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 in a long line of world's fairs that had each been bestowed with equally superlative praise; but the focus in San Francisco was on how the Panama-Pacific differed from its predecessors.
The previous fairs all possessed specific commonalties between one another. For one, 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' founding of the New World and all that the New World has accomplished since then; much like the 1904 Louisiana Purchase International Exposition in St. Louis marked the 100th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's landmark purchase. Another aspect was the architecture of each fair that had intended to introduce a novel form of design to the world. These generally weren't an attempt to reproduce an already existing or preceding form, but an attempt to introduce a new aspect of structural art to the world.
The Columbian Exposition introduced the Parisian "Beaux-Arts" style covered with a white, stucco exterior that served as the root for the fair's nickname, "The White City" (Rose, "Columbian"). Lastly, the exhibits at each fair were an attempt to show the "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). Yet the organizers of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition focused on how their exposition was different. (MacDonald, par. 4).
In opposition to previous world's fair's celebration of the anniversary of an event, the San Francisco's Expositon commemorated a contemporaneous event that appealed so significantly to the Pacific region as 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 economically benefit in the commerce that would result from this achievement. The architecture also took a tangent from the course taken by America's 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 a history of civilization from the Orient, America's west and San Francisco. But the spiritualized "historical modern" architecture was the only representation that "history" had in the Exposition. "With their feet planted on the past, the designers of the Expositionů looked towards the future" (Macdonald, par. 5).
Newness 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 modern, 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. 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 had staged, could not hope to fragment. Nativist attitudes had permeated many aspects of American society, from the northern "Know Nothing" movement of the mid-nineteenth century that tried to limit to voting rights of immigrants to the Ku Klux Klan that terrorized former slaves and their families in the South following the Civil War. Footprints of such racism remained in the political and social heritage of some participants in San Francisco's Exposition.
So, 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 be 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, they hoped, much in the vein of Rep. McKinley. Unfortunately, due to current American attitudes, the Exposition displayed elements of xenophobia and provincialism vividly conflicted with the radiant cosmopolitanism that the Exposition's founders had planned.