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Horticultural and Agricultural Building at the 1894 Midwinter Fair

by Woody LaBounty
Apr 20, 2019

The Midwinter Fair’s Horticultural and Agricultural building, which stood on the north side of Golden Gate Park's Music Concourse, was the most “Californian” of the fair's five main halls, if not in style, than in its contents. While the Manufactures and Liberal Arts and Fine Arts buildings had extensive foreign exhibits, and the Mechanical Arts building featured exhibits from other states and national companies, the Horticultural building was primarily a showcase of what could be raised and harvested in the Golden State.

Samuel Newsom won the open competition to design the building and J. H. Wissinger the bid to construct it for $58,500. The official history of the fair had a hard time pinning down what style Newsom was going for: “This structure was, generally speaking, in the old California Mission style, though there was much in the general idea of the building which suggested both the Spanish and the Romanesque.”1 As a structure intended to feature growing things, it did have some organic and soft-edged design elements with domes, arches, round window openings, and sloping facade sections between the red clay tile rooflines.

Horticultural and Agricultural building across Music Concourse. Columbus statue on right., 1894 - A. Mongreni De Lassomm

Bas-relief figures in the style of the work of popular illustrator Kate Greenaway—cherubic maidens in Queen Anne costumes—decorated the entryway and exterior walls. Around the great glass center dome were long corridors for exhibits and a hall for talks, banquets, and concerts when the main Festival Hall was otherwise occupied. The main dome was the building’s most striking feature, especially when illuminated at night, even if it leaked terribly in the rain.2

Kate Greenaway-inspired figures from the facade of the Horticultural and Agricultural building at the California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park., 1894 - Official History of the Midwinter Fair

Professor Emory E. Smith of Stanford University was in charge of the Departments of Horticulture and Agriculture. Like the other department heads, he was thrown into the fire, appointed to his post at the end of November for a fair to begin on January 1st. While winter rains slowed progress on construction work, Smith’s department faced a particular challenge in finding engaging exhibits to fill the 400' by 200' Horticultural and Agricultural Building.

Most of the California counties intended to construct their own buildings for the fair, each trying to top the other in showcasing their fertile fields and bountiful orchards. There would even be two additional palaces, a joint Northern and Central California building and a Southern California county grouped building, filled with even more nuts, beans, grain, and limes.

The competition was keen. There was no end to imaginative ideas to showcase just the citrus production of the state. Sacramento County made a model of the state capital with oranges (“…the largest architectural feature represented by the piling up of citrus fruits”), while Solano County had an orange model of the state’s first capital in Benicia. Yuba County created a “Moorish Temple” of oranges and lemons; Placer County built a huge arch of oranges, lemons, and limes; Colusa County erected an obelisk and Shasta County formed a giant ball consisting of apples and oranges.3

[8252 Sacramento County Exhibit] Probably in the Northern and Central Counties Building, 1894 - Isaiah West Taber

In the Southern California Building, near the main Horticultural Building, a triumphal arch made of fifteen thousand oranges was topped by an elephant made of walnuts and stood beside a Ferris wheel of oranges (each of the sixteen cars full of oranges), and a pyramid made of, yes, oranges. Nearby loomed a 28-foot ear of corn, a 28-foot champagne bottle, a “mammoth tower of walnuts,” and a 23-foot-tall pagoda of beans. There was a bear made of prunes in the Colusa County section of the Northern and Central California Building with a Knight made of prunes in the Santa Clara County display.4 Cereals, grains, grasses, woods, and anything else growing in the state that could be harvested to some money-making purpose stuffed the halls of almost every fair building. How could the main Horticultural and Agricultural Building be more than a hall of the leftovers and lesser?

Interior of Southern California Building. Elephant made of walnuts, 28-foot champagne bottle made of bottles. [8052 Walnut Elephant from Los Angeles Co.], 1894 - Isaiah West Taber

Professor Smith responded by scheduling a robust program of events and presentations inside the Horticultural and Agricultural Building, creating a constant stream of traffic. The crowds were treated to daily lectures from Dr. W. S. Manning, Secretary of the Fruitarian Society of London, on the subject of “Fruit as Food,” and in rainy weather the Midwinter Fair band concerts were moved under the Horticultural building dome.5

The main hall was reserved for produce and flowers specifically entered for competition, which helped draw high quality exhibits. Special shows and competitions were arranged for wildflowers, fish, butter and cheese, honey, dried fruits and nuts, preserves, roses, and citrus and apple varieties which included the “most remarkable exhibit of oranges ever made in the world."6

Flower or May Day parade. Manufactures and Liberal Arts building in background during California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park., 1894 - DeYoung Collection

Smith decided on an interior arrangement of displays “rather unique in the history of Exhibition buildings,” with no long aisles, but rather a maze in which visitors navigated so that “wherever the eye rests something interesting will be seen.”7 In the end, fifteen of California’s 57 counties had exhibits in the Horticultural and Agricultural building: Fresno, Tulare, Kern, Santa Cruz, Inyo, Mendocino, Lake, Sonoma, Monterey, San Joaquin, Merced, Mariposa, Kings, and San Luis Obispo.

