Home -> John J. Newbegin -> The Jewel City -> Chapter XIII. The Exposition Illuminated

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The Exposition Illuminated

First attempt to light an exposition indirectly, from concealed sources - Notable success of Ryan's work - Transformation of the Tower of Jewels - Details of his method - Weirdness of the Court of Ages at night.

Beautiful as the Exposition is by day, it is at night that it becomes loveliest as a spectacle. Then it is a great glow of soft color, without shadow, but also without garishness. Never before has the attempt been made to light an exposition as this one is lighted. The highest standard before attained was a blaze of electric light secured by outlining the buildings with incandescent bulbs. That was the work of electricians. Here the illuminators are artists who have created a great picture of light and color.

There is no blaze or glare. Light floods the Exposition, but from concealed sources. All-pervasive, seemingly without source, the illumination is rather a quality of the Exposition atmosphere than an effect of lights. Nor is it a white light. It is softened and tinged with the warmest and mellowest of colors. So mellow, indeed, is the illumination that it would not even be brilliant but for the radiance of thousands of prisms hung about the great Tower of Jewels, the intense light of which swathes the lofty structure in a pure glow, at once bright and ethereal. (p. 135.)

Above the glow in which the palaces are bathed, a pageant of light and color marches across the sky, a splendid aurora borealis, its bannered troops now wheeling in ordered array, now breaking their formation in wild riot, until out of the fantastic show huge beams of light separate to pierce the heavens.

This unique system of illumination, devised by W. D'A. Ryan expressly for the Panama-Pacific Exposition depends upon floods of light from concealed sources. Around the walls of the palaces stand tall Venetian masts, topped with shields or banners. Concealed behind the heraldic emblems are powerful magnesite arc lamps. These spread their intense glow on the walls, but are hardly recognized as sources of light by the passer-by on the avenues. Batteries of searchlights and projectors mounted on the tops of buildings light the towers, the domes, and the statuary. Even the banners on the walls are held in the spotlights of small projectors constantly trained on them. That there may be no shadows, concealed incandescent bulbs light up every corner and angle of the towers, the arches, and the cloisters.

The ghostly radiance of the Tower of Jewels comes from huge searchlights aimed at it from a circle of hidden stations. The many-colored fan of enormous rays, the Scintillator, which stands against the sky behind the Exposition, is produced by a searchlight battery of thirty-six great projectors mounted on the breakwater of the Yacht Harbor. It is manned nightly by a company of marines, who manipulate the fan in precise drills.

Concealed lights shine through the waters of the fountains. In the Court of the Universe they are white, the colorless brilliance of the stars; in the Court of Seasons they are green, the color of nature; in the Court of the Ages they are red, with clouds of rosy steam rising around them. Writhing serpents spout leaping gas flames on the altars set around the pool of the Ages, and from other altars set by the entrances of the Court rise clouds of steam given the semblance of flame by concealed red lights. By the high altar on the Tower of Ages the same device is used to make the lights flame like huge torches.

The palaces themselves are not lighted at night, though they have the appearance of being illuminated. Behind each window and doorway are hung strings of lights backed by reflectors. A soft glow of light comes forth, giving animation to the palaces and strengthening the picture outside.

There are two ways to see the Exposition at night, both of which must be followed if one is to get the fullest appreciation of the magic beauty of the lighting. One is to wander about the palaces and courts in the midst of the soft flood of mysterious light, watching the play of the fountains, the barbaric flames of the Court of Ages, the green shimmer of the waters in the Court of Seasons, the banners fluttering in strong white light, the statuary in changing hues according to the color screens used before the projectors, the Aurora Borealis above the Scintillator battery.

The other is from a distance. I have seen the illuminated Exposition from the top of Mount Tamalpais, whence it was a wondrous spectacle. But best of all I like to watch it from the hill at the corner of Broadway and Divisadero streets. It is best to go there early, before the lights are turned on. Then you may see the wonderful rosy glow of the Tower of Jewels and the two Italian towers before the white light of the projectors is flashed on them. Red incandescents are hidden behind all the columns of the Tower of Jewels and concealed in each of the Italian towers, as well as in the open spaces in and around the dome of Festival Hall. These are always turned on first. The Tower of Jewels then glows with a soft mellow red, less brilliant, but warmer and more colorful than its incandescence later on. The rich light wells up from the Italian towers and Festival Hall, and spreads from all their openings to stain the walls around with deep rose.

Then the ray of a searchlight falls on the Bowman atop the Column of Progress, silhouetting that heroic figure in the night as though he floated at a great height above the earth. Beams from other searchlights cause the Nations of East and West to stand out with startling distinctness on their triumphal arches; the great bulls of the Court of Seasons glow against the night; the golden fires are lighted in the Court of Ages. The tall masts around the palaces softly illuminate the walls. First one side and then another of the Tower of Jewels is bathed in white light, until the Tower stands out in ghostly radiance. Two slender shafts of light shoot upward on either side of the globe atop the Tower and stand there, symbols of pure aspiration reaching to the heavens. Behind it all the huge and many-colored fan of the Scintillator opens in gorgeous color in the northern sky.

The illumination is at its best on a misty night. Then its spectacular effects become more spectacular. The moisture in the air provides a screen to catch the colored lights and make them visible in their fullest beauty. The Exposition recognized this need of a background for the great beams of the Scintillator when it provided for the clouds of steam that are nightly sent floating upward through the shafts of colored light. Nothing brings out the wonder of the Court of Ages at night like mist or fog. On the first night that all the illumination was given a full rehearsal it was raining slightly. The incandescence of the great globe of the Earth, the leaping flames on the altars by the pool, the rosy clouds over the bowls by the entrances and from the torches on the high Altar of the Ages, became strange, mystic, almost uncanny.

Of the beautiful light that falls upon the Palace of Fine Arts (p. 137), I can do no better than to quote from Royal Cortissoz: "At night and illuminated, it might be a scene from Rome or from Egypt, a gigantic ruin of some masterpiece left by Emperor or Pharaoh. The lagoon is bordered by more of those heavenly hedges that I have described. There are trees and thickets to add to the bewilderment of the place, to make it veritably the silenzio verde of the poet. And with the ineffable tact which marks the lighting of the Fair, this serene spot is left almost, but not quite, to the dim loveliness of night. The glow that is given its full value elsewhere is here at its faintest. The pageant ends in a hush that is as much of the spirit as of the senses."

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