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Golden Gate International Exposition

a celebration of two bridges, and the Pacific

Held in San Francisco from February 18 to October 29, 1939 and May 25 to September 29, 1940, the Golden Gate International Exposition was held in order to celebrate the city's two new bridges -- the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge (dedicated November 12, 1936) and the Golden Gate Bridge (dedicated May 27, 1937). The Exposition site was Treasure Island, a purpose-built island attached to Yerba Buena Island, where the Oakland and San Francisco spans of the Bay Bridge join. The site was accessed by a 49-mile Scenic Drive that started at the San Francisco City Hall and carried visitors past many of the city's most picturesque sites on their way to Treasure Island.

aerial view of the Golden Gate International Exposition
aerial view of the Golden Gate International Exposition

Initially planned to be a celebration of San Francisco's two new bridges, organizers expanded the Exposition's focus to include all nations surrounding the Pacific Ocean, with San Francisco as the "gateway." The theme of the Exposition was “A Pageant of the Pacific,” emphasizing the unity, heritage and melding of cultures that share the Pacific Ocean. The eclectic blend of Oriental, Occidental, and South Pacific art and cultural symbolism emphasized harmony and unity. The Elephant Towers at the west entrance blended Oriental design and Mayan architecture. The Fountain of Western Waters in the Court of Pacifica featured sculptures representing Asia, North America, the Pacific Islands and South America at its compass points. The 80-foot-tall statue Pacifica (below), emphasizing unity between Pacific nations, served as the symbol of the Exposition.


The Exposition skyline was dominated by the 400-foot-tall Tower of the Sun. Garden courts around the Tower were designed to showcase California's balmy weather, in contrast to that of New York City, which was hosting its own world's fair at the time. Business exhibits emphasized the speed and conveniences available in the twentieth century, while the Gayway provide a variety of amusements to visitors, the most popular of which was Sally Rand's Nude Ranch, and foreign pavilions tempted patrons to travel to exotic lands. The entire island was so well lit at night that it could be seen for more than 100 miles in every direction.

Golden Gate International Exposition at night
Golden Gate International Exposition at night

Held during the Great Depression, and in competition with the New York World's Fair, the Golden Gate International Exposition was not a financial success. Treasure Island was supposed to become the site of a new airport for San Francisco after the Expostion ended its run, but with war looming it was taken over by the War Department and used as a naval base from 1941 to 1997. In compensation, San Francisco was given land on the San Mateo County mudflats, where San Francisco International Airport still stands today. All of the buildings constructed for the Exposition were torn down after it ended, and only a few of the hundreds of sculptures and other artworks were saved and relocated to other parts of the city.

San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge
Sally Rand
New York World's Fair, 1939

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The Robinson Library >> Exhibitions, Trade Shows, World's Fairs, Etc.

This page was last updated on 07/08/2018.