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"2008 Lecture Series: The Great Expositions of the Gilded Age"

"Celebrating Enterprise and Exploration: The 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition"

Dr. Gray Brechin

February 10, 2008

3:00 P.M.

Author and lauded historian, Dr. Gray Brechin, discusses the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. It was the most complex project ever undertaken by the people of San Francisco, who erected glittering palaces, parks, and exhibition halls from the ruins of the 1906 earthquake. The city proved itself the “Paris of the West” as it celebrated the completion of the Panama Canal, and also commemorated the 400th anniversary of the discovering of the Pacific Ocean by the explorer, Balboa.

Every state in the Union had a building represented at the exposition, and even though there was a World War in progress, almost every major nation in the world was able to construct an exhibit. The tallest most well-recognized building of the World’s Fair was the Tower of Jewels. The 43 story building was covered by more than a hundred thousand colored glass "jewels" that dangled and reflected light. Never before had there been a fair who's architectural focus had been so all-encompassing. The fair sprawled 635 acres showcasing art, fashion, food, technology and cultures from around the world.

The fair was as much about exhibiting the latest art as it was letting people experience the latest technology. The first transcontinental phone call was placed to the fair. There was a popular exhibit of submarine mines and torpedoes, as well as electrical exhibits by Westinghouse and Edison, and General Electric designed all the illumination for the Exposition. Henry Ford even made forty-four hundred cars in his miniature assembly plant in the Palace of Transportation. Many well known American entrepreneurs and companies had exhibits at the fair including, the Gillette Safety Razor Co., Wrigley’s, Hearst Newspapers, Harley Davidson, and a then unknown Allan Loughead (who later Americanized his name to Lockheed) gave airplane rides over the San Francisco Bay. - Flagler Museum

"One hundred years of quaking at the Pacific Film Archive"

By Dennis Harvey

Earthquakes are just about the evolutionary start point for cinematic spectacle, whether it’s Fatty Arbuckle landing on his arse or Los Angeles landing on an all-star cast in the camp-classic 1970s disaster flick “Earthquake.” Jiggle the camera. Wiggle the actors. Throw some trash around and drop a couple papier-mache boulders….

Of course, this isn’t quite so funny if you actually live where large sudden fissures have periodically made life very difficult in the past and no doubt will do so again. But that hasn’t stopped Hollywood filmmakers from utilizing seismic action for fun and/or profit.

Many Bay Area exhibits, seminars and art events will pay tribute to the centenary of the Really Big One this year, but few will be more entertaining than the Pacific Film Arcive’s 65 Seconds That Shook the World: Commemorating the 1906 Earthquake. Rattling Berkeley this weekend only, the four-night series encompasses titles from the shocking to the schlocking, from the avant-garde to the very old-guard.

None could be older than those on Saturday’s program, a lecture by geographer/historian Gray Brechin that will be illustrated by rare silent shorts actually shot in the wake of S.F.‘s catastrophe one hundred years ago. These Library of Congress artifacts capture the infamous post-quake fires, ruined city landmarks, refugee camps and military emergency operations.

- CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT San Francisco Film Society

"City Hosts National Architecture Conference, May 7-10"

In the Garden of the Sun: California's San Joaquin Valley

The City of Fresno’s Planning and Development Department and the Fresno Historical Society are co-sponsoring the annual conference of the Vernacular Architecture Forum (VAF) May 7-10, 2008. The VAF is a national organization of scholars, professionals and graduate students with an interest in regional building, historic landscapes and cultural heritage. Each year a conference is held in some part of the United States or Canada --- this is only the second time in 30 years that the group has held its annual meeting in California.

Over the four days, conferees will attend lectures, take themed tours of the area and enjoy numerous meals that highlight our region’s ethnic heritage, including a catered lunch by the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church. The final day of the conference, Saturday May 10th, will feature a full slate of scholarly papers. A preservation roundtable with California’s State Historic Preservation Officer Milford Wayne Donaldson will close the formal session, scheduled to begin at 4pm.

The conference will include several talks that are open to the public free of charge. The first night plenary on May 7 will be held at the Fresno City Hall and will feature a keynote talk by author Gerald Haslam, Ph.D. on “The Other California.” Thursday evening, May 8, John King of the San Francisco Chronicle, will talk about “Today’s Vernacular Architecture.” A Saturday Presidential session at 12:45 pm will feature slide talks by Gray Brechin on the New Deal and Donna Graves on California’s Japan Towns. The Thursday evening and Saturday talks will be in Salon A-1 at the Radisson Hotel and are underwritten by a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
- City of Fresno

"S.F. historian Gray Brechin's New Deal"

Gray Brechin is a historian whose appearance and giddy erudition suggest he might be Truman Capote's long-lost twin. When I visited him at his UC Berkeley office recently, he excitedly showed me sepia-toned photographs of a lost civilization.

