The Pan-Pacific Expo of 1915 might not have happened without key Jews

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The Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 was arguably the most spectacular cultural event ever held in San Francisco.

Filling 635 acres in what is now known as the Marina District — and leaving the Palace of Fine Arts as part of its legacy — the 287-day world’s fair was a stunning comeback from the devastation of the 1906 earthquake. San Francisco was open for business!

But without the leadership and support of San Francisco’s Jews, the fair might never have occurred.


Overview of the 1915 exposition

For starters, when San Francisco had to raise $5 million to compete with other U.S. cities for hosting rights, Isaias W. Hellman Jr. secured that amount from prominent businesspeople in his circles, including more than $4 million in pledges on one night, according to historian Frances Dinkelspiel, his great-granddaughter.


And even before that, when the location of the 1915 world’s fair was first being discussed, California Congressman Julius Kahn stepped to the fore. “He argued that San Francisco did not need a dime of federal funding because San Francisco could pay for it,” historian Fred Rosenbaum said. “And the donors he had in mind were the German Jewish community.

“It is not overstating it to say that the fair would not have come into existence without San Francisco’s German-Jewish community,” Rosenbaum added.


Isaias W. Hellman Jr.

To make sure that Jewish impact isn’t overlooked amid the more than 200 events in the exposition’s yearlong centennial celebration, “The Jews and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915” is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 11 at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. The free, two-hour program is being presented by the California Historical Society, Lehrhaus Judaica and Congregation Emanu-El.


Rosenbaum and Dinkelspiel will be on a panel along with historian Ava Kahn, author of “Jewish Life in the American West.” Rosenbaum is the founding director of Lehrhaus Judaica and author of “Cosmopolitans: A Social and Cultural History of the Jews of the San Francisco Bay Area.” Dinkelspiel wrote “Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman [Sr.] Created California.”

Together they will explore the role the local Jewish community played in realizing San Francisco’s dream of a world’s fair to celebrate the 1914 opening of the Panama Canal and the city’s resurgence from the Great Earthquake.

That Jews were pivotal in San Francisco’s early history is well known.

“Nowhere else in the United States, with the possible exception of New York, were Jews so vital to an American city as a whole, as in San Francisco,” Rosenbaum said. “They were important in the professions, in the arts, in business and in politics, and a key group in philanthropy.”

That carried right into the 1915 exposition. Of the original six men on the event’s board of directors, three were Jews, including Hellman Jr. He helped bring President William Howard Taft to Golden Gate Park, where they turned over a symbolic shovel of soil to mark their commitment — though in the end the Marina won out as a better location.


Julius Kahn

Alfred Esberg chaired the budget committee. J.B. Levison was in charge of the music, taking it upon himself to hire high-quality musicians from Europe and the East Coast. Hattie Sloss, the wife of California Supreme Court Justice Marcus Sloss, headed up the Women’s Exposition.


Rosenbaum’s lecture will focus on why the San Francisco Jewish community was so invested in the fair.

San Francisco’s economy had been damaged by the earthquake, but it bounced back and the city was, in fact, “the colossus of the West Coast and the gateway to Asian trade,” he said.

But the city’s image had been tarnished by a 1906-09 scandal of municipal corruption, at the center of which was a Jew, political boss Abe Ruef. He was sentenced to a term at San Quentin, but the potential after-effects were on the minds of the local Jewish community.

“They wanted a clean fair that risked no charges of corruption or infamy of any kind,” Rosenbaum said.

They also wanted money flowing into the city. “The German-Jewish community was interested in attracting foreign and East Coast investment — that was their chief goal,” Dinkelspiel said.

Another important factor was World War I, soon to bear down on the United States. “Many people asked: Should we cancel the fair? How do you hold a fair during a world war?” Rosenbaum recounted.


J.B. Levison

The war was of particular concern to San Francisco’s Jewish community because many of them were of German origin. Though the United States wouldn’t enter the war for two more years, “they were nervous about having their national loyalty questioned,” he said. This fair offered a way for them to demonstrate their commitment to, and immersion in, America.


But, above all, the fair was remarkable as a reflection of the imagination of the people of that era, Rosenbaum said.

The first transcontinental telephone call was made from the grounds of the exposition; New Yorkers could listen to the Pacific Ocean. It was at the fair that engineer J.B. Strauss got his idea to design the Golden Gate Bridge. The Women’s Exposition at the fair also provided a new, very visible platform for the cause of women’s suffrage, a historic chapter that Kahn will discuss.

The exposition, which ran from Feb. 20 through Dec. 4, was arguably the best world’s fair ever produced anywhere in the United States. A Beaux-Arts-style wonderland using mostly temporary materials was created between Van Ness Avenue and the Presidio, with hundreds of statues and dozens of structures, such as the 435-foot Tower of Jewels with 102,000 cut-glass jewels, a six-acre replica of the Grand Canyon and a pop-up factory making Levi’s jeans. More than 18 million people — including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Charlie Chaplin, Helen Keller and former President Theodore Roosevelt — attended.

The fair also displayed the latest in architecture, music, dance, the visual arts, theater, food, education, agriculture, mining, transportation and communications — and all the new technologies teasing the 20th century.

 “The fair showed the world their aspirations for the future: economic, social and technological. It uplifted people just to be there,” Rosenbaum said. “And what followed was a century of innovation and development.”

“Resurgent, Resplendent San Francisco: The Jews and the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915.” 7p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11. At Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F. Free. or (415) 750-7545


Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull was J.'s culture editor from 2018 to 2021.