Blueprints of the Past: The 1939 World’s Fair On Treasure Island

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The 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition was the third of three World’s Fairs to take place in San Francisco. The expo was born from an idea to celebrate the completion of San Francisco Bay’s two new bridges. In 1933, the Bridge Celebration Founding Committee was formed to come up with a plan for the celebration. Candlestick Point was considered as a site, but the wise committee knew that was a ridiculous place to put any sort of recreational facility. Since we were celebrating the two bridges, why not celebrate right between them? After a few necessary approvals and a big thumbs up from President FDR, a 400 acre manmade island smack dab in the middle of San Francisco Bay began to take shape. The rocks already piled up what was then called Yerba Buena Shoals were relocated and everything in between was filled with landfill by dredging mud from the bay.

The massive air terminal and pair of hangars were added to the plans. After the fair was over, the island was to become the San Francisco airport. It was a perfect plan that would kill three birds with one stone: the shallow shoal shipping hazard would be cleared, the World’s Fair would have a home, and San Francisco would have a new world-class airport.

One of the primary committees formed when planning the Golden Gate International Exposition was the Insurance Committee. It operated behind-the-scenes and received no public acclaim. But with an island full of priceless works of art, valuable displays, and expensive machines there would have been no fair without proper insurance. Because of the attention to detail required for insurance, an insurance map was created by Sanborn Map Company to show every asset of the fair to perfect scale and accurate down to the foot. And thanks to the San Francisco Library and the David Rumsey Collection, we have a super high-resolution scan of the Sanborn insurance map that we will explore here.

1939 + Today

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the World’s Fair on Treasure Island, I used the tools of modern technology and overlaid the Sanborn insurance map in Google Earth, creating a 3D model of the island as it exists today with the 1939 plans seemingly drawn right onto the surface of the island.

With this, today’s Treasure Island can be explored from any angle to see exactly where everything from the 1939 World’s Fair was situated. I’ve provided the kmz file below that you can open with Google Earth and explore yourself.

A Three Hour Tour

I took some screenshots of the 3D model for a mini seven-stop clockwise tour of Treasure Island and a primer to the history of the 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition. You can drive/ride/walk to these spots using the markers below:

1. Administration Building

We begin at the airport terminal building (now the Administration Building). This is the first big structure you’ll come across if you take the winding exit from the Bay Bridge around Yerba Buena Island and down onto Treasure Island. The streamline moderne building was built to become the San Francisco Airport terminal and control tower after the fair ended. It was carefully designed after studying airport terminals across the US at the time. A dash coat of cement plaster was added to the structure to match the finish of the fair’s temporary buildings.

Nov. 21, 1937. Dedication ceremonies. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.

Nov. 21, 1937. Dedication ceremonies. Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration.


Urban Ruins

The Administration Building remains. You can usually walk right in and see one of TI’s two galleries or catch a history lecture. The air traffic control tower is closed to the public. Six of the original 20 unity sculptures that were arranged around the Fountain of Western Waters are positioned on cinder blocks near the entrance.

2. Tower of the Sun

Our second stop is the Tower of the Sun. Right where the Island’s two systems of avenues and courts intersected rose the 400-foot Tower of the Sun, the icon of the expo. Any book, postcard, or poster of the fair will likely depict the Tower of the Sun as a focal point. The tower was crowned with a 22 foot golden phoenix that symbolized San Francisco’s rise from the ashes after the 1906 earthquake and fires. A carillon of 44 bells were borrowed from Grace Cathedral and placed within the tower. They returned to Grace Cathedral after the fair where they remain today.

June 23, 1940, Tower of the Sun. Courtesy FoundSF.

June 23, 1940, Tower of the Sun. Courtesy FoundSF.


Urban Ruins

Something very strange is happening today on the foundation of the Tower of the Sun. If you head out to the corner of 4th St. and Avenue C, take a close look at the ground where the guard shack sits. Once you spot it, you’ll know.

The 75 foot octagonal foundation of the Tower of the Sun is pressing up through the asphalt parking lot and is clearly visible as a perfect octagon in the pavement, as if trying to once again rise up to its former glory. Perhaps some liquefaction is at play here. Or maybe the trenching crew that cut a still-visible trench right up 4th St. ran into this strange giant solid-concrete shape and had to dig it out or trench around its perimeter. Whatever happened, the octagon’s outline is a perfect match on the overlaid Sanborn diagram.

3. The Wharfs, Bus Terminals, Parking Lot, and the Magic Carpet Great Lawn

Massive wharfs once protruded from the NW shore to receive ferries coming from San Francisco’s mainland.

"A Record is Smashed!" at the 1939 - 1940 San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition (San Francisco Chronicle).

“A Record is Smashed!” at the 1939 – 1940 San Francisco Golden Gate International Exposition (San Francisco Chronicle).

The existing deteriorating wharf is not original and was probably built by the Navy.

The immense 14,000 space parking lot took up a good 1/4 of the island with electric signs and loud speakers mounted on each end of the Bay Bridge announcing when the lot was full.

The Things You Will Want To Know About The Exposition On Treasure Island guide (today we would just call it an FAQ) was published to help fairgoers get the most enjoyment from their visit. Among the recommendations: drop off the kids off in the play area with a “competent nurse” for 25¢/hour and enjoy a kid-free day at the fair. Bring your dog or cat? Fine as long as they are “left shut in parked cars” (no companion dogs back then).


Urban Ruins

The original wharfs are gone but their lumber is still strewn all over the rocks on the NW shore. They make comfortable seats for hanging out for some of the best views in the city or for watching fireworks on the 4th of July.

The Magic Carpet Great Lawn is still intact, simply called the Great Lawn today. It is used for events, including the Treasure Island Flea Market, and is home to the incredible Bliss Dance sculpture.

