Location: Golden Gate Park (centered on what would become the Music Concourse),
San Francisco, CA
Groundbreaking dedication: August 24, 1893
Opened: January 27, 1894
Closed: July 4, 1894
Attendance: 2.5 million
The California Midwinter International Exposition, which took place in Golden Gate Park in 1894 and drew over two million visitors, was the brainchild of San Francisco Chronicle publisher Michael de Young.
De Young served as the commissioner of the California Exhibits at Chicago’s World's Columbian Exposition (May 1, 1893-October 30, 1893), a massive and influential fair celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Western Hemisphere. Shortly after the opening of the Columbian exposition, de Young had the idea to relocate what he could to San Francisco for a follow-up fair.
The United States was suffering through an economic depression in 1893. De Young and his fellow organizers hoped to harness and build on the excitement of the Columbian Exposition to create jobs, attract visitors, and highlight California’s financial, industrial, and mercantile opportunities. These ambitions were reflected in the first proposed name for a San Francisco exposition: “The Commercial World’s Fair.” 1
Civic pride was another motivation. The United States had begun to focus on colonial opportunities and conquest across the Pacific Ocean, and San Francisco—still seen as an uncultivated frontier town by many on the East Coast—could use the exposition to shine as the country’s anointed “Imperial City by the Western Sea.” 2
In June 1893, the Chronicle published de Young’s idea and reported that by convening a quick conference with California capitalists and civic leaders in Chicago, the energetic publisher had already secured pledges amounting to over $40,000 for a San Francisco fair. 3
“Commercial World’s Fair” quickly gave way to “California Midwinter International Exposition,” a name that emphasized the state’s salubrious climate, so mild that a mostly outdoor fair could open while East Coast cities hunkered under January sleet and snow. Newspapers used more casual names to make the same point, including “Palm City” and “Sunset City.” Those more skeptical of the exposition’s hype called it the “Midwinter Fake.” 4
The choice of Golden Gate Park for the fair site was met with strenuous objections from park superintendent John McLaren. He was not alone. W.W. Stow, the park commission’s president, objected that trees cut down to make way for the fair would take a hundred years to return. “What is a tree?” de Young retorted. “What are a thousand trees compared to the benefits of the exposition?” 5
De Young’s attitude carried the day, and after proposing the use of twenty, then sixty acres of park space for the exposition, the final footprint eventually ballooned to 160 acres in and around an area called Concert Valley, just east of the new Stow Lake on Strawberry Hill.
A groundbreaking dedication took place on August 24, 1893—just seven weeks after de Young announced his plan. An estimated 60,000 people crowded the valley for the festivities, and to underscore the momentum and urgency, the ceremonies closed with union laborers marching out to start grading the site while the crowd sang "America." 6
The California Midwinter International Exposition opened five months later on January 27, 1894. In that time the site had been graded, fenced, and mostly landscaped. Water, sewage, rail and electric lines had been installed (electricity was generated onsite by dynamos displayed in one of the exposition halls). Some buildings, including ticket booths, were bought and reused from the Columbian fair, but a hundred new structures were erected, including fountains, amusement rides, and a 266-foot-tall steel tower. 7
Michael M. O’Shaughessy, who later served three decades as San Francisco’s chief engineer, created the fair’s landscape plan. He placed at its heart, between Golden Gate Park’s North and South Drives, an oval Grand Court of Honor, consisting of five large buildings dedicated to exposition administration, mechanical and liberal arts, fine arts, horticulture and agriculture, and manufacturing.
The Columbian Exposition had been called the “The White City,” for featuring neoclassical designs and Beaux Arts architecture. In contrast, Midwinter Fair architects were directed to have the Court of Honor reflect California’s history, or at least be “suggested by its climactic conditions.” The result was a fantastic and exotic riot of colorful turrets, domes, minarets, and pyramids. While the White City projected order, planning, and restraint, an idealized vision of Ancient Greece or Rome, Sunset City was color, exuberance, and exoticism, a setting for a tale from the Arabian Nights.
The Court of Honor buildings encircled a sunken plaza with two fountains along with the fair’s centerpiece, the “Electric Tower.” A third the height of Paris’ Eiffel Tower, the Electric Tower had three different viewing levels (a café on one) and at the top a searchlight so powerful one could reputedly read a newspaper at Third and Market Streets from its glow. The entire structure was strung with over three thousand incandescent light bulbs programmed to flash in alternating designs and patterns. 8
The rest of the fairgrounds held pagodas, castles, even a simulation of Hawaii’s Kīlauea volcano. Thirty-eight nations, thirty-six California counties, and five states plus the Arizona Territory had exhibits. The old world was represented in the form of Germany’s Heidelburg Castle, a Shakespearean-themed Tudor cottage, and the Vienna Prater, an approximation of that city’s pleasure grounds. Anthropological curiosity, colonial ambitions, and racist attitudes of the time were reflected by Eskimo, African, and Pacific Islander exhibits. Native performers, some topless, inhabited “villages” of wooden lean-tos, straw huts, and, in the Eskimo exhibit, plaster igloos. Authentic cultural customs and performances alternated with little more than vaudevillian inventions of what “pre-civilized” peoples were like.