Directly under the main dome Fresno County erected a model of the Fresno County Court House—a dome under a dome—covered in oranges and lined with canned fruits, pampas plumes, and “an occasional life-size effigy of a jack rabbit.”8

Kings County had a railroad train model loaded with almonds and raisins, with the smoke from the locomotive made of county wool, and a clock made of dried peaches and prunes (which reportedly kept accurate time). San Luis Obispo County exhibited “mammoth vegetables for which she has long been famous,” as well as particularly grotesquely shaped vegetables, which “attracted a great deal of attention.” Farm machinery was also on display, with San Joaquin County exhibiting a combined header, harvester ad thresher. Kern County had an illuminated pyramid of jellies topped by a golden eagle under one of the smaller domes of the building.

Entrance to Horticultural and Agricultural building at the California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park with bas-relief artwork., 1894 - Official History of the Midwinter Fair

Lake County couldn’t seem to muster a great agricultural exhibit, but inside a booth made of madrone and roofed with sugar pine cones displayed stuffed birds and a large collection of “autumn leaves gathered months before and carefully preserved.” Santa Cruz also went beyond the fields of horticulture and agriculture to present a sort of county scavenger hunt, a collection of “leather, glue, sea mosses, shells, limestone and lime, and interesting exhibit of colored pebbles from the streams, displayed in water to preserve the color effects.” The San Francisco Chronicle did call the sea moss “perhaps better than any ever made before in this State.” Beside this motley collection lay bituminous rock with a sample section of pavement to show off road construction techniques.10

The California State Board of Horticulture had its own exhibit in the building with an overview of the main growing industries in the state as well as an “extensive collection of friendly and injurious insects.” The official history claimed it “attracted a great deal of attention on account of its economic interest to the ruralist.”11

Night view of Horticultural and Agricultural Building and Electric Tower with spotlight illuminating Drake's Cross., 1894 - Isaiah West Taber

While the Horticultural and Agricultural Building was almost completely devoted to California products, there were exceptions. In a fairly small area in the gallery Canada recycled the exhibit brought to the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893, a potpourri distillation of a very large dominion featuring grains, grasses, furs, and a collection of landscape paintings. Nearby on the same gallery Arizona’s official exhibit consisted of an extensive list of the products of the territory compiled by the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce. Montana showed off copper and some precious stones, while a few European nations found scattered spaces for small exhibits.12

In addition to competitions for best apples, oranges, nuts, cheeses, etc., the Department had flower competitions and rose shows, including a Flower Festival in May with floats similar to what would expect to see in the Pasadena Rose Parade. Also presented was the first Pacific Coast general exhibition of fish and fish products, with finny creatures frozen in blocks of ice beside “twines, nets, fishing tackles, rubber goods, and in fact almost everything connected with the fishing industry.”13

The San Francisco & North Pacific Railway sponsored in the Horticultural building a model fish hatchery, which raised from eggs fish as much as a foot in length, while South San Francisco’s Western Meat Company brought an immense refrigerator full of dozens of hanging cattle and sheep carcasses purported to stay fresh for the entire run of the fair.14

Even with the competition from the county buildings, enough exhibits filled the Horticultural and Agricultural Building that the state’s wine growing enterprises built their own annex on a rise behind the main. One entered the 75-by-50 foot “Palace of Viticulture” through an immense wine cask. The building had its own glass dome, statues of Bacchus and Mercury, and lots of hanging grape vines within and out. The wares of 54 exhibitors from the wine-growing regions filled the main section while a separate tasting room featured “witty and appropriate mottoes” inscribed on the walls in English, French, Spanish, and Italian. Close to five thousand bottles of California vintages for some 60,000 visitors were opened in the room over the course of the fair, a remarkable amount considering the wine palace did not open until April 7, 1894.15

The Palace of Wine building behind the Horticultural and Agricultural building at the California Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park. [826 The Viticultural Palace Cal. State Wine Exhibit], 1894 - Photograph by Isaiah West Taber

In all, the Department of Horticulture and Agriculture had 106 exhibitors and 50 who had selling privileges as concessionaires in the department. (pg 248) Smith managed them all with strict rules and restrictions and careful accounting of staff time and procedures. Many of his regulations were reasonable precautions in holding a giant exposition, such as the prohibition on smoking when fire was a real terror, while others have a vague subjectivity:

“Unseemly actions or boisterous language will not be allowed.”

“Obnoxious or unseemly displays, devices or methods will be promptly suppressed.”

At least this one is clear enough: “Persons detected in pilfering fruit or other articles will be dealt with to the full extent of the law.”16


1. The Official History of the California Midwinter International Exposition, (San Francisco: H. S. Crocker Company, 1894), pg. 50.

2. Ibid, pg. 245.

3. Ibid, pgs. 94–95.

4. Ibid, pgs. 96–100.

5. Ibid, pgs. 245-246.

6. Ibid, pg. 246.

7. “Palace of Horticulture and Agriculture,” San Francisco Examiner, January 28, 1894, pg. 34-35.

8. The Official History of the California Midwinter International Exposition, (San Francisco: H. S. Crocker Company, 1894), pg. 104.

9. Ibid, pgs. 105-106.

10. Ibid, pg. 105; “Seen on the Inside,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 19, 1894, pg. 8.

11. The Official History of the California Midwinter International Exposition, (San Francisco: H. S. Crocker Company, 1894), pg. 110.

12. Ibid, pg. 117.

13. Ibid, pg. 109.

14. Ibid, pg. 110.

15. Ibid, pgs. 53, 92, 246, 249.

16. Ibid, pg. 246.

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