My City Beautiful

Celebrating 100 years of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition with Lee Bruno

“One afternoon in mid-July of 1915, several thousand people standing on San Francisco’s blustery Marina Green collectively craned their necks to watch aviator Art Smith pilot his hand-built craft through a series of aerobatic stunts overhead. For many, this was the first time they’d ever seen an airplane fly. Some held their breath as Smith’s machine rolled and looped above the stately complex of ivory palaces accented with luminous colors and cut-glass jewels that stood at the verge of the sparkling silver-blue bay: the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE).

In the crowd, a child might be standing shoulder to shoulder with an actual gold rush forty-niner, a Civil War veteran, or a survivor of the Donner Party. And that same child would be transfixed by the images on her home television set sixty-four years later as she watched a man walk on the moon. The span of history witnessed by visitors to the 1915 Exposition reveals an era of astounding change. An examination of this event — perhaps the last in the original era of great world’s fairs — offers a kaleidoscope of culture and progress. The Exposition’s highs and lows echo into the twenty-first century.”

— Laura Ackley, “An Introduction to the PPIE

After the 1906 Great Earthquake and Fire, the world’s fair was a massive testament to San Francisco’s resilience, “a symbol of our region rising from the ashes to ensure progress,” says San Francisco’s Mayor, Edwin M. Lee. And so, here we are, 100 years after the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

Lee Bruno’s Panorama

In commemoration of this centennial, the PPIE has crafted an immense lineup of events to celebrate the culture of San Francisco. However, Lee Bruno, writer and great-grandson of Reuben Hale (the man responsible for the vision and realization of the PPIE), has taken this commemoration one step further. This year, Lee published a book called Panorama. This written collection of tales from the Pan-Pacific International Exposition calcifies the world’s fair with stunning images and rich history, so that the lives and stories of those involved in the PPIE continue to speak a century later.

Here is Lee Bruno, writing on the inspiration behind and conception of Panorama:

About ten years ago, I walked through the doors of the California Historical
Society in downtown San Francisco wanting to satisfy my curiosity about
my Great-grandfather Reuben Hale’s role in our City’s first world’s fair.
Little did I know how a few nagging questions would lead me to write an entire book about the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition (PPIE).

It was at the California Historical Society that I discovered great librarians who helped me mine several file boxes of Hale’s’s speeches, letters, and photos to discover gems of his work as an entrepreneur and vice-president of the PPIE.

A view down the Avenue of Palms at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, 1915.

My curiosity about Reuben Hale had originally been piqued by a letter he wrote to my grandfather, O.C. Field, in March, 1942. In that letter, Hale outlined succinct and sage advice to guide my grandfather in his new appointment in Washington, D.C. where he was to help Harold Ickes, U.S. Secretary of the Interior, with energy logistics for World War II. The 13 points he outlined in that letter left me stunned. I wondered how my Great- grandfather, whose family moved to San Francisco in 1873 from New York came upon such powerful insights about the nature of people and politics in Washington, D.C.

That letter was the catalyst for my curiosity. My hope was to dig deeper into his work and gain whatever insights I could gather into his character as a businessman and civic-minded gentleman. My original goal was to write an essay or two about Hale, but as I continued digging I discovered more and more fascinating people and intersecting stories about business, economics and politics from 100 years ago. My focus started shifting to writing essays on these events and people in a way I hoped would quickly pull readers into this time period.

I’ve always been in awe of how writers such as Joan Didion, Adam Hochschild, Eric Larson, and John McPhee have been able to do enough research about a time period to bring it to life. My goal as a writer was to find elusive details or gold nuggets to help shape vivid scenes of San Francisco during that time period. What was the weather like that day? What did it smell like? What did people care about in those years leading up to the fair? What did women and men wear? How did businessmen relate to one another?

At first I was intimidated by the historical research and my lack of training in that field. I leaned into my experience as a business journalist looking for stories, quotes, events and threads that would help me understand how the people of the time accomplished the amazing feat of putting on the Pan Pacific International Exposition overcoming the huge hurdles of widespread political graft, the great earthquake and fire of 1906, and the outbreak of World War I.

It was Reuben Hale’s archived speeches, letters and communications spanning a decade that became the cornerstones for my inquiry into early 20th century San Francisco. I remember my first reading of the July 1906 speech he gave to fellow businessmen at the St. Francis Hotel after the great fire and earthquake had leveled the City. Reading that speech felt like what archaeologists must experience when they unearth a fossil fragment from an unknown dinosaur species. It was a Eureka moment.

That’s how the process started for me. Each speech and letter took me a bit deeper into the weave and texture of this time period, providing glimpses into the challenges and people who played central roles in bringing the world’s fair to San Francisco. Each piece of the puzzle helped me build more confidence in the writing as the scenes became clearer in my mind. By writing the book, I came to appreciate the complexity of the overarching narrative and all the eccentric and unique characters and events that played into creating the modern blueprint for San Francisco as we know it today. My hope is that I helped bring that old San Francisco back to life for modern readers.

Palace of Fine Arts, photo by Lily Greenberg

Lee Bruno has written for publications such as The Guardian, The Economist, and Scientific American. The great-grandson of Reuben Hale, who was responsible for the vision and realization of the Panama–Pacific International Exposition, Bruno lives in San Francisco. Checkout his book Panorama here.

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