Matt Smith on S.F. Historian Gray Brechin

The grandeur of this bygone society's public monuments was unrivaled. There was a glorious open-air theater, bathhouses designed as citadels, and a majestic "Temple of Honor" dedicated to past and future writers. Even mere secondary schools were built to rival Byzantine temples. A school for crippled and malnourished children was covered in Spanish tiles, its stenciled ceilings hung with chandeliers, and filled with the era's finest in handcrafted furniture.

"They said at the time that it was deliberate, because they wanted them to take their minds off their afflictions," says Brechin, describing the Mission District's Sunshine School for disabled children, which was built in 1936. The Byzantine-esque school is George Washington High School in the Richmond — "an Art Deco Acropolis," he says. The writers' temple is the now-well-worn Woodminster Amphitheater in the hills east of Oakland.

This lost society Brechin describes reflects the intensely public-spirited America that existed in the years during and following the New Deal, when workers built thousands of exquisite monuments to public life, and Americans responded by rebuilding the country during and after the Great Depression.

Brechin and a team of researchers have spent years creating their Living New Deal Project, seeking out and chronicling the often-forgotten works of the Works Progress Administration, the Public Works Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Writers Project, and the other "alphabet agencies" that transformed America's landscape during a decade that straddled the 1930s and '40s.

I thought about Brechin's work while watching Barack Obama's inaugural appeal for Americans to dedicate ourselves to helping each other in ways that are tolerant, selfless, and courageous. We're all used to presidential entreaties: Bill Clinton's inaugural address described a "mystery of American renewal" based on national self-sacrifice. And we won't forget George H.W. Bush's "thousand points of light."

On its own, Obama's invocation to public service will likewise ring hollow if it isn't followed by visible proof that an inspired nation heeded his words. That's because the history of the New Deal assembled by Brechin and his fellow researchers reminded me that moral appeals aren't nearly as effective at inspiring public-spiritedness as inanimate, manmade objects are. Public schools, parks, bathhouses, exhibition halls, theaters, and other such amenities compel us to recognize each other's humanity and imagine a common purpose.

Given that San Francisco was one of the greatest beneficiaries of New Deal largesse, perhaps it's no accident that the city was subsequently the center of historic public-minded movements such as dockside labor militancy in the 1950s, the antiwar movement in the 1960s, and gay liberation in the 1970s. Such great New Deal works as George Fuller's Rincon Annex Post Office decorated with Anton Refregier's murals; the Versailles-like Strybing Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, and the luxurious de Young Museum brought together people from all walks of life in magnificent public settings. These public monuments acted as equalizers that helped inspire San Franciscans to seek social justice. (See a map of these New Deal projects online at

Now, as the country enters a new political era, San Franciscans might want to look up some of the dozens of San Francisco New Deal artifacts and sites and visit some of them to plot how we'll use our newfound national political standing with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi finally able to work alongside a Democratic administration.

As we anticipate President Obama's proposed massive infrastructure spending, it's worth urging the Bay Area's congressional delegation to direct some of that money to local projects with New Deal-like potential to enhance public life. The stalled Transbay Terminal, and sclerotic plans to rebuild the worst of the city's decayed public housing projects, are shovel-ready proposals that could go a long way toward uniting our still racially fractured city. As the state government struggles with near-bankruptcy, there could be no better time to revisit Proposition 13, the 1978 antitax measure that represented California's abandonment of New Deal values.

"It was just such a relief to hear Obama the other day say these things that Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and their projects said all the time to you," Brechin said. "They still do. We just don't notice them anymore."

In his preface to the 2007 rerelease of his book, Imperial San Francisco, Brechin described how turn-of-the-century robber - S F Weekly

"Civil Works for Cynical Times"

by Bob Schildgen

It's hard enough to imagine 3 billion trees, let alone plant them, but that's how many were put in the ground by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Established in 1933, the CCC became one of the most popular of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal programs, which included the Civil Works Administration (CWA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Public Works Administration (PWA). With the unemployment rate nearing 25 percent at that stage of the Great Depression, the "alphabet soup" agencies stepped in to rapidly create millions of jobs.

