What mysterious force dragged me to Treasure Island that foggy day in [add month here], [198__ . . . I really don’t remember and probably will not fill in the blanks ever]? All I know is, I was curious about Treasure Island because I saw it every day on my commute across the Bay Bridge, Berkeley to San Francisco, and wondered what in the world. . . I knew it was a Navy base and hence inaccessible to me (I thought). I saw three pale, flat, interesting looking quasi-Deco or Moderne buildings along the southern perimeter, the side of the island that faces the bridge. One of them looked like a wedding cake; the other two looked like middle Eastern fortresses. Both were painted a pale yellowish-white. What caused those three unusual buildings to exist on the flat, otherwise dull-looking island? This was pre-internet, at least pre-internet for me, so anything I learned about it was from the library, the telephone, or gossip.
So one Sunday I saw an “Events” notice in the Datebook section of the Sunday Chronicle: “Walking tour of Treasure Island. Sponsored by Art Deco Society of California.” The walk was on the following Saturday and I decided to go. First I had to get there, driving on the westbound Bay Bridge. I had never paid any attention to the signs on the bridge and assumed that the exit to Treasure Island would be on the north side of the bridge, since that is where the island is. But no–then, as now, the exit was on the south (left) side of the bridge. Ditto for the exit on the westbound bridge–all exits to Treasure Island come off of the left lane. Remember that when you drive to the island.
Anyway, on my first trip to the island, I missed the exit. I got off the bridge at the first SF exit, turned around, and came back. I only missed a few minutes of the tour, which began with an introductory talk in the Treasure Island Museum by Douglas S. Brookes, then curator of the museum. A very cordial, articulate and soft-spoken man, Doug gave us a brief tour of the museum itself, which at the time occupied the entire lobby of the first floor of Building One on Treasure Island–the hollow, streamlined wedding cake. Among the most impressive items on exhibit that day was a ’30s era AAA tow truck, painted gleaming yellow and blue, such as might have been used on the bridge during its early years.
Then we walked down a flight of stairs to a screening room, where Doug showed us a slide presentation featuring color images from the Golden Gate International Exposition (GGIE) of 1939-1940. The presentation and Doug’s narrative gave us a brief history of the island from its creation in 1937-38, the fair, the (planned) airport, the Naval occupation beginning in 1940, through to the present time. Although at that time the Navy had occupied the island for 48 years, it was obvious to me that by far the island’s most interesting–certainly the most beautiful–years occurred during its time as the site of the GGIE, California’s last world’s fair. Given my own personal history since that day, I guess I can say that few events in my life have had the impact of Doug’s presentation, or of our subsequent walk up to the location of the former Court of Pacifica.
We left Building One–called the “Administration Building” during the years of the GGIE–via the back door, and began walking north along a corridor of buildings that cut through the middle of the island. I remember that it was cool and a little blustery, and other than the old GGIE buildings and some landscaping, Naval Station Treasure Island struck me as grim and unkempt, unsuited to such an evocative and romantic name. I wasn’t sure what our destination would be.
Reaching our destination was like coming upon a recently unearthed ruin in the midst of some kind of urban holocaust, as if something had erupted from underground after an earthquake. In the middle of a paved street, surrounded by ugly squat buildings and a few grim-looking, forlorn trees, was a wide plaza sunk about eight feet below grade. At the center of the plaza was a huge, brilliantly colored terra cotta thing (I really couldn’t tell what it was), oval, about three feet high, its horizontal dimensions approximately 20 x 35 feet, glazed in many shades of blue, green, yellow and white. The complex, three-dimensional surface of the oval formed a grid composed of individual tiles, no two of which were alike. The big oval was enclosed in a retaining wall of solid blocks of aqua tiles, one of which was decorated with a white polar bear in high relief. This oval was surrounded by a lawn on which were eight large gray sculptures, representing people in active poses–kneeling, crouching, playing musical instruments, reclining. These sculptures were about two times life size. Four symmetrically-placed cement sets of stairs, about eight feet wide, led from grade down to the plaza. At the top of and flanking each set of stairs was a pair of monumental sculptures–perhaps three times life size. One set represented men astride seated llamas couchant, another showed a man and woman reclining on large stylized vines.
What in the world were these things doing here? In the middle of Naval Station Treasure Island?
The big terra cotta thing, Doug told us, was a map of the Pacific Basin–a map in the form of a fountain, which in better years had had four spouting whales at its center. Now the whales were gone–stolen, probably–represented only by four rectangles filled with dirt. The map was in pretty terrible condition, with some of the large outer aqua tiles missing, some of them broken, many of the surface tiles chipped, with weeds growing in the dirt between the tiles. The statues too were in bad condition, some of the damage done by exposure to salt air, wind and water, some due to vandalism.
The map of the Pacific was from a building at the GGIE called “Pacific House.” The sculptures, plaza and stair were from the GGIE’s Court of Pacifica, which was located exactly where we were standing.
To be continued . . .