The 1915 World’s Fair and the City Today


On Wednesday, I had the privilege of joining Jay Turnbull (Page & Turnbull) and Mark L’Italien (EHDD) for a panel discussion at the California Historical Society on the “shadow” of the 1915 World’s Fair, as viewed from San Francisco today.

It was a great program– moderator John King (Urban Design Critic for the San Francisco Chronicle) asked thought-provoking questions, while a sold-out crowd likewise brought a range of inquiry to the discussion. Jay spoke eloquently about the “perfect storm” of forces that allowed for the exhibition’s triumph, including the shared architectural vocabulary and attitude toward place-making among the Fair’s architects. Mark observed that after several generations of timid architects and urban designers, we are now living in an era in which we are more comfortable making large-scale plans. There was a lot of back-and-forth on whether it would be possible for San Francisco to mobilize and create such an ambitious project today.

I believe that we could, and I think the recent Olympic bid points to how this might happen. I argued that there is real value in bringing the world together for events such as this, and the fact that social media has found a physical home in San Francisco suggests the importance of the city even in an increasingly virtual world.

Every city that puts on such an event is plagued by second-guessing its success until the doors open and close. I was amused to read in yesterday morning’s New York Times that Milan’s Expo is facing these same struggles in anticipation of its May 1st opening date. Chris von Eckartsberg and I will be attending the Expo in June, and will be blogging about it.

Another interesting topic discussed was the enduring memory of buildings. We are fortunate that the Palace of Fine Arts was reconstructed in permanent materials and exists today. But the majority of the fair’s buildings were temporary, and there are dramatic photos of the destruction at the Exposition’s end, some of which are included here:



Yet the memories of the Fair and its importance live on. Earlier in the day I drove around Candlestick Park which likewise is in the process of being demolished. A whole new portion of San Francisco will rise in its place, but my memories of going to Bat Days and watching the Giants and Sunday Niners games will always be connected to the site.



Hans Baldauf, AIA is a founding Principal of BCV Architects