I first came to Treasure Island on a foggy Saturday morning in the spring of 1987, nearly fifty years after the opening of the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939. The Art Deco Society of Northern California had run a listing in the previous Sunday “Datebook” for a walking tour of the island, to feature original works of art from the world’s fair that had been held on Treasure Island—and to begin at the Treasure Island Museum. Every element of this listing was irresistible to me—Treasure Island? Why, I had lived in the Bay Area for ten years and had never been there, hardly even noticed it even though I crossed the Bay Bridge almost every day. I wasn’t really sure which of the various islands it was. World’s fair? WHAT world’s fair? I had only heard of one San Francisco World’s Fair, the genesis of the Palace of Fine Arts, a long, long time ago. And original works of art from the world’s fair—still on the island? I could walk around and see them? There was a museum on Treasure Island? Nothing could have stopped me from going on that walking tour.
On my first trip from Berkeley to Treasure Island that Saturday morning, I missed the turnoff to TI and had to exit the bridge in San Francisco, get back on the bridge, and then finally exit at Yerba Buena Island. I was sad because I assumed I had missed the tour. Not being a regular visitor to military bases, I felt apprehensive as I drove up to the small guard shack at the entrance to the base, but after I stated the purpose of my visit, the guard waved me through to the small parking lot at the front of a semi-circular building. The museum’s curator, Doug Brookes, was waiting for stragglers with a small group, perhaps ten people, some of them in classic Deco regalia. We commenced our walk with a tour of the exterior of the museum building, its wedding-cake horseshoe shape looming mysteriously in the morning fog. We learned that this building, which the Navy had unpretentiously dubbed “Building One,” had been the Administration Building for the world’s fair—and that it had been designed to be an airport terminal. AIRPORT TERMINAL? Yes indeed, and the building behind it—now you can answer this one—“Building Two”—had been the Hall of Aerial Transportation! As we drew nearer we saw a bas relief high in the two-story recessed doorway of this gargantuan building, a goddess in flowing robes, standing atop a small globe, wings on her feet. She, like the remainder of the buildings we saw on Treasure Island, had been neglected. Her plaster skin was crumbling in places, and bits of bird nest poked out from the holes.
Doug explained that this building, the one behind it (“Building Three,” of course), and Building One were the only intact World’s Fair buildings remaining on the island—because they were the only buildings engineered for permanence during the original construction of the fair. These three buildings were to serve the airport that would be raised on the island once the fair ended. Building One would be the terminal; Buildings Two and Three would be hangars. During the fair, the island did serve as a terminus for Pan American Airways “China Clipper” flying boats, which flew from Treasure Island to Hong Kong, hopping across the Pacific for refueling along the way. In honor of this transportation innovation, the fair was called “The Pageant of the Pacific.” And that would explain why the decorative molding around the recessed entryway to the building was a bamboo design. Doug gestured to the body of water that lies between the southern end of Treasure Island and Yerba Buena Island. That, he explained, was called “Clipper Cove” during the time of the fair. China Clippers, flying in from Hawaii, would soar over the Golden Gate, touch down in the Bay near Treasure Island, and then taxi into Clipper Cove, from whence passengers would deplane into the Administration Building.
We turned north from the Transportation Building and crossed a wide boulevard, California Avenue. Doug turned and pointed to a now-visible third hangar building (“Building Three”), which was “The Hall of Fine and Decorative Arts” at the world’s fair. We could see nothing ornamental on it equal to the “Goddess of Aerial Transportation” on Building Two, but Doug explained that during the time of the fair, it had an ornate entryway on the north side of the building, with a large globe. During the time of the fair, it exhibited great works of art from all over the world and world-famous artists exhibited their skills.
We began a long walk between low mustard-colored buildings and rows of olive and eucalyptus trees. The trees, Doug explained, were part of the fair’s original lush landscaping. The path we were walking along followed the “Promenade of the Seven Seas,” which had been lined with enormous pastel exhibit halls, decorated with flags and ornamental ship prows. At the end of this promenade had stood the “Court of Pacifica,” which was where we were now headed.
Next: the Fountain of Western Waters and Pacific Unity Sculptures
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