4. The Fun Zone: Rides and the Giant Cyclone Coaster

Among dozens of amusement rides, the giant Cyclone coaster towered above all. In 1939, two identical Cyclones were constructed: one for San Francisco’s 1939 World’s Fair and the other New York’s 1939 World’s Fair.

The Giant Cyclone Roller Coaster at Treasure Island.

The Giant Cyclone Roller Coaster at Treasure Island.

New York’s Cyclone still exists today. In 1941 the track, trains, and plans were purchased by what is now Six Flags New England. It was renamed the Thunderbolt  in 1964. You can ride it today to experience what Treasure Island Cyclone was like.

I can’t find any mention of what became of Treasure Island’s Cyclone.

A carousel was apparently a late addition to the fair as it is seen penciled in on the map, south side of 11th St. between Avenues H and I. This original 1914 Herschell-Spillman carousel was moved to Golden Gate Park after the fair, where it still operates most days.


Urban Ruins

Soccer fields now occupy the footprint of the roller coaster, Midget Autos, and Airplane Ride. Nothing of these structures remains visible today.

5. Incubator Babies, Midget Village, and More Fun

After an exhilarating ride on the roller coaster, nothing says good times like a visit to see rows of tiny premature babies in sealed in capsules. Or, perhaps midgets performing on stage is more your thing.Incubator Babies

The incubator babies exhibit was a premium attraction, meaning an additional quarter collected at the door on top of the fair admission. The spin was that the purpose of the display and admission fee was for scientific public education purposes and fundraising for the nurses, but in reality it was a common side show attraction at fairs back in the day.


Urban Ruins

Nothing remains visible today. Most of these attractions were temporary structures sitting atop the pavement.

6. Behind the Scenes: The North End

Behind the fair’s Livestock Pavilion were sewage plants, warehouses, and offices. The Sanborn Map overlay also shows areas such as fireworks storage, wire storage, machine shops, a milk depot, gasoline and oil storage, ice delivery receiving, and the electrical department tucked away in this corner of the island.

At the NE shore were the ferry docks where visitors from the East Bay would arrive on the island (if they didn’t drive).


Urban Ruins

Although the water and sewage processing plants occupy the same area today, there are few remnants of the original Treasure Island. Some concrete forms near the old ferry slips match the route of the old train tracks on the overlay, but the tracks are gone. A warehouse at the northern end of 13th St. occupies the same footprint as an original warehouse, but the building is obviously newer today. A Navy gas station used to be located at the site of the original “gas tanks” but was razed in 2013.

7. The Hangars

Like the terminal (admin) building, twin hangars were built for the future San Francisco Airport. Hangar A (farthest from the Admin Building) was the Fine Arts Palace for the fair. Hangar B was the Pan American Airways hangar which also contained aviation exhibits for the fair.


Urban Ruins

Both hangars A (right) and B (left) still remain, fully intact and in use. They are now labeled “Building 2” (Hangar B) and “Building 3” (Hangar A). For reasons unknown, Building 3 gained a blocky facade, ruining the art deco lines seen in Building 2.

A Pan American Clipper flies above Treasure Island and the hangars. Photo: Clyde Sunderland.

A Pan American Clipper flies above Treasure Island and the hangars. Photo: Clyde Sunderland.

Building 2 has been used as studios to tape everything from Battlebots to Nash Bridges (I was in the audience for an entire season’s taping of the former). I have no idea what goes on in Building 3.

Another warehouse was added between Building 2 and the Administration Building right on the site of the fair’s large octagon pool and women’s club which now houses the SF Winery and is also the Peter Hudson and Marco Cochrane studios where many of the large sculptures for Burning Man are built (stay tuned for future post on that). You can also visit the second of the Treasure Island Museum‘s two small visitor galleries here. There are still large concrete remains jetting slightly into the bay behind hangar A where the Clipper seaplanes docked. Also of interest is the “Californian Model Home” across Avenue 3 (Now California Ave) from Hangar B which still stands today, but has been improved and expanded in recent years.

After the Fair

When the fair closed, World War II derailed all plans to transform Treasure Island into a full airport. The Navy seized Treasure Island in 1942 and offered Mills Field in exchange. Mills Field became San Francisco International Airport.

Treasure Island’s years may be numbered. At a mean low water elevation of 13 feet, the island as it is will begin to submerge underwater sometime shortly after 2150 according to current sea level rise models. However, studies have been completed and proposals have been floated to construct a sea wall around the island to hold back the bay.

Explore More

Explore In Google Earth

Load the Sanborn Insurance map mashup into Google Earth (Mac, Windows, Linux). I’ve got everything lined up as closely as possible the layer opacity dialed down for a good balance of then and now. Happy exploring!

Recommended Reading

A good history of the 1939 World’s Fair from start to finish:

As always, I’m interested in feedback on historical accuracy or any other constructive comments.

  • Marcus T

    this is really cool, I’ve tried to visualize where things from the 1939 fair used to be out there before but with far less precision…

  • Please also take a look at my blog, I have just started it but it has photos from now, then, and a lot of narrative about island history. I am working on a map which will show how the street layout from 1939 corresponds with the Navy’s layout (the Navy pretty much left that alone). What you have done here is very cool. As you may know, Shawn (I know Viv from the museum and you and I met last Saturday) I give frequent walking tours of the island and usually carry around a large portfolio so that I can show visitors what these urban ruins once were.

  • Hi Anne, yes it was nice meeting you. Your blog has lots of good stuff! I’ve added it to my feeds so I’ll get all your future posts.

  • Carey

    Hi Shawn, I have original blue prints for Treasure Island. They are stamped by the planning department…the history is so interesting. I loved reading your article.