Midwinter Fair Dedication: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

One hundred and twenty five years ago this last week, some 40,000 people crowded into a foggy Golden Gate Park meadow and another 20,000 overflowed into the surrounding drives, copses, and sandy hillsides. The big event was the groundbreaking ceremony for the California Midwinter International Exposition, more familiarly known as the Midwinter Fair.

Last week we looked at various groundbreaking ceremonies, and there certainly will be much attention (at least in the history community) for the 125th anniversary of the fair’s opening in January 2019. The occasion on August 24, 1893, however, deserves its own closer look.

There are at least two well-known photos of the day, taken by official fair photographer Isaiah West Taber, who reproduced them for souvenir booklets and cabinet cards and assigned them in his numbering system #6495 and #6496. The size of the audience and the lack of elbowroom in today’s Music Concourse are evident:

Michael de Young speech at Midwinter Fair groundbreaking, August 24, 1893.M. H. de Young addressing the great crowd for the groundbreaking of the Midwinter Fair in today’s Music Concourse, August 24, 1893. (wnp70.0211.jpg; Isaiah West Taber photograph; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection; courtesy of Molly Blaisdell.)

Since the San Francisco Chronicle was run by Michael de Young, mastermind of the fair, that newspaper naturally had the highest opinion on the day’s proceedings, but even its reporter gave a nightmarish description of the crowding:

“The swaying of this immense mass of humanity suggested the motion of the tides and was awful in its intensity. It threatened destruction of life at times, but the strains of the bands at once restored the equilibrium and fainting women and distracted children were always safely landed on the grand stand or passed out to higher ground.”1

Those not of tender years or the fairer sex were rudely thrust under the grandstand by police to alleviate the crush and make room for the groundbreaking in front of the dais. Other newspapers reported a liberal use of police truncheons on “hoodlums” harassing women in the crowd.

Detail of above photograph with M. H. de Young, his hat removed, about to speak.

The day had begun with a parade through the park panhandle to the site, a procession full of military companies, veterans groups, and private fraternal organizations that liked to play as soldiers. The fair, proposed in the midst of a national economic depression, was promoted as a panacea for hard times, a job-creating necessity, just as Olympic games and World Cups are touted by bidding cities today. To the San Francisco Examiner, de Young’s display of the glimmering groundbreaking silver shovel in the parade “signified work for the unemployed, business for the merchants, hope for the downcast, prosperity for all.”2

A contingent of unemployed workingmen closed the column, carrying, the Chronicle noted, “banners bearing patriotic mottoes and sentiments expressing very healthy anti-Chinese ideas.”3

The city’s Chinese population was always the easy scapegoat for economic problems, even in a parade for an “International” exposition that would include a large Chinese-themed exhibit, theatre, and restaurant. (This blaming vitriol to immigrants or natives labeled as “others” never goes away. One of the 1893 parade banners read “Chinatown threatens us with cholera,” right in the line of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s 2015 statement that “tremendous infectious disease” was pouring across the Mexican border.)

In addition to the racist mottoes, the unemployed men also carried pleas that could be transcribed to any cardboard sign held on a San Francisco freeway offramp today: “Hungry, Destitute and Hopeless.”

At what was then called Concert Valley, today the Music Concourse where the de Young Museum and Academy of Sciences stand, the teeming crowd received the expected slate of speeches and band music. A young boy shinnied up a flagpole behind the stage and stole the show during de Young’s speech, which the Director-General joked about good-naturedly. All the newspapers agreed that the most stirring moments of the afternoon were the eerie silence in the fog for the opening invocation and the entire gathered multitude joining together to sing “America.” One of Taber’s photos shows Esther Johnson, member of the Native Daughters of the Golden West and a graduate of the California School of Oratory, reciting a dedicatory poem for the day. California, with twelve stanzas in a sing-song A-B rhyme, concluded with a class-crossing exhortation to the success of the fair and the entire state:

Then hail ye all honor to Labor,
With Capital close by its side,
Be progress forever our watchword,
California forever our pride.

