by Phoebe S.K. Young

Thinking like an empire

From Boom Spring 2015, Vol 5, No 1

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt of Phoebe S.K. Young’s essay “To Show What Will Be By What Has Been” from our Spring 2015 issue. 

Most visitors to San Diego’s Panama-California Exposition—the southern counterpoint to San Francisco’s world’s fair in 1915—entered by crossing the Puente de Cabrillo. The high, arcaded bridge carried fairgoers over a small canyon toward the edge of a mesa on which the exposition’s miniature city seemed to float. At the end stood the California Building, its striking blue-domed roof and tower an echo of the Giralda in Seville. The richly ornamented entranceway featured a mash-up of monarchs, sailors, and missionaries made in plaster to look like marble: a youthful Padre Junípero Serra with the shield of the United States above his head; Charles III of Spain; Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first Spaniard to see San Diego harbor; Gaspar de Portola, first Spanish governor of California; and English navigator George Vancouver, among others.

In dedicating the California Building on the exposition’s opening night, leading local retailer George White Marston nominated this unlikely squad to serve as guardians of “the past and present of California’s life…true symbols of her glowing history and her wonderful today.”1 Promoters of San Diego’s fair had been deploying exactly this historical logic throughout the five-year process that brought the exposition to life. In the words of its head publicist, the philosophy behind it all was “to show what will be by what has been.”2

For the boosters and business leaders of San Diego, this was more than just a slogan to burnish San Diego’s Spanish legacy. They felt themselves poised atop their own historical fulcrum, recalling the century since the end of the Spanish colonial era, and projecting their city as a global leader in the century to come. The hopeful link the local elite drew between California’s past, present, and future was simple: empire.3 City leaders saw themselves as inheritors of Spain’s colonial empire and as the critical link to a new American empire at the intersection of Latin America and the Pacific. They hoped San Diego would in turn spearhead an American empire that now stretched across the Pacific to the Philippines.

To set the stage for their vision of San Diego’s role in this imperial future—one that promised enormous economic and strategic military opportunities courtesy of the newly opened Panama Canal—fairgoers had to be made to understand the history that brought them to this “wonderful today.” The exposition pulled visitors through a timeline of human progress and conquest, measuring the distance from a supposedly primitive nonwhite past and a romantic Spanish interlude to a modern Anglo empire of technological power. This embellished and distorted version of history on display at the exposition continues to have a profound effect on how Californians understand the state’s past and the place they live in today.

Entering the California Building, fairgoers found themselves at the very beginning of the timeline. They encountered a display called The Science of Man, trumpeted as a “never-before attempted ethnological and archaeological exhibit” that would unveil a major new piece of the puzzle of human evolution.4 Mounted by Aleš Hrdlička, a physical anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, the exhibit guided visitors to discover “proof” of a natural hierarchy within the human race—the intended conclusion being that white Americans were naturally superior to other “primitive” races. To make his case, Hrdlička meticulously arranged human and animal skulls collected from five continents according to detailed measurements of cranial capacity. Though later recognized as an erroneous signifier of intellectual ability, in 1915 craniometry asserted scientific authority to classify skulls from primitive (African to Asian and Native American) to advanced (European and American).5 By aligning race with evolutionary progress, the exposition sought to establish a benchmark for its broader historical narrative that led inexorably toward an American empire in the Pacific, which they hoped would run through San Diego.

The California Building’s architecture and decoration reinforced these notions of progress and empire. Under the dome, murals depicted the European discovery of America and the conquest of the West in glorious terms. Hrdlička’s skulls and the primitive human past they sought to portray faded away as visitors walked out onto the sunlit Prado, lined with ornate, gleaming white Spanish colonial buildings. The architecture composed a city of “tiled domes and fantastic towers, archways from which hang old mission bells,…a fountain plashing, a caballero leaning lazily against the wall…, or the troupe of Spanish dancing girls whose bright colored skirts are awhirl to the hum of guitar and the click of the castanet.”6 Played out before visitors’ eyes and ears, this romantic version of California’s past played a key role in the exposition’s storyline.

The fair’s Spanish fantasy simultaneously celebrated the arrival of European civilization in California and marked its picturesque, old-world elements as part of a bygone world. The Spanish theme went beyond a nod to local history. Local boosters and Boston architect Bertram Goodhue ignored the fact that Alta California never brought Spain the wealth or power that other Latin American colonies did and instead imagined the region as awash in New World riches. As exposition designers, they sought to outdo anything the Spanish had built in California during its days as a remote and relatively poor colony; indeed, they revised the “what has been” portion of the exposition’s concept to “what could have been” if the style of baroque Spain had been fully realized in California. In their hands, the exposition conjured “a city such as Cabrillo and his men must have dreamed of as they stood, perhaps, on that same lofty mesa, and looked down to the sea,”7 as Goodhue wrote in 1910. The exaggerated visions and the florid architecture served a purpose. The fair portrayed a quaint historical dreamland that no longer existed, surpassed by the arrival of Anglo American progress on the western side of the continent. The San Diego promoters of the Panama-California Exposition now set their sights on the future prospects of the Pacific World.

