuing physical problems. In San Diego, many of those who had signed pledges for exposition stock had defaulted and legal action was begun to collect more than $200,000. The average monthly attendance had never come up to expectation, though the total attendance for 1915 was to reach almost 2,000,000. But by December the books had been balanced, all operating debts paid, and with the assurance of many new exhibits from San Francisco and the financial help of Los Angeles, a decision was made to continue the fair through 1916. The increasing possibility of United States involvement in the war was having an effect on travel and then, even before the 1916 fair had hardly gotten under way, nature took a hand and lashed San Diego and Southern California with prolonged storms of tremendous proportions.

And out of the storms came one of the most enduring stories of the many bizzare happenings of a Southern California whose eternal sunshine encouraged the experimenter in nature as well as attracting the faddist, the cultist and the health seeker.