Esther Johnson reads dedicatory poem for Midwinter Fair groundbreaking, August 24, 1893.Esther Johnson reads dedicatory poem for Midwinter Fair groundbreaking, August 24, 1893. (wnp37.01330.jpg; Isaiah West Taber photograph; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection, courtesy of a private collector.)

Finally, using his silver shovel, de Young deposited some earth in a silver casket with a battery of artillery from the Presidio letting loose a salute. De Young’s competitors at the San Francisco Examiner, while supporting the popular idea of the fair, couldn’t help but try to deflate de Young’s big moment:

“Anybody that wanted to could have gone out there and under cover of darkness removed this valuable hatful of dirt without fear of prosecution for larceny if detected…”4

To help pay the bills, an instant auction was held for the ceremonial shovel, the casket of dirt (seeded with rare coins), a gold-headed cane supposedly owned by George Washington, and sundry souvenirs, including a typewriter. It all brought in a slightly disappointing $880 ($24,000 in 2018 dollars).

To push the job-creation theme home, workers from the contracting company Warren, Malley & Buckman began grading and scraping the valley the instant the ceremony concluded with a benediction from Rabbi Voorsanger. The crowd cheered lustily, but the Examiner noted disappointment from some of the unemployed men who had carried “an indefinite idea that a prominent feature of the day’s proceedings would be the handing out of the pick and shovel to them.”5

Grading in future Music Concourse for 1894 Midwinter Fair.Grading in the future Music Concourse for the creation of the 1894 Midwinter Fair, 1893. (wnp37.03163.jpg; Isaiah West Taber photograph; Marilyn Blaisdell Collection, courtesy of a private collector.)

The San Francisco Call described the end of a long day: “The fog was drifting in and the valley was fairly enshrouded in damp, fleeting clouds of mist. Yet the people stayed until the rabbi’s benediction was pronounced, they they turned toward home, glancing at graders on the way and wishing that the buildings were completed instead of only begun. The success of the day was unquestioned, and the presence of the people has demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that the Midwinter Fair is as certain to be held as the day is to dawn and night succeed morning.”6



1. “A Great Day for the Pacific Coast,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 25, 1893, pg. 1.

2. “With Loud Acclaim,” San Francisco Examiner, August 25, 1893, pg. 1.

3. “A Great Parade,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 25, 1893, pg. 1.

4. “With Pomp, Pageantry and a Great Promise,” San Francisco Examiner, August 24, 1893, pg. 5.

5. “Asking for Work,” San Francisco Examiner, August 25, 1893, pg. 3.

6. “Rabbi Voorsanger,” San Francisco Call, August 25, 1893, pg. 2.

Breaking Ground: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

We have our share of groundbreaking photos in the OpenSFHistory collection, that is, literally, groundbreaking: politicians and VIPs plying spades to dedicate the start of work on new buildings, bridges, hospitals, roadways, playgrounds, expositions, or fairs.

It’s a tradition with remarkable staying power. Each year the city seems to have at least two or three photo opportunities for public figures and CEOs to play dress up as blue-collar folk. Hard hats are askew; silver or gold-washed shovels are handled. Here’s a typical one from earlier this year taken by San Francisco Chronicle photographer Santiago Mejia to dedicate a new hotel in Mission Bay:

Dedicatory groundbreaking for Marriott SoMa Mission Bay Hotel with then-mayor Mark Farrell at center, March 2018. (Santiago Mejia photograph, San Francisco Chronicle.)

Sometimes during groundbreakings the first spadeful of earth is solemnly saved in a special container such as a silver casket or oaken chest. Here is President Taft tossing some dirt into a strongbox at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park in preparation for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition. This was a seriously lost groundbreaking, as the PPIE didn’t end up in Golden Gate Park, but today’s Marina District instead.

PPIE groundbreaking, October 14, 1911.President Taft groundbreaking for the PPIE at Golden Gate Park Polo Fields, October 14, 1911. (wnp36.00108.jpg; Horace Chaffee photograph, Department of Public Works book 3, image 427; copy courtesy of a private collector.)

