At his 104th birthday party earlier this month, Dr. Ralph Weilerstein was asked by a friend if he could recall his favorite birthday over the past century.
The San Francisco native smiled, dipping into previous decades that included working for the state and federal governments, and raising three children. Even his childhood in The City brought up fond memories. Weilerstein's father worked as a streetcar operator, and as a youngster, Weilerstein frequently rode the cable cars — when rides cost a nickel.
But the birthday that stands out most in Weilerstein's mind was that of Feb. 4, 1915, a time when The City was preparing to celebrate its own renaissance of the 20th century: the Panama-Pacific International Exposition world's fair that ran from February to December 1915 in what is now the Marina district.
The centennial of the day the fair officially opened will be marked Friday with the launch of events and exhibits that will carry on throughout this year.
"It was my fourth birthday," Weilerstein recalled of when he celebrated with his classmates weeks before the fair opened, and "people were continuously taking pictures."
That would have been when Weilerstein was one of 30 students in the world's first Montessori classroom, a glass-walled educational experiment that debuted for four months in the Palace of Education and Social Economy, one of the 635-acre fair's 11 massive exhibits. Weilerstein is one of only two students from the class still living.
The classroom — where Weilerstein's mother was an assistant teacher — had three glass walls that invited visitors to observe the educational techniques in action.
"It was a fun place to go," Weilerstein remembered. "I was the tallest boy in the class."
Weilerstein's greatest memory of the fair — which he described as "very crowded" — is the Tower of Jewels, a 43-story illumination of polished crystal and colored glass highlighting architectural features that gave the fair its Jewel City nickname.
"The Tower of Jewels was the main attraction," said Weilerstein, recalling being dazzled by the bright lights.
The exposition served a number of purposes: It celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal that allowed ships to cut across the Isthmus of Panama for the first time, serving as a significant channel for international maritime trade. Secondly, it also showcased San Francisco's recovery from the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire that left much of The City in ruins.
Essentially, the fair put San Francisco on the map as a global city.
"From a destination point of view, the world's fair was huge," said Laura A. Ackley, author of "San Francisco's Jewel City: The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915." "To get to the fair, it [took] about a week to get across the country, and it's probably the trip of your lifetime."
It is estimated that some 20 million people attended the fair during its 10-month run. Most attendees arrived by train, as planes were not widely used commercially at the time. About 6,000 vehicles traveled throughout the U.S. to get to the fair, which was more cross-country travel than ever before.
The fair was a spectacle of firsts, not just for San Francisco, but for the world.
BRINGING THE FAIR TO THE CITY
The first true inkling of holding a world's fair in San Francisco reportedly came from early San Francisco Examiner owner, William Randolph Hearst, when he put forth a proposal in 1891 "to kind of compete with the upcoming 1893 Chicago Fair," Ackley said.
But San Francisco seriously began toying with the idea of hosting a world's fair in 1904, when The City looked for "a suitably world-shaking event to celebrate," Ackley noted.
"Then of course San Francisco had its own world-shaking event on April 18, 1906," she added, referring to the earthquake and fire. "Obviously The City's priorities changed tremendously."
San Francisco's recovery from the devastation opened up the possibility of the fair serving a dual purpose: To celebrate the opening of the Panama Canal, the building of which had recently been taken over by the U.S. after France's decadeslong attempt, along with the reopening of The City as the center of trade for the West Coast.
"So many people in the world thought of San Francisco as largely destroyed," Ackley said.
The Panama-Pacific International Exposition changed that.
The event, however, also came at a time when world's fairs were on the cusp of shifting culturally. While world's fairs exist today, Ackley said they do not bestow the same cultural supremacy as they did a century ago, partially due to modern transportation and communication.
"It was a kaleidoscopic moment of culture," Ackley said of the 1915 world's fair.
And San Francisco was the center of that shift, Ackley noted. In a city where the first transcontinental phone call with New York took place, the fair showcased the latest technology in the Palace of Liberal Arts, along with the Ford assembly line that churned out Model T's in the Palace of Transportation.
Of course, no one at the time could share photos of the exhibits on social media. Television was still decades away. In fact, in 1915 only 10 percent of American homes had electricity, according to Ackley.
"We were at the very beginning of all these technologies that now we use all the time, in advanced forms, to share information with one another," Ackley said. "In 1915, where could you find the center of all this information and interest? You would have to actually go to the world's fair."
A CITY OF INNOVATION
It is no secret that San Francisco has seen a number of economic booms in its time. Arguably the most notable surge was during the Gold Rush of the 1840s and 1850s. In a different form, the same prosperity is occurring with The City's latest tech boom.
"This is a city that's been literally built on innovation for a century," said Phil Ginsburg, general manager of the Recreation and Park Department that oversees the iconic Palace of Fine Arts — the only building from the fair still situated on its original site.
The core of innovation in 1915 — much like the tech hub today — happened in San Francisco at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which is touted for offering fairgoers an experience unlike other world's fairs.
The mini-metropolis featured the latest in home conveniences by General Electric, including an electric fireplace, an intercom, a player piano, fans, a toaster, a coffee maker, a sewing machine, a clothes washer and an ironing machine, Ackley wrote in "San Francisco's Jewel City." The world's largest wood and steel building was additionally exhibited in the Palace of Machinery.