From today's standpoint, your view of the New Deal likely depends on your politics; liberals tend to celebrate the New Deal for having established a "social safety net," while conservatives decry it for having inaugurated a "welfare state." To Gray Brechin '71, M.A. '76, Ph.D. '98, architectural historian, author, and visiting scholar at Berkeley's geography department, neither view adequately captures the story of the New Deal, which he regards as the most successful public works project in history.

"A huge amount of infrastructure was created during the New Deal," Brechin says. "Municipal water and sewage systems, airports, parks, and schools. We take all this for granted today, and often don't have the slightest idea who built it." The projects included construction or repair of 650,000 miles of roads, 75,000 bridges, and 800 airports, as well as two-thirds of the new sewage-disposal plants. "A third of Southern California would not be permanently habitable," Brechin notes, "if it weren't for drainage and flood-control systems built by the WPA and PWA. They essentially built the public school system in Southern California—literally built hundreds of schools still in use."

The economic ramifications of all that construction have never been fully recognized or studied, contends Brechin. "It has never been properly acknowledged as a source of post-war prosperity. No one has put a quantitative value on it." One major reason for this lack of historical attention, he surmises, is that the agencies disbanded because of World War II. In the wake of the war, there was neither the impetus for reassessment, nor agency personnel to conduct such analyses.

That ol' New Deal:
In the 75 years since FDR launched the New Deal, the work of the Depression-era agencies he created has largely been forgotten. The Living New Deal Project helps to remedy our cultural amnesia. Go online to find a site near you or add one that hasn't yet been cataloged.

Fast-forward to the present. In an effort to stimulate research and recover the history of the people and institutions that participated in California New Deal projects, Brechin has helped establish the Living New Deal Project in conjunction with the California Historical Society and Berkeley's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment Library and the California Studies Center. The project's online database ( not only allows researchers, students, and curious citizens to tap into the history of Golden State projects, it also lets them participate in writing that history. Visitors can post their own discoveries and recollections on the site, and the information will be verified by grad students at the California Studies Center.

To bring the project to fruition, Brechin has been working "like an archaeologist" to unearth New Deal projects across California, including on the Berkeley campus. He notes that "a lot of work in the Bancroft Library preserving and translating documents was done by these people. CCC worked in Strawberry Canyon, and every park in San Francisco involved New Deal programs."

Ultimately, Brechin hopes the project will serve as a kind of civics lesson and an antidote to the cynicism he believes permeates today's politics. "We've got to get back to the idea that government is us, and doesn't have to be corrupt or confiscatory. We should be getting our investment back. But if you make government the enemy, you lose democracy." - California Alumni

"Interview with Dr. Gray Brechin"

Unpublished interview with Dr. Gray Brechin (1999)

The following interview by Russell Schoch was scheduled to run in the September, 1999 issue of the California Monthly, the magazine of California Alumni Association. Just before the issue went to press, the Executive Committee of the Association instructed editor Schoch to delete if from the magazine. No explanation for the Committee's summary execution was ever given to the subject of the interview.

An independent scholar who seems out of place in late 20th century California has written a peculiar and extraordinary account of our time and place. A man who dislikes much of modern life, including its media and its emphasis on getting and spending, has connected those dominant areas of our life and suggested some of their poisonous effects. A former student who passionately loves the Berkeley campus of the University of California has managed to say some awfully rude things about it.

Gray Brechin, '72, M.A. '76, Ph.D. '99, first discovered Berkeley when he got lost in its hills and simultaneously decided this was the place he would live. In high school, growing up in Los Altos, he walked the streets of San Francisco, looking at its architecture and noting the family names attached to the buildings. After two years at the University of Washington, he drove to Berkeley, took a wrong turn and wandered through the hills while looking for the campus, and then enrolled as an undergraduate. But he fled the chaotic campus of the late '60s ("It was horrible," he says) for Europe, returning three times to earn degrees in history, the history of art, and geography. And he has used the opening of thought unleashed in the 1960s to craft his new book, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, which the University of California Press will publish this month.

Brechin, now 51, has been a successful television journalist for KRON-TV and KQED-TV ("I'm very comfortable in front of a camera") and a print journalist, writing columns for San Francisco Focus and SF magazines. The Emmy-nominated KQED documentary on which he worked with producer Joe Kwong about the poisoned Kesterson wildlife refuge helped lead to a clean-up of that mess; and his article "Elegy for a Dying Lake," sparked the movement to save Mono Lake. In the mid-1980s, he watched, from the inside, as a Big Chill cooled the media's ability to offer critical and historically informed content; what emerged in its place he calls "consumer media." Though he's a scholar in every fiber of his being — the happiest period of his life was when he lived alone with his books in a Franciscan convent in Italy — he is wary of the academic life, which he believes is often inimical to the scholar's life.

