Grand Court of Honor at the 1894 Midwinter Fair
Location: California Midwinter International Exposition, Golden Gate Park (centered on what would become the Music Concourse), San Francisco, CA
Demolished: by 1896, with the exception of the Memorial Museum, which lasted until 1928
Four of the five Grand Court of Honor buildings constructed for the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894 were designed only to stand for the few months of the fair. Walls made to look like stone or adobe were really molded plaster and burlap.
Fine Arts Building
Only the Fine Arts Building, donated by Michael de Young as a museum for Golden Gate Park, wasn't as ephemeral as the fairy tales the fantastic structures seemed made for. Designed by architect C.C. McDougal in the form of an Egyptian temple with sphinxes and hieroglyphic reliefs, the building was still somehow described as “simple in form and unpretentious in design,” demonstrating how high the bar had been set for garishness. Only 120' by 60' and lacking windows to bring in natural light, the Fine Arts Building was disliked by the artists whose sculptures and paintings it held, but it still ended up being the progenitor of the de Young Museum that stands just to the west of the original site today.
Horticulture and Agriculture Hall
The fair’s Horticulture and Agriculture building stood where the modern de Young is today. Designed by Samuel Newsom and costing $58,000 to build, the exterior gave off an air of California Mission mixed with Romanesque styles. Three domes, the largest one hundred feet across and 99 feet high, let in light for the plants and flowers displayed inside, and were brilliantly illuminated at night. California’s fecundity was on full display in the 400' x 200' hall, with displays and even sculptures made of the state’s agricultural bounty.
Mechanical Arts Building
On the opposite side of the court, where the California Academy of Sciences stands today, the Mechanical Arts Building occupied an acre of space (300' x 160') and held inside working dynamos to generate the fair’s electricity, locomotives, streetcars, mining machinery, and displays of the latest in mechanical engineering science. The architect was Edward Swain, who created a façade with turrets and balconies that called to mind the Indian subcontinent rather than Northern California.
Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building
At the east end of the oval the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building by Arthur Page Brown acted as an enormous basilica to commercial goods. Everything from ladies’ fans to soup spoons were on display, with imports from around the world. The cream-colored hall, with a 130' blue dome in its center and 14,000 square feet of glass in its roof, was 462' by 225' and cost $113,000 to build. It was not only the largest building at the fair, but at the time of its construction, the largest building in California.
The west end of the Court of Honor, where the Speckels Temple of Music Stand (built in 1904) is today, was the Administration Building, created for the offices of fair department chiefs and general administration of the exposition.
Another Arthur Page Brown design, the tower pulled together every world tradition, with Arabic, Byzantine, Gothic and Islamic elements. It looked a lot like a giant confection or dessert, colored pink, gold, cream and white and topped by a 135’ high gilt dome.
At the conclusion of the fair in July 1894, the organizers were supposed to remove the Court of Honor buildings and restore the valley to parkland. This process took much longer than expected, and it was mostly left to park administration and superintendent John McLeran to tear down the structures, sell the lumber, and dig up the concrete foundations. It wasn't until early 1896 that supports for the Electric Tower were dynamited and the structure sold for scrap.
Contribute your own stories about the Midwinter Fair!
Page launched 27 June 2014.