During a recent visit to San Francisco I visited an interesting exhibition that regrouped the art that had hung at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Expo, and was curated again exactly 100 years later by the de Young Museum. The collection included prominent pieces by internationally significant artists such as Rodin and Cezanne, and was notable as the first American showing of emerging Italian Futurism and Austrian Expressionism.
The exhibition itself was made up of eleven temporary ‘Palaces’, interspersed with formal gardens and avenues, covering over 600 acres of former swamp land along the bay’s edge adjacent to the military Presidio. Buoyed by my enjoyment of the exhibition I travelled out to the bay to visit Bernard Maybeck’s ‘Palace of Fine Arts’, the only structure to survive from the exhibition, now aging gracefully as the design hits triple figures. In actuality I discovered that the original Palace (dominated by Maybeck’s large covered rotunda surrounded by water gardens) was merely a temporary mock-up of a classical ruin, framed in timber and finished in painted and plastered burlap and never intended for long-term survival. It was only saved by a group of passionate local residents who managed to stay the execution, and only was it finally rebuilt in concrete in the 1960s.
The visit reminded me of another exhibition I had seen the previous year slightly closer to home, commemorating the centenary of the Bristol 1914 International Expo, also known as ‘The White City’, a temporary village of tents on the Bedminster Downs below the Suspension bridge. As well as showcasing the might of the British Empire at its pinnacle, it contained music halls, circuses and rollercoasters, as well as a mock-up replica of Bristol’s medieval castle. The frivolity was short lived, and two weeks after War was declared in August 1915, the site was closed and requisitioned by the War Office, becoming what might have been Britain’s most fanciful and elaborate temporary barracks.
Sadly nothing survives of Bristol’s White City in the same way that Maybeck’s contribution was made permanent, but both exhibitions showcased well the somewhat sad optimism of two international naval cities on the eve of a war that would change them forever.