Brechin's book on San Francisco takes off from the new urban history practiced by Mike Davis on Los Angeles (in City of Quartz) and William Cronon on Chicago (in Nature's Metropolis). "Gray's book is Nature's Metropolis with fangs," says Professor Richard Walker of Berkeley Department of Geography. After witnessing a slide show Brechin gave as he was working out the ideas for Imperial San Francisco, Walker suggested that Brechin return, once again, to the Berkeley campus and turn that slide show into what became his dissertation, and now a book.

Imperial San Francisco is a look at how our favorite city built itself up by ravaging the hinterlands — the Sierra Nevada during the Gold Rush, the Central Valley during its quest for water and wealth, and the Bay itself, poisoned by the toxic wastes left over from its (ultimately unrealized) vision of itself as an imperial city. Unlike Cronon in his book on Chicago, however, Brechin names and assigns blame for these ravishments. The names are those of the powerful families in "The City." the de Youngs, Spreckels, and Hearsts, among others. "A city doesn't do things by itself," Brechin says. "There are people in power who benefit from the growth of cities." The book is extraordinary for nothing else than its tales of sabotage, blackmail, fraud, even murder. Early readers of the book say there are several operas and perhaps a TV mini-series in its pages.

While he was writing his dissertation at Berkeley, Brechin joined photographer Robert Dawson to produce Farewell, Promised Land, published earlier this year by UC Press. That book is a sobering vision of California's environmental mess. "I look at Farewell, Promised Land as a study of the symptoms and Imperial San Francisco as a study of the disease itself," Brechin says.

For the audience of this magazine — where Brechin published one of his first articles in 1978 — the final chapter of his new book will be the most disturbing. Among the first people to examine the declassified papers of Berkeley icon Ernest O. Lawrence, Brechin draws close connections between the University and the 5.5 trillion-dollar nuclear arms race, a connection he says has been hitherto carefully hidden.
Q & A

In your new book, you t - Unpublished

"Public Relations (Again) Trumps Public Safety at UC Berkeley"

Gray Brechin Special to the Planet
Thursday October 16, 2008
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A bird's-eye view of Memorial Stadium from a vintage photo postcard.
Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association
A bird's-eye view of Memorial Stadium from a vintage photo postcard.
Memorial Stadium under construction.
Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association
Memorial Stadium under construction.
With the alacrity of a dying sloth, the San Francisco Chronicle waited until the University of California had evicted and arrested the remaining tree-sitters at California Memorial Stadium before asking what it should have at the top of the hour: Is the stadium safe, and can it ever be made safe enough to accommodate anyone, let alone 75,000 spectators?

The front page of the Sept. 21 sporting section featured an article entitled “Stadium on the Brink” with a photograph of rotted wooden seats and the lead sentence that the structure would be “definitely the worst place to be, as a player or a fan or anybody else, during an earthquake.” Four days later, reporter Carolyn Jones detailed the latest plans to make safer a structure straddling a fault that is cocked, loaded, and ready to rip. She gave the university’s public relations front man, Dan Mogulof, final word: “We remain completely confident we’re compliant with [the] Alquist-Priolo [Act.]” insisted Mogulof. “We’re excited to finally move forward with this retrofit project. Our primary goal has always been safety.”

If that assertion had any meaning for those still in the reality-based community, the university would have long ago closed the stadium to high occupancy events and moved its daily occupants—including its star coach Jeff Tedford—to a surge building where they would indeed be safer. Indeed, it would never have built the stadium and much else in Strawberry Canyon against expert advice in the first place.

But that is not how an ever less public, ever more commercial university operates as it attempts to raise millions from loyal alums for the stadium retrofit while proceeding quietly and knowingly to build on extremely hazardous footings above it. “That’s the way the university operates,” says emeritus geology professor Graniss Curtiss in frustration. ”They take nobody’s advice, they do what they want to do.” It is presumably easier to beef up the university’s public relations and marketing arm that occupies the same safe surge facility as Intercollegiate Sports west of Hearst Gym.

