In 1934, with the United States still in the midst of the Great Depression, San Diego civic leaders sought proven ways to bring jobs, investments and tourists to the city. They chose an ambitious strategy modeled after the success of Chicago’s 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition and put together a plan for another exposition of their own for 1935.
Fair organizers performed an amazing feat by getting sponsors and exhibitors, including the U.S. government, Standard Oil and Bank of America to make major commitments so quickly. The Ford Motor Company was a late arrival to the Exposition. It was not until February that the Ford Company signed for a space, only three months from opening day. As the San Diego exposition’s major exhibitor, the Ford Company invested $2 million to build a showcase for its 1935 line of cars and its new V-8 engine.
By opening day, May 29, 1935, the dazzling white concrete Ford Building was ready to greet fairgoers. In the rotunda, the Court of Pacific Nations featured a revolving half-globe with 12 dioramas displayed. On the pillars that flanked the door leading to the open air courtyard, were two 40 foot murals titled the Spirit of Asia and the Spirit of America. Both of these figures were surrounded by smaller ones representing areas from which the necessary raw materials came.
The industrial exhibits began on the right side of the Rotunda. The visitors were ushered through an enclosed circular path in a counter clockwise direction around the courtyard to their starting point. The exhibit featured new cars and the processes to make them. Noteworthy cars on display included the first Ford car ever made, the first Model A, and the twenty-three-millionth Ford. One area featured laboratory exhibits demonstrating the manufacture of rubber parts, safety glass, and color enamels, while another featured the flow of raw materials as they became car parts; for example the fabrication of iron and steel into parts and use of soy beans in the making of oils in manufacturing and finishes.
Conscious of the visitors’ comfort, the Ford Building was designed with ample seating for weary fairgoers. Areas included the gardens at the entrance, the open-aired courtyard, and the promenade leading to the Roads of the Pacific. Directly in front of the Ford Building was a rectangular pool with fountains, known as the Firestone Singing Fountains. Surrounded by lawns, flower beds and benches, the landscape was sculpted to spell the name of its sponsor, Firestone. Inside, in the open-aired courtyard, was featured a V-8 logo fountain with pepper trees and palms planted along the sides. Landscaping of this area was done by Milton Sessions, Kate Sessions’ nephew. As visitors rested in this pleasant atmosphere, they enjoyed along with the fountain, the music of a South-American group that played daily.
Yet another area for relaxing was located on the south end of the building, where umbrella covered tables overlooked downtown San Diego on a 200-foot terrace. This promenade had two stairways leading down to the Roads of the Pacific. Here fair attendees were chauffeured in Ford automobiles of their choice. The circuit roads were more than half a mile long and featured 14 different segments demonstrating everything from the Santa Fe Trail with natural packed soil, to the Old Spanish Road with cobblestones, clay, and gravel. Designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, each section was approximately 196 feet long and 12 feet wide. To enhance this experience, the roadways were planted with native trees and plants from the Pacific nations. A souvenir brochure stated, "On the Roads of the Pacific, one may swing back in imagination through a thousand years or more; riding at ease in a 1935 car…"
East of the Ford Building was the Ford Music Bowl, a clamshell structure with 3,000 seats. The Ford Motor Company supplied free entertainment for both years of the Exposition. Fair attendees were treated to Ford Motor presentations, concerts from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Diego Symphony Orchestra and the first Hammond electric organ made its debut here. A big boon for Ford advertising, the concerts were broadcast by radio across the United States for the benefit of those who did not attend the Exposition.
It was reported that more than 2.5 million people toured the Ford exhibit and 480,000 people rode the Roads of the Pacific. The success of the 1935 year led the fair organizers to extend it through 1936, at which time the Ford Building was renamed “The Palace of Transportation.” The “Ford” lettering was replaced with the word “Transportation.” The new exhibit highlighted all forms of transportation – from bicycles to steam engines. Ford automobiles were still prominently featured, as the company loaned several historic cars for this second year. Chauffeured Ford motor car rides continued on the Roads of the Pacific, rechristened Caminos del Pacifico for the 1936 season.
Movie studios, individuals and museums loaned many different transportation vehicles, including an Egyptian ceremonial boat, a Chinese junk, a Nieuport scouting plane, and a WACO cabin plane. A featured display was the Bowlus Albatross Glider which had been flown by Anne Morrow Lindbergh on her solo flight off San Diego’s Mount Soledad in January 1930. The completion of this six-minute flight earned her a first class glider pilot’s license, the first for a woman and only the tenth overall.With the change in theme came a new look inside the building. According to a 1936 Los Angeles Times article, 20,000 square feet of murals were painted by the Exposition’s art and technical director, Juan Larrinaga, assisted by Arthur Eneim and Albert McKiernan. The massive March of Transportation was painted on the inside wall of the circular exhibit hall. The mural chronicled human ideas and methods of transportation throughout history and into Larrinaga’s vision of the future.
The 1936 Exposition closed in September with an overall attendance of 2.5 million compared to the 4.8 million visitors in 1935.