A higher degree of authenticity and elegance made the Japanese Village one of the more popular exhibits. Its concessionaire, George Turner Marsh, was a dealer in Oriental furnishings and art. Guests enjoyed manicured gardens with ponds, a theater, and a tearoom—all behind a massive and beautiful wood gate from Marsh’s own estate in Mill Valley.
General admission to the exposition was fifty cents, although 40% of the fair’s total attendance got in free from various promotional campaigns. This didn’t hurt the bottom line, however, for there were plenty of opportunities for spending nickels and dimes once inside. Theaters, rides, and concession areas such as the Oriental Village’s Cairo Street (a curving alleyway and theater featuring camels, belly-dancers, and men with scimitars) cost anywhere from a dime to a quarter extra to visit.
One of the more popular extra attractions was the ’49 Mining Camp. Meant to recreate an early California mining town, complete with a painted backdrop of Mount Shasta, the camp had a stagecoach held up daily by bandits, gambling tables, a dance hall, saloon, and gold-panning sluices. This may have been the world’s first Wild West amusement zone, solidifying the myths that continued into twentieth century Hollywood westerns of self-made men pioneering the wilderness. Entrance fee was a quarter, but a ride on the stagecoach or a dance with a “black-eyed señorita” in the dance hall cost even more. 9
Each day at the fair featured dances, picnics, and concerts, but there were also rides (the Firth Wheel, Haunted Swing, and Scenic Railway), acrobat and animal shows (“Parnell the Man-Eating Lion” actually killed one of his trainers during the fair), and “Dante’s Inferno,” a scare exhibit one had to enter through the mouth of a golden dragon.
The California Midwinter International Fair officially closed on July 4, 1894, having fulfilled almost all of de Young’s promises. It turned a profit, created jobs, brought different and sometimes quarrelsome elements of the city together, and raised San Francisco’s profile nationally. 10
Most of the structures were removed by 1896, but the Fine Arts Building remained as the Memorial Museum, later named the de Young. The original pyramidal museum was dwarfed by an annex three times its size in the 1920s, and by 1928 had been demolished. The Cider Press and Roman Gladiator statues and the Doré Vase in front of the de Young are all survivors of the fair, while the two sphinxes that mark the entrance to the Fine Arts Building are replicas of the originals.
The Japanese Village stayed and was modified into the Japanese Tea Garden, with three generations of the Hagiwara family building it up and refining its vision. Athletic grounds created for the fair became the Big Rec ball fields. Another survivor: just outside the park on Lincoln Way, the Little Shamrock bar opened in 1893 to serve exposition workingmen and the following crowds attending the fair.
Midwinter Fair images
Barbara Berglund. "The Days of Old, the Days of Gold, the Days of '49: Identity, History, and memory at the California Midwinter International Exposition, 1894." Public Historian 25:4 (Fall 2003): 25-49.
Arthur Chandler and Marvin Nathan. The Fantastic Fair: the story of the California Midwinter International Exposition. St. Paul, Minnesota: Pogo Press, 1993.
Raymond H. Clary. The Making of Golden Gate Park, The Early Years: 1865-1906. San Francisco: Don't Call it Frisco Press, 1984.
William Lipsky. San Francisco's Midwinter Exposition. Chicago: Arcadia Press, 2002.
1. "We May Have a Fair," San Francisco Chronicle, June 1, 1893, 1.
2. The "Imperial City" title comes from Taliesin Evans, All About the Midwinter Fair San Francisco and Interesting Facts Concerning California (San Francisco: W.B. Bancroft & Co., 1894), 25. See Berglund, "The Days of Old..." for more on the fair's representation of imperial ambitions.
3. "Cash Talks Now," San Francisco Chronicle, June 12, 1893, 1.
4. Some have postulated that the "Sunset City" name for the fair was the origin of the Sunset District’s naming, but researcher Angus Macfarlane discovered that the use of “Sunset” for the land south of Golden Gate Park predated the fair.
5. San Francisco Call, July 14, 1893, 4.
6. "A Great Day for the Pacific Coast," San Francisco Chronicle, August 25, 1893, 1-2.
7. The planned opening was January 1, but heavy snows back east and in the Sierras delayed the arrival of exhibits.
8. Chandler and Nathan, The Fantastic Fair, 50.
9. Berglund, 36.
10. Chandler and Nathan, The Fantastic Fair, 77.
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