W. B. McKinley, the United States Congressman from Champaign, Illinois, remarked after visiting the Panama-Pacific International Exposition that, "like all good expositions, (the Exposition) has been a great
means of instruction. The lasting impression it has left with me is that, taken as a whole, it is the most beautiful creation the hand of man ever put together" (Legacy, 110). San Francisco's Exposition followed a long line of world's fairs that had each seen equally superlative praise; but the intention of San Francisco's Expositon was on how it differed from its predecessors.
Previous fairs possessed specific
commonalties. Each fair celebrated some historical
achievement or event worthy of a world's fair. Chicago's World Columbian Exposition of 1893 was a commemoration of Christopher Columbus' discovery of the New World and acceleration of all that the New World had accomplished since. The 1904 Louisiana Purchase International Exposition in St. Louis marked the 100th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's landmark purchase. The architecture of each fair was intended to introduce a novel form of design to the world. These generally weren't attempts to reproduce an already existing form, but an attempt to introduce a new aspect of structural art to the world.
The Columbian Exposition introduced
the Parisian "Beaux-Arts" style in which a white, stucco exterior covered each building, giving birth to the fair's nickname, "The White City" (Rose, "Columbian"). Lastly, the exhibits at each fair were an attempt to show a "comprehensive view of the progress of civilization" and technology up to the time of the fair. Philadelphia's Centennial International Exhibition introduced the Corliss steam engine, which provided the power to run the innumerable exhibits in the fair's Machinery Hall (Schlereth, 1).
In contrast to previous world's fair's celebration of the anniversary of an event, San Francisco's Expositon commemorated a contemporaneous event, the opening of the Panama Canal. The many symbolisms that sprang from the "watershed" linking of two great oceans had an impact on the Exposition: the linking of the East and West, the triumph of man over nature and the collective opportunity for all nations of the globe to benefit economically from the commerce that would result. The architecture also deviated from the course taken by previous expositions. Instead of trying to create a new, unique form of architecture specifically for the event, the Exposition's designers created a unified group of buildings, courts, and gardens that represented forms from the Orient, America's west, and San Francisco. But the spiritualized "historical modern" architecture was the only representation of "history" in the Exposition. "With their feet planted on the past, the designers of the Expositionů looked towards the future" (Macdonald, par. 5).
Novelty abounded at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. New machines, new methods of production as well as new forms of thought all found a home in the various cavernous exhibit halls. By focusing on the contemporary, the Exposition intended to hightlight the emergence of the United States onto the international scene with the Panama Canal along with celebrating San Francisco's rising from the ashes of their "Great Earthquake" in 1906.
Multiculturalist ambitions made themeselves clear from the start. With the rebirth of San Francisco along the Golden Gate, the organizers of the Panama-Pacific sought to unite the world with commerce as its lynchpin. The fair in San Francisco intended to bridge cultural gaps amongst nations, hoping they would exchange ideas and customs with one another to ensure peace through familiarity.
Unfortunately, some of the methods Americans dealt with the United State's "new internationalism" defied the multicultural intentions of the Exposition.
The cultural tendencies of many Americans at the beginning of the twentieth century leaned towards an Anglo-Saxon mono-culturalism that, even a grand international event such as San Francisco staged, could not hope to fragment them. Nativist attitudes had permeated many aspects of American society, from the northern "Know Nothing" movement of the mid-nineteenth century that tried to limit the voting rights of immigrants to the Ku Klux Klan that terrorized former slaves and their families in the South. Footprints of such racism remained in the political and social heritage of some participants in San Francisco's Exposition.
As the curtain rose on the Panama-Pacific International Exposition early in 1915, the stage had been set for a great international exposition that had hoped to display a landmark confluence of cultures and nations. The creators of the Exposition had developed a cosmopolitan, "historically modern" form of architecture in a worldly city to celebrate the joining of the two halves of the globe for their event to amaze the world. Unfortunately, the Exposition displayed elements of xenophobia and provincialism which vividly conflicted with the radiant cosmopolitanism that the Exposition's founders had planned.