Planned in anticipation of the opening of the Panama Canal, the San Diego Exposition shared with San Francisco’s world’s fair the desire to make California a gateway to the Pacific World. San Diegans hoped to gain recognition as a city on par with its West Coast rivals. Local leaders and investors were eager to hitch their upstart city’s future growth to economic expansion in the Pacific. The canal represented new possibilities for the development of a city that in the first decade of the twentieth century was struggling to find its economic footing—a recent history they were hardly inclined to showcase. To remedy this, local boosters conceived of the fair as the centerpiece of a publicity strategy to draw attention to San Diego’s geographical suitability to be the premier West Coast transfer point between the Panama Canal and the Pacific. A map appearing in a 1910 publication promoting the exposition plotted out the “New Routes of World Commerce After Completion of the Panama Canal,” with San Diego, designated with a conspicuous arrow, as the origin for a multitude of direct lines to major port cities in Asia and the Americas. Los Angeles and San Francisco were labeled in font sizes so small they are barely legible.8

Both San Diego and San Francisco lobbied Congress for “official” exposition status and the federal recognition and money that came with it. But when San Diego lost its bid, the city had to relinquish any claim to represent the nation and was barred from inviting international exhibits to compete with San Francisco’s exposition.9 Most observers assumed San Diego would simply withdraw. The city hardly seemed positioned to mount any sort of exposition, much less one without federal support. The 1910 census had been disappointing to San Diego boosters, showing a much slower rate of population growth than Los Angeles. Moreover, turmoil from the initial stages of the Mexican Revolution threatened to spill over the border, making city and state leaders nervous, and potential tourists wary. Letting the bid drop would have been understandable. But local businessmen felt an increasingly dire need for the publicity an exposition might generate and were counting on the growth of San Diego commerce beyond local bounds. They were not going to let the idea die so easily.

Fair boosters developed several strategies to keep their nascent plans alive. First, they promoted the concept of “dual expositions,” drawing visitors with a two-for-one appeal that could appear to pull San Diego to an equal level with San Francisco. Second, they exploited a loophole in the Congressional terms and continued the exposition’s run into a second year, inviting San Francisco’s international exhibitors to travel to San Diego in 1916. Enough took them up on the idea that in March 1916, the San Diego fair became the Panama-California International Exposition and, although not as successful as either of the 1915 fairs, it provided a continuing promotional engine for the city.

Finally, far from ceding their claims on Pacific empire to San Francisco, San Diego boosters sought to reorient the map. San Diego placed itself at the center of a great empire in the American Southwest, which city leaders asserted, was poised to “become the new focusing point of the world’s immigration, the new land of opportunity next to be conquered by peaceful settlement.”10 In competing with San Francisco’s rise to the forefront of a new Pacific empire, San Diego reinvented its hinterlands as a regional empire and then proclaimed the city a natural hinge between the Southwest and the Pacific world. The grandeur of the exposition itself smoothed out the hitch in the timeline, bypassing San Diego’s uncertain state of development and portraying an unbroken history from primitive and romantic pasts to a confident future.


Photographs © San Diego History Center.

1. George W. Marston, Address at the Dedication of the California Building, 31 December 1914, Edgar L. Hewett Papers, Fray Angelico Chavez History Library, Santa Fe, New Mexico (hereafter Hewett Papers).

2. Winfield Hogaboom, “Looking Into the Future: The Purpose of the Panama-California Exposition, at San Diego, in 1915, ‘To Show What Will Be By What Has Been,'” Sunset Magazine, 32: no. 1 (January 1914), 334–39, 415.

3. For further detail about the planning, exhibits, and cultural history of the fair, see the larger treatment of it in my previous publications, particularly, Phoebe S. Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), chap. 3. University of California Press provided permission to reprint portions of this book for this essay.

4. [Panama-California Exposition Company (PCEC)], Fore-Glance at Panama-California Exposition, San Diego 1915; Unique International Year ‘Round, Jan. 1– Dec. 31 (San Diego: Panama-California Exposition Company, 1910; C.F. Lummis, “Letter sent by me to all my associates in the Executive Committee of the School of American Archaeology, In Confidence,” 26 November 1911, C.F. Lummis MSS Collection, Braun Research Library, Southwest Museum.

5. Aleš Hrdlička to W.H. Holmes, Head Curator, Department of Anthropology, US National Museum, 31 January 1912; Aleš Hrdlička to W.H. Holmes, 6 October 1914, Office of the Secretary, Records, Record Unit 45, Smithsonian Institution Archives (hereafter Smithsonian Secretary Records); Aleš Hrdlička, “The Division of Physical Anthropology at the Panama-California Exposition, San Diego,” TS, 1915, Aleš Hrdlička Papers, National Anthropological Archives, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution; Aleš Hrdlička, A Descriptive Catalog of the Section of Physical Anthropology, Panama-California Exposition, 1915 (San Diego: National Views Co., 1914), 7–10.

6. [Panama-California Exposition Company (PCEC)], San Diego, All the Year 1915, Panama California Exposition (San Diego: PCEC, 1914).

7. [PCEC], San Diego, All the Year. Bertram Goodhue was a founder of the Boston architectural firm, Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson, and lobbied hard for the San Diego commission, saying he “considered myself quite a shark on the sort of stuff they ought to have”—by which he meant the florid style of Spanish Colonial Revival. Bertram G. Goodhue to F.L. Olmsted, 28 December 1910, Bertram G. Goodhue Papers, Avery Library of Art and Architecture, Columbia University.

8. [PCEC], Fore-Glance.

9. Robert Rydell, All the World’s a Fair: Visions of Empire at American International Exposition, 1876–1916 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 214–19.

10. [PCEC], Fore-Glance.

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