I often wonder what happens to these commemorative chests of sand and soil. The silver box used for the dedication of the 1894 Midwinter Fair in Golden Gate Park was auctioned off on the spot—with some “valuable coins” tossed in to help bidding. (More on this event next week.) I suspect the old de Young Museum ended up as a repository of many sundry dedication tools and receptacles.

Another misplaced groundbreaking: here’s Mayor Rossi shoveling on Crissy Field, a good mile from where the Golden Gate Bridge would arise, but a convenient space for the pomp and circumstance to celebrate what would become San Francisco’s most iconic structure.

Golden Gate Bridge groundbreaking, February 26, 1933.Golden Gate Bridge groundbreaking ceremony. Mayor Angelo Rossi with first shovel of dirt. The bridge’s Chief Engineer, Joseph Strauss, beside him. (wnp14.3651.jpg; courtesy of a private collector.)

My favorites are the ones that have some fun with the tradition. In 1927, longtime parks superintendent John McLaren dedicated the park that bears his name by getting hitched up to a plow:

McLaren Park groundbreaking, 1927.John McLaren hitched up and ready to go at McLaren Park, January 25, 1927. (wnp14.0153.jpg; courtesy of a private collector.)

Ninety years ago this week, Mayor James Rolph, who was a true natural for ceremonial duties, upped the groundbreaking ante of dressing in workingman drag. The occasion was the onset of construction for the six-million-dollar War Memorial complex that still stands across from City Hall between McAllister Street, Grove Street, Van Ness Avenue, and Franklin Street. This was a second take at the groundbreaking for the arts and opera memorial to those who gave their lives in service during World War I. On Armistice Day, November 11, 1926, capitalist William H. Crocker used a silver hand shovel to save a clump of dirt in a copper box: but work couldn’t truly begin until a four-million-dollar bond issue was passed in 1927. With the actual start of construction, a new ceremony was deemed necessary.

Rolph, the mayor who enjoyed dressing as a motorman when opening streetcar lines, a teamster for a last horsecar run, or a pickaxe-bearing laborer for a tunnel-digging milestone, changed into overalls and a worker’s cap after his dedicatory speech, and instead of a gold spade, operated a large steam shovel to break ground.

War Memorial groundbreaking, August 20, 1928.Mayor James Rolph, dressed as an engineer, stands in front of a steam shovel which he operated at the ceremony on August 20, 1928. Lewis F. Monteagle of the Musical Association of San Francisco at left behind him. Second from right is Allen W. Widenham of the War Memorial Committee. (wnp36.03698.jpg; Horace Chaffee photograph, Department of Public Works book 42, image A1321; copy courtesy of a private collector.)

Perhaps the outfit didn’t make the impression he desired at what should have been a solemn ceremony, because that November, when another steam shovel was used for the groundbreaking of the Bernal Cut roadway, Rolph stayed in a suit and even claimed he didn’t know how the shovel worked.

Bernal Cut roadway groundbreaking, November 15, 1928.Mayor James Rolph posing at levers for the groundbreaking of work at San Jose Avenue and Rousseau Street on November 15, 1928. Fred Meyer of the Department of Public Works, Supervisors Gallagher, Suhr, and Todd. Felix Kahn of the construction company with cigar. (wnp36.03738.jpg; Horace Chaffee photograph, Department of Public Works book 43, image A1546; copy courtesy of a private collector.)

Corbett Road: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

We always loved this photo taken by D. H. Wulzen, showing the bucolic and rural feeling of what is today Upper Market Street/Portola Drive in 1902. Then it was all part of Corbett Road, originally a toll road made to collect nickels from day-trippers like the couple in the horse and buggy.

Corbett Road, April 27, 1902.Corbett Road, looking south to today’s Diamond Heights, from roughly where Market Street becomes Portola Drive, April 27, 1902. (wnp13.012.jpg; D. H. Wulzen photograph, courtesy of a private collector.)

