125 Years Ago: Midwinter International Exposition in Golden Gate Park

By Jonathan Farrell

When visitors stroll around the Golden Gate Park Concourse, containing the de Young Museum, Japanese Tea Garden, California Academy of Sciences and the Spreckels Temple of Music (better known as “the Bandshell”), they might be surprised to learn that all of it was once part of a Midwinter International Exposition  125 years ago. 

Midwinter fair pic 1 8-19

The photo above is an elevated view looking east over the crowd at the opening day parade and ceremonies of the California Midwinter International Exposition, Jan. 27, 1894. Pictured are Bonet’s Electric Tower, Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, Mechanical Arts Building (on right). Photo by Isaiah West Taber. Photo courtesy of a private collector/Western Neighborhoods Project.

This knowledge is something that historian Woody LaBounty eagerly shared with the members of the Sunset Heights Association of Responsible People (SHARP) and the general public on June 24 at the SHARP meeting hall on Ninth Avenue in the Sunset District.

Most locals know that the more than 1,000 acres of Golden Gate Park was designed and built from the sand dunes of what was once referred to as “the outside lands.” But what is not as well known is the fact that the now stately and tourist-attracting concourse was once part of a grand and ambitious project for the Midwinter Expo. It was initially planned for 20 acres but then expanded to 160 acres. By the time construction of the expo was fully completed, it covered 200 acres. 

This greatly upset Golden Gate Park officials, like park Superintendent John McLaren and W.W. Stow, a San Francisco park commissioner. When Michael de Young, the owner and publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, proposed an exposition to rival that of Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition, Golden Gate Park had been established more than 25 years earlier. 

It had taken a lot of effort and planning just to get Golden Gate Park planted. McLaren, as LaBounty pointed out, was appalled at the idea of cutting down trees that were so painstakingly cultivated just for a temporary expo. 

In 1883, with more than $40,000 in pledges and funds – including $5,000 of his own money – de Young urged officials to approve an exposition. His goal was to show the world that California was the place to be with a celebration all its own. 

And, to make this expo even more appealing to people on the East Coast, they would have this grand exposition in the dead of winter to showcase one of the factors that attract people to the “golden West” the most – the mild climate. This is how the name “Midwinter International Exposition” emerged.  

Still, much of what de Young was trying to do was to address the issue of an economic downturn that had hit San Francisco and the rest of the nation at that time. As someone who had served on the board of directors for Chicago’s grand, two-year expo, de Young was more than enthusiastic to create another grandiose event in San Francisco. 

Despite brisk opposition and a lack of public funds available, de Young got the expo up and going in less than five months. He had help from fellow businessmen who raised money. Having city engineer Michael O’Shaughnessy, along with scores of workers, builders and artisans on his side was certainly a force to be reckoned with.  

Still, as LaBounty explained, “Not everything was ready. The electric tower was still a skeleton of steel and the electric fountain barely had its concrete forms finished. Many of the county and state buildings (representing all those who wanted to be a part of the expo) were still under construction and scaffolding covered the dome of the Horticulture and Agriculture Building.”

Much of what kept the momentum going was civic pride. Even common laborers who participated donated a day’s wages to the effort. What some critics called a “Mid-Winter Fake” was turning out to be a tremendous success that would change Golden Gate Park and the west side of the City forever. 

At the end of the expo’s run, the expo had more than 2 million visitors, 120 structures, more than 10 semi-anthropological and cultural exhibits that included a primitive version of a marine life park and dozens of amusements, including rides, shows, food and attractions to appeal to many tastes. 

While the expo was a success, then-park superintendent McLaren was not a fan. He wanted his park restored. He personally oversaw the dismantling of any structure that was still standing after the expo’s end. Fortunately, he allowed the Japanese Tea Garden, de Young Museum and Concourse to remain. 

To learn more about the history of Golden Gate Park, visit Woody La Bounty’s essays at http://www.outsidelands.org.

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