Fantasy land in San Francisco

One of the most memorable features of the Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island in San Francisco was its color.  Lush gardens of beautiful flowers and clever lighting effects on buildings and fountains made an impact on more than one fairgoer at the time.

“Magic Carpet” and Elephant Towers

“Magic Carpet” flower display and Elephant Towers, San Francisco, 1939. Courtesy Bill Cotter –

Looking back on her experiences at the Fair in 1989, Lucille Crosby recalled, “The Fair was the most beautiful, romantic place in the world.  The lighting, the flowers, the way it was presented, everything.  It was like a fantasy land.”  Many of her contemporaries agreed, and their memories are captured in an oral history of Treasure Island called The San Francisco Fair: Treasure Island, 1939-1940, edited by Patricia F. Carpenter and Paul Totah.

What made Treasure Island so colorful?  According to the Almanac for Thirty-Niners compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration in the City of San Francisco, botanists had scoured the earth for unusual flowers and plants in the years leading up to the exposition.  The Almanac states on page 112 that “Horticultural plans called for planting 4,000 trees, 70,000 shrubs, and 700,000 flowering plants.”  The astounding variety of plants on display, as described by the Almanac, included “orchids, hibiscus, datura, rare silver trees, orange trees, and palms.”

Elephant Tower and Tower of the Sun at night

Elephant Tower and Tower of the Sun at night. From Album 4, Snap Shooting Around the Golden Gate International Exposition, The Bancroft Library. University of California, Berkeley.

Nighttime was also very colorful on Treasure Island.  Fair designers created a $1,000,000 program of illumination, featuring fluorescent tubes and black lights, as well as “ultra-violet floods, underwater lamps, translucent glass fabric pillars, and cylindrical lanterns 75 feet high” (Almanac).

This extravagant lighting design had an effect on Serge Lauper, another visitor to the Golden Gate International Exposition: “I never saw anything before or since that comes near the lighting they had there, the wonderful displays of light and water.  I think of the whole island as fountains” (The San Francisco Fair).

Why did fair designers value color so highly in their design for Treasure Island?  The Almanac argued that “The island’s colors … represent the first extensive application of chromotherapy — the science of health treatment by color usage.”  Perhaps they were trying to make fairgoers healthy. (As an aside, check out this article for a scientific analysis and history of chromotherapy).  Or, maybe they simply wanted to create a memorable sight — a “magic city of light, floating on the waters of the San Francisco Bay” (Almanac).  I’m not sure if people got healthier after being exposed to so much color, but they certainly remembered it.

While Treasure Island’s competing world’s fair in New York might have gotten more attention, some attendees of both fairs believed the San Francisco fair was ultimately more beautiful.  As Alice Zeisz reminisced in The San Francisco Fair, “Seeing the [New York] Fair was entirely different from working at ours.  The New York Fair was more elaborate.  But I don’t think the flowers were as nice, nor the lighting at night.”

If you want more information about or more views of the colors and lights of Treasure Island, follow the links below:

Lighting the Treasure Island Fair

Snap Shooting Around the Golden Gate International Exposition photo albums

Treasure Island photos in the Designing Tomorrow group photostream on Flickr

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One Response to Fantasy land in San Francisco

  1. Pingback: The Power of Speculation | Metropolis POV | Metropolis Magazine

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