Wulzen ran a pharmacy at the corner of Market and Castro Streets. By the time he took this image the franchise for the toll road had expired and the dirt path was free and open, if not well maintained. In the background the gash on what was then called Red Rock Hill was a quarry for material to semi-pave streets and make bricks. Today Red Rock Hill is home to the Diamond Heights development of midcentury townhouses and condominiums.

We recently received a very welcome email from Western Neighborhoods Project member Denise Crawford (Not a member yet? Join now!), who informed us the humble cabin in the photograph, reputedly the old toll house for the road, played a big part in her family’s history.

Denise’s ancestors lived in the structure at the time of the photograph above. Great-grandfather Denis Buckley was a carpenter and a small sign tacked on the eucalyptus tree beside the house reading as much advertised his services. Denis Buckley and his brother Michael came from County Kerry, Ireland to San Francisco around 1879. They originally lived south of Market, and Denis is first listed on Corbett in the 1895 directory.

Ellen Buckley in front of old tollhouse before remodeling by the family. Note sign advertising Denis Buckley’s services as a carpenter. (Courtesy of Denise Crawford.)

With five children, the Buckleys needed a little more elbowroom than the little house offered. Since her great-grandfather was a carpenter, Denise writes, “he was well equipped to modify the presumably small tollhouse….Corbett was a popular road, with many billboards along the way. Denis knew what to do with unattended lumber, and in the cover of darkness he would relive the passersby of the blight of advertisement. Aunt Alice tells of how he installed the boards with the ads facing inward (for obvious reasons), giving them unusual wallpaper.”

In the middle of rebuilding the city after the 1906 earthquake and fire (in which his skills as carpenter were much in demand) Denis died from a fall and Denise’s great-grandmother Ellen was resourceful in keeping her family afloat. Another great story from family lore: “She is said to have gone downtown to inquire about sewing machines, and was given one to take home ‘on trial,’ for a few days. She took it back up to Corbett Road, where she sewed at a frantic pace, day and night. Then she took the machine back saying, ‘I couldn’t get it to work at all…’ She kept small farm animals, and would walk a goat cart to the back doors of the fancy hotels, selling chickens, eggs, butter, and milk directly to the chefs.”

Buckley residence improved with a new entry, windows, and window boxes. At the time, the Buckley residence was addressed as 1063 Corbett, roughly where the line of 25th Street would intersect the road if it continued west up the hill. (Courtesy of Denise Crawford.)

No remnant of the old tollhouse remains. The Market Street extension and creation of Portola Drive replaced Corbett Road as the main road west over Twin Peaks in the 1910s, and then the widening of the street as an expressway with a viaduct replaced the cliff side entirely. The family didn’t move far, relocating to a house built by the Buckleys on Fountain Street, which still stands today.

Our great thanks to Denise for sharing her family history and bringing even more life to one of our favorite historical photos.

Before and After Victorian: A Closer Look

by Woody LaBounty

Our great thanks to Judith Lynch and The Victorian Alliance of San Francisco for their support in scanning and posting these images to OpenSFHistory.

Writer, researcher, and educator Judith Lynch took thousands of color slides of San Francisco architecture in the 1970s, which we have only just begun to add to the OpenSFHistory collection.

The great revelation for me in organizing and identifying locations in the slides was not that Victorian architecture was underappreciated at one time. I expected to see the dilapidated flats and paint-peeled apartment buildings from my youth, and there are indeed many examples in the Lynch slides.

What surprised me was the degree of transformation possible for buildings that appear beyond restoration. Sometimes all that’s needed is a bold paint job by colorist Butch Kardum, although 1960s and 70s color schemes may have to be a reacquired taste to appreciate. With other structures, the work of the crew from the firm of San Francisco Victoriana is on display as unsympathetic midcentury modernizations in the form of asbestos shingles and slathered-on stucco are removed for facades with newly-milled brackets, columns, window frames, and pediments. Judith followed in the workers’ footsteps, capturing the progress back to Victorian styles and showing me four decades later what dedication (and money) can do with even the most ramshackle building.

