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Lighting the fantastic: Thomas Hastings

Jan-Carlos Kucharek

It may have only stood for seven months, but the Royal Gold Medallist's 'grand curiosity' sprinkled a little fairy dust over post-earthquake San Francisco

The Tower of Jewels at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition 1915. Albertype PC Avenue of Palms.
The Tower of Jewels at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition 1915. Albertype PC Avenue of Palms. Credit: ©Laura A Ackley

Royal Gold Medal winner 1922
The Tower of Jewels, San Francisco (1915)

If London’s 1851 Great Exhibition had its Crystal Palace, Paris its Eiffel Tower for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, then San Francisco had the 432ft high Tower of Jewels – the centrepiece and portal of its 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Designed by New York Public Library architect Thomas Hastings (1860-1929), the tower announced the city’s return to the world stage a decade after its earthquake and devastating fire. The 675 acre site in Presidio was to become a staggering temporary citadel of domes and minarets along the south shore of the Golden Gate.

But Hastings had his work cut out. Here, Beaux Arts neoclassicism melded with Spanish colonial, Moorish and Byzantine influences by a menagerie of the expo’s architects. All built in an innovative faux Travertine, styling was further guided by illumination chief Walter D’Arcy Ryan and ‘director of color’ Jules Guérin’s need for ‘earthy tones’. The former was crazy – to illuminate its 8 million ft² surface he used 823 searchlights and even had a 228 tonne steam engine jacked up on standby to create ‘fog’, if needed, for his nightly, rainbow-hued lightshow, ‘The Great Scintillator’. 

Hastings’ response to this over-the-top-ness was a neoclassical wedding cake on a massive scale, tier upon boxed tier of columns sitting atop a triumphal arch bigger than Paris’ Arc de Triomphe (it even had a quadriga). If size wasn’t enough, it was hung by hooks with over 100,000 coloured cut-glass crystals – ’Novagems’ – each with its own back mirror to respond to Ryan’s lighting obsession. 


  • Panama-Pacific International Exposition 1915. Real photo, hand-tinted.
    Panama-Pacific International Exposition 1915. Real photo, hand-tinted. Credit: ©Laura A Ackley
  • New York Public Library, Carrere and Hastings. The Rose Main Reading Room (1897-1911).
    New York Public Library, Carrere and Hastings. The Rose Main Reading Room (1897-1911). Credit: New York Public Library

Unlike Bernard Maybeck’s extant Temple of Fine Arts, universally praised at the time, the Tower of Jewels was less well-received. Originally slated to be taller, its ‘busy-ness’ and horizontality bothered contemporary architect John Barry, who noted: ‘If the outline had been clean, it would have achieved the soaring effect so essential to an inspiring tower.’ Eugen Neuhaus, while appreciating its colossal proportions, felt ‘it lacks that oneness of conception that characterises almost every other architectural unit in the exposition… devoid of much interest… the column motif repeated too often.’ But modern accounts are kinder. Expo historian Laura A Ackley calls it ‘a grand curiosity… early conceptual designs for the Tower were fairly dreadful, but I find the finished structure whimsical and satisfying, particularly with the addition of the glittering Novagems.’ 

It’s this I try to imagine. Due to the war, Germany, and indeed Britain, were not present at the show, but one wonders if Hastings, with his shimmering tower, had been aware of Bruno Taut’s crystal-hung Expressionist Glass House of the 1914 Cologne Werkbund Exhibition. For the seven months that the Tower of Jewels stood, it was both ephemeral and yet monumentally solid; its lighting an evocation of the city’s conflagration 10 years earlier. As the expo’s official historian recounted of one of its lightshows at the time: ‘Concealed ruby lights and pans of red fire behind the colonnades on the different galleries seemed to turn the whole gigantic structure into a pyramid of incandescent material… and burned like some sentient thing doomed to eternal torment.’

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