There was even a miniature replica of the Panama Canal, which included 144 cars circling a 1,440-foot track, Ackley wrote.
Additionally, the fair showcased the magnificent Hoe Printing Press in the Palace of Machinery, where color editions of The Examiner's Sunday paper were cranked out all year.
"One of the big deals at the fair was that the management wanted to see things in action, and boy was this press in action," Ackley said. "It was the latest in press technology. They actually sent it [from New York] through the Panama Canal to get to San Francisco."
Standing two stories tall and 48 feet long, the press could produce color prints at 1.7 million pages per hour, "which was immensely fast at the time," Ackley noted. "It was the largest color press in the world."
The Hoe Printing Press only touched on ways Hearst left his mark on the fair.
When a coalition of publishers pressured the management to pay for coverage of the fair, Hearst's media empire jumped in to report on the fair with his nine newspapers, six weeklies, two magazines and one wire service.
"William Randolph Hearst threw the weight of The Examiner plus all the other publications that he owned behind giving the fair publicity," Ackley said. "And then other publishers followed suit."
The Examiner and the Hearst family were also instrumental in saving the Palace of Fine Arts, Ackley added. A campaign, led by The Examiner, garnered an additional $30,000 to cover operating expenses for the Palace, which was kept open as an art gallery after the fair closed.
AFTER THE FAIR
The fair closed Dec. 4, 1915, with an estimated 450,000 people in attendance. Much of the exhibition, which had sprawled across the northern portion of The City, was to be torn down by June 1 or Dec. 31, 1916, when leases for the properties expired, Ackley wrote in "San Francisco's Jewel City."
The legacy left by the fair reaffirmed San Francisco as the leading city of California, a status it kept until Los Angeles emerged as a more populous city years later.
"Though not everyone in San Francisco at the time felt that we should be putting our resources into building the world's fair, while we were still rebuilding from disaster, it was a tremendous shot in the arm for most of the local population," Ackley said.
It cost approximately $50 million to build the fair, about $17.5 million of which came from The City and state. When accounting for inflation, the total cost amounts to about $1.2 trillion today.
But it was also one of the few American world's fairs that actually turned a profit, Ackley noted. California's economy received more than $45 million from outside the state, and after all costs were deducted, profits totaled about $1.31 million.
"In general, it was a huge boost for the local economy and also the state economy, and it was intended as such," Ackley said.
A century later, San Francisco continues to pay longlasting tribute to its historic fair, from parks to statues to exhibits.
"This was certainly one of the more significant events in our city's history," Ginsburg said.CENTENNIAL CELEBRATION EVENTS
San Francisco will mark the centennial anniversary of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition with a three-day citywide celebration beginning Friday, the actual date the world's fair opened in 1915. Various events and exhibits will follow throughout the next year.
All activities are free unless otherwise noted
Noon: The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival launches its 2015 season under the rotunda of City Hall with dance and music from myriad world cultures.
9-10 p.m.: The public is invited to stroll the Palace of Fine Arts grounds to see and feel what it looked like in 1915. A film and light show will be presented by Optic Flare in the Palace of Fine Arts Theater lobby.
Community day at the Palace of Fine Arts
Noon: Opening ceremony under the rotunda attended by civic dignitaries.
Noon-5 p.m.: Musical performances by community organizations including the Academy of Hawaiian Arts, Albany Taiko, Jessica Recinos featuring SolTron, Mala Junta and the San Francisco Opera Merola Program.
3 p.m.: Uke-A-thon under the rotunda — featuring Ben Ahn, Hana Hou 100, Hiram Kaailau Bell and other special guests. Register at www.PPIE100.org.
Noon-5 p.m.: Exhibitions, activities, music, performances and displays in the Palace of Fine Arts, which will be occupied throughout the year by the Innovation Hangar. Bay Area cultural organizations — including the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Music in Schools Today and the Exploratorium — and companies with connections to the original fair (AT&T, Wells Fargo and Ford Motor Co.) will come together as the California Historical Society opens its 10,000-square-foot exhibition on the Panama-Pacific International Exposition history. They will be joined by the Bay Area Discovery Museum, Kaboom, Smithsonian, Maker Media and Wearable World Technologies. An original 1915 Ford Model T and a Wells Fargo stagecoach will be on display. Author Laura Ackley will sign copies of her book "San Francisco's Jewel City."
7-10 p.m.: Palace After Dark. Visitors can stroll the palace grounds and experience what it was like to be at the exposition. A film and light installation will be presented by Optic Flare in the Palace theater lobby.
Opening of California Historical Society exhibition
Noon to 5 p.m.: Opening of "City Rising: San Francisco and The 1915 World's Fair" at the San Francisco Historical Society headquarters at 678 Mission St. The show highlights the fair's history and impact.
A Commonwealth Club panel discussion of Panama-Pacific International Exposition, moderated by Anthea Hartig, with historian Kevin Starr and San Francisco cultural leaders. To purchase tickets, visit www.commonwealthclub.org.
Ferry Building Lighting
5:30 p.m.: For the duration of the 1915 exposition, the Ferry Building was festooned with lights, a beacon proudly proclaiming "1915" to the world. This lighting will be re-created in a civic ceremony beginning at 5:30 p.m. Lights will be switched on at 6:15 p.m. and remain on until Dec. 4, the night the fair closed. All are welcome.
For information on the world's fair centennial celebration, www.PPIE100.org.