There are many gems to shine a light upon in these slides, but here are five striking “before/now” comparisons.

1818 California Street

San Francisco Landmark #55, known as the Lilienthal-Orville Pratt House, is one of the most recognized showplace houses in the city. Situated on a rise near the busy intersection of California and Franklin Streets, the angled-bay Italianate is prominent on a large lot and appears as pristine as the day it was built in 1876.

But these images of house, in the process of being spruced up for sale, show how shabby many of the city’s Victorians had become by the early 1970s.

1818 California Street, September 1974.1818 California Street, its entry portico shored up and scaffolding erected for work, September 1974. (wnp25.2657.jpg; Judith Lynch photograph, courtesy of a private collector.)

Detail of second story of 1818 California, September 1974.The second story of 1818 California, auditioning as a haunted house set, September 1974. (wnp25.10345.jpg; Judith Lynch photograph, courtesy of a private collector.)

Repainted and restored 1818 California Street, circa 1975.Repainted and sold to new owners circa 1975? (wnp25.2697.jpg; Judith Lynch photograph, courtesy of a private collector.)

4078 23rd Street

4078 23rd Street before (wnp25.10813) and after (wnp25.10876) restoration in the 1970s. (Judith Lynch photographs, courtesy of a private collector.)

The stucco job that had been done on 4078 23rd Street wasn’t the worst—at least it had a “clean” look—but the residents of the home just off Castro Street wanted the return of Victorian style with a modern touch hidden in the backyard in the form of a modular atrium.

Woman waving from inside contemporary atrium in backyard of restored Victorian house at 4078 23rd Street.Woman waving from inside contemporary atrium in backyard of restored Victorian house at 4078 23rd Street. (wnp25.10706.jpg; Judith Lynch photograph, courtesy of a private collector.)

4160-4168 17th Street

4160-4168 17th St in disrepair and vacant awaiting rehabilitation.4160-4168 17th Street in disrepair and vacant awaiting rehabilitation, 1970s. (wnp25.10776.jpg; Judith Lynch photograph, courtesy of a private collector.)

When I first saw the “before” slide of these Stick Victorian flats I couldn’t help but exclaim “Those aren’t around anymore,” only to eat my words when we figured out their location on the well-traveled 17th Street between Cole Valley and the Castro. This was an amazing restoration job that can still be appreciated today.

4160-4168 17th Street after restoration.4160-4168 17th Street after restoration, 1970s. (wnp25.10872.jpg; Judith Lynch photograph, courtesy of a private collector.)

Pennsylvania near 25th

On the east side of Potrero Hill, with PG&E’s enormous gas holder looming over it, the flat front Italianate received a much-needed paint job.

Pennsylvania near 25th Street, with 1002 Pennsylvania before (wnp25.1634) and after (wnp25.10870) painting in the 1970s. (Judith Lynch photographs, courtesy of a private collector.)

The massive gas holder is gone, replaced by condominiums as part of the upscale building boom that has been echoing along the eastern waterfront for the last decade. What is still standing is 1002 Pennsylvania Avenue.

3514 21st Street

The most dramatic transformation we have seen so far in these slides. Luckily, a side elevation of the building had escaped the stucco modernization that the façade had endured. A template for the complete recreation was just around the corner.

3514 21st Street with modernized stucco facade with side elevation of Victorian style intact, 1970s.3514 21st Street with modernized stucco facade with side elevation of Victorian style intact, 1970s. (wnp25.10359.jpg; Judith Lynch photograph, courtesy of a private collector.)

3514 21st Street in process of restoration, 1970s.3514 21st Street in process of restoration, 1970s. (wnp25.10698.jpg; Judith Lynch photograph, courtesy of a private collector.)

3514 21st Street after restoration, 1970s.3514 21st Street after restoration, 1970s. (wnp25.10699.jpg; Judith Lynch photograph, courtesy of a private collector.)

Again, our great thanks to Judith Lynch and The Victorian Alliance of San Francisco for their support in scanning and posting these images to OpenSFHistory.

View all the Judith Lynch slides posted so far to date.