Cal Memorial Stadium was originally a bait-and-switch job that sundered previously good relations between Town and Gown while poisoning the academic grove itself. As the university began to solicit private donations in 1921 to build a football coliseum memorializing Californians killed in the Great War, it led alumni to believe that the stadium would be located near public transit on the southwest corner of campus, its long axis on line with Ellsworth Street. At its Jan. 7 meeting in 1922, however, the Regents decided to move the project to the constricted mouth of Strawberry Canyon, a designated nature area and much-loved passage from the campus into the Berkeley hills. Their ostensible reason was that land acquisition at the initial site would have been too expensive, but when interviewed in his late 80s by the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office, architect and seismic engineer Walter Steilberg recalled that a relative of one of the regents whom he called a “super salesman” persuaded the trustees to create a “dirt bowl” like those recently built at Stanford and Yale. Such a project in the canyon would require extensive blasting and land fill, but the “salesman” got a job in the process

It could have been worse, Steilberg added. He credited himself with stopping the university from entirely tearing down Big C Hill by making a model showing the “horrible scar” that would result. The damage done by dynamite and hydraulic monitors in the opening months of 1923 was bad enough; a scrim of trees hides some of the scar on the hill sluiced into the canyon to make a podium for the stadium.

Steilberg fought the new location, recalling that “many of the faculty, especially the engineering and scientific people, [were] opposed; and the geologists were shocked by the idea of putting it right on the fault line.” A committee of citizens bitterly opposed the university’s plans to sacrifice “one of Nature’s priceless gems to the purpose of commercialized ‘sport,’” warning that it “must bear the responsibility for the safety of thousands.” Panoramic Hill resident William Henry Smyth further wrote at the time that “last come the Regents who are interested and will be deemed responsible for the outcome in all its phases whether of glorious success or of tragic disaster flowing from the selection of the canyon site.”

The director of the California Academy of Sciences, Dr. Barton W. Evermann, and Botany Professor Harvey M. Hall - Berkeley Daily Planet

"We Need A New Deal Now"

The ?owering of public construction and employment during the New Deal that many people believe saved
America during the Great Depression offers lessons for today far beyond architecture, says Gray Brechin,who has launched a treasure hunt to locate and share the riches of the New Deal. Researcher Brechin,from UC Berkeley’s Geography Department,told delegates at the CFT Convention that lavishly funded right-wing think tanks have since the 1970s started to kill what remains of the New Deal.
Nonetheless,he admires the message Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered during an era of economic collapse,especially “when the president we have now has nothing to peddle but fear itself.”
Brechin was referring to the oft-quoted line from Roosevelt’s ?rst inaugural address in March
1933,by many measures the depth of the depression,when he told Americans,“Let me assert my ?rm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

The “Alphabet Agencies” Roosevelt responded to the ?scal crises of the 1930s with The New Deal,creating an alphabet soup of new agencies that hired millions of destitute citizens and built thousands of infrastructure projects,from schools and libraries to public parks,many of them still in use
today. For example,the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) hired 3.5 million young men “to
redeem the land and themselves,” Brechin explained....
- California Teacher


Still working on that hot first release.



I GREW UP IN AND WITNESSED FIRSTHAND the conversion of California's from carbon- to silicon-based life forms. That epic transformation required historical amnesia among residents and promoters alike in order to keep the speculative bubble inflating, as well as to deaden the pain that might be occasioned by recalling what replaced in the course of its triumph. Witnessing that change from the organic community of soil to the commodity value of real estate there and beyond imbued me with a lasting concern for the environmental costs of perpetual and heedless urban growth.

During a winter sojourn in in 1985-6, I began to think systematically about the parasitism common to all great cities throughout history. I returned to the U.C. Geography Department in 1992 to write a dissertation that would use San Francisco as a paradigm of how cities historically use remote control technology, military force, and thought control to exploit far-flung hinterlands. The published "Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin" in 1999. The book spent sixteen weeks on the 's best-seller list and is now a classic. called it "a great gift" and Jan Morris "one of the very best books I have ever read about a place."

Seeking a way out of the gloom occasioned by my earlier writings as well as the related environmental, political, and spiritual crises accelerating in the 21st century, I began in 2003 to study the nearly invisible legacy of public works left us from President Franklin Roosevelt�s New Deal. That study led beyond the physical objects themselves to the humanistic vision, compassion, and projected courage of Franklin and and of those whom they gathered around themselves to alleviate the terror of the last ( In their example � and especially in FDR�s enunciation of an international �second bill of rights� as the only way to stop war in his 1944 address to Congress � I found a viable alternative to the gathering catastrophes of free market fundamentalism. I am currently vice president of the National New Deal Preservation Association ( and a visiting scholar at the U.C. Berkeley Department of Geography where I am writing a book. "Another World Was Possible" will remind those who have forgotten what government at its best can do to promote peace, education, and the common good.