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Panama-Pacific Centennial

February marked the 100th anniversary of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), the world’s fair that celebrated both America’s future engagement in the Pacific and the Phoenix-like resurrection of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fires. Throughout 2015, events are taking place commemorating and explaining the important developments of the PPIE.

In addition to year-long exhibits and events, this month alone will see programs featuring Sweden’s involvement in PPIE, an ethnic dance program commemorating the first-ever mainland U.S. performance of the ukulele at the PPIE, a celebration of the first Poet Laureate, Ina Coolbrith, who was installed at the PPIE, and a child-focused “History for Half Pints” program. Details on all of the events are online at ppie100.org/events.

Dr. Kevin Starr, California state librarian emeritus and arguably the leading historian of the state, says that PPIE’s anniversary is attracting so much attention because, “even though architecturally all we have still standing from that fair is the Palace of Fine Arts, the exposition represented an attitude about the city that was accurate then and still is today.

“It’s the relationship to the loss of the city in 1906 and the recovery of the city, the rebuilding of the city in such a rapid order,” said Starr. Speaking at a recent Commonwealth Club PPIE anniversary program, he noted that the preservation of the Palace of Fine Arts is not surprising, because architect Bernard Maybeck “saw it as a Piranesian text in which something was lost, and it was a melancholy reflection of what was lost. At the same time, the architecture evoked civilization and recovery.

“Major cities go through periods of imagining themselves, and they can be imagined through their artists,” Starr continued. “The Panama-Pacific International Exposition represents, in a mysterious way, a kind of reimagining, archetypal projection on the part of San Francisco of its identity as a city — a city of the mind, a city of imagination, a moral and intellectual construct as well as an actual physical and socioeconomic place.”

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