Golden Gate International Exposition (1939–1940)

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San Francisco's rebirth after its 1906 earthquake and fire culminated in 1939 with the Golden Gate International Exposition. The fair celebrated the recent completion of two landmark bridges—the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which spans San Francisco Bay, and the Golden Gate Bridge, which crosses the strait at the entrance to the Bay. Still intent on capitalizing on boosterism, San Francisco started planning its third exposition in fifty years in 1934. The Bureau of International Exhibitions, however, refused to recognize the Golden Gate International Exposition, although it did endorse the 1939 New York World's Fair.

The setting for the fair was Treasure Island, an artificial 400-acre island built on the shoals near Yerba Buena Island between San Francisco and Oakland. The Works Progress Administration chipped in with 300,000 tons of boulders for a sea-wall that was filled with sand and silt dredged from the Bay. Treasure Island became accessible by automobile when the Bay Bridge was completed in 1936. The city was planning to use the island for an airport once the fair closed.

The fair opened on February 17, 1939, with the theme "A Pageant of the Pacific." Architect Arthur Brown, Jr., a beaux arts classicist who designed San Francisco's City Hall, designed the island's landscape and some of the buildings. Brown headed a panel of architects who decided on a blend of oriental and occidental styles that would symbolize the city's role linking East and West. Two massive Elephant Towers designed by Donald Macky flanked the entrance to the island. Ralph Stackpole's eighty-foot sculpture of the allegorical goddess Pacifica was the central emblem of peaceful Oriental trade. Lewis P. Hobart melded styles in his coral-colored, quasi-oriental, ninety-foot-tall Arch of Triumph in the Court of Flowers, with included a fountain called Rainbow Girl by O. C. Malmquist. George W. Kelham designed the Court of the Moon and Stars, which was topped by sculptor Ettore Cadorin's allegoric Evening Star. Timothy L. Pflueger's Federal Building featured forty-eight columns for the number of states. The fair also featured exhibitions of over $40 million worth of "educational" art, largely from Europe.

Attractions included the Pan-American or "China" Clipper, promising continuing trade with Asia. "The Cavalcade of the Golden West" and "America! Cavalcade of a Nation" provided historic pageantry. Site themes varied from South Sea Islands to Chinatown to the Old West. There was a scale model of San Francisco as it was predicted to appear in 1999 and dioramas of futuristic college campuses, vacation resorts, and industries.

The entertainment zone featured mechanical rides and numerous shows by such performers as Count Basie, Bing Crosby, Eddie Duchin, Benny Goodman, and the Folies Bergere from Paris. Esther Williams swam in Billy Rose's Aquacade. Sally Rand, the fan dancer, performed in her Nude Ranch. Military bands and roaming Mexican folk musicians played amid camels and rickshaws giving tourists rides.

Despite predictions of "California's greatest tourist season," the fair was a financial disaster, losing $4,166,000 in 1939. A court order forestalled bankruptcy, awarding creditors eighty-two cents on the dollar and permitting a second season. The fair closed in the red in September 1940, despite seventeen million visitors, most from the West. Stackpole's Pacifica fell to planned destruction six weeks after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. The U.S. Navy began using Treasure Island as a base during World War II and continued to occupy the site until 1997, when the Navy began the process of turning the island over to the control of the city of San Francisco.

See Also: NEW YORK WORLD'S FAIR (1939–1940).


Reinhardt, Richard. Treasure Island: San Francisco's Exposition Years. 1973.

"San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition, 1939–40." Donald G. Larson Collection on International Expositions and Fairs, 1851–1940. Henry Madden Library, California State University, Fresno. Available at:

Schnoebelen, Anne. Treasures: Splendid Survivors of the Golden Gate International Exposition. 2003. Available at:

Blanche M. G. Linden