The Garden Railway is back at the Conservatory of Flowers and this year, they’re celebrating the centennial of the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
The 1915 fair covered 635 acres along the northern shore of the city in what is now known as the Marina District. The extravagant, 10 month long exposition commemorated the completion of the Panama Canal a year earlier, and exemplified San Francisco’s recovery from the devastation of the 1906 earthquake and fire, firmly cementing its reputation as a global city.
The Exposition was a showcase of the world’s products, history, cultures, technology and innovations. Legendary inventors like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Luther Burbank participated in the global Exposition. For many fair attendees, it was the first time they would see an airplane fly or hear music come from speakers.
The Conservatory’s Garden Railway exhibit pays homage with small scale replicas of buildings and exhibits from the PPIE. The centerpiece of the show is the replica Tower of Jewels, which sits in the center of the room and houses a souvenir photo booth (there is also a smaller replica along the rail line).
The original Tower of Jewels stood 43 stories high and was covered with over 100,000 cut glass Novagems loosely mounted on pins, allowing them to sparkle in the sunlight and under special lighting at night.
Along the railroad tracks in the exhibition are small replicas of other PPIE buildings, including the Palace of Horticulture which showcased innovations related to food and agriculture. And of course the iconic Palace of Fine Arts, which still looms large in the Marina District. The models were designed and built by Erika Frank, the Conservatory’s Volunteer Director.
Further down the railway line you’ll find examples of exhibits that showcased special products, regional or international specialties. Don’t miss Iowa’s Pile of Corn, a 40 foot tower of corn cobs, and a gazebo made entirely from soap sponsored by the Los Angeles Soap Company.
Some of the small scale replicas represent the carnival-like “Joy Zone” from the 1915 exposition, where creators were urged to make their facades as interesting as possible. You’ll find an Ostrich Farm, a coffee parlor from MJB Coffee (with a mysterious “Why?” on a coffee cup at the top), Orange Blossom Candies with a giant orange on the front, and a frosty London to South Pole building. The ice-encrusted building, which features a ship capsizing among ice rifts, commemorated Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition to Antarctica (1910-1913).
As in previous Garden Railways, sound plays a key role in the experience. Audio designer Andrew Roth assembled sounds including songs that were written for the original Exposition by greats like John Philip Sousa, recordings of President Teddy Roosevelt, and a re-enactment of the first (public) transcontinental phone call which was made from the fair.
There’s also fun for the kids, including a replica of the race track that covered parts of what is now Crissy Field during the Exposition. Children can press a button to move the race cars around the track.
Lau Hodges, Director of Exhibitions for the Conservatory of Flowers, used the book “San Francisco’s Jewel City” by Laura Ackley as the research bible for the exhibit. Ackley also lent photos and text from the book for the exhibit’s interpretive signage.
The Conservatory of Flowers is no stranger to the treasures of the Panama-Pacific Exposition. One of the Conservatory’s benches in the exhibit is from the original exposition, and in the adjoining room of the Conservatory is a massive urn that was housed in the Exposition’s Italian Pavilion. Among the plants themselves you’ll find a pygmy date palm from the PPIE that is still thriving 100 years later.
The Garden Railway: 1915 Pan Pacific exhibition opens Thursday and runs until Sunday, April 10, 2016 at the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park (open Tuesday through Sunday from 10am until 4pm).