Reminders of glorious world expositions still can be seen throughout the United States.
By Mildred Jailer-Chamberlain
Whatever became of those glittering world’s fairs that seemed to appear overnight like fairyland cities? They attracted participants from around the globe, and throngs reveled in the attractions.
World’s fairs are not gone; they are still being held in locations around the globe. But to Americans and Canadians, they may seem to be a thing of the past, as one hasn’t occurred in North America since 1986.
Motorhome travelers today who enjoy nostalgia, history, or even the latest invention still can visit the sites of world’s fairs from times past. Most of the original buildings from these events are long gone. Where a venerable structure remains, it may gleam anew with special enticements within its now-historic walls. Many of the deserted fairgrounds are now large parks, each with its own theme. Although these former world’s fair sites are located in big cities, you can take a break from driving the motorhome and use a towed vehicle or public transportation to see some of them.
The 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, California, was staged to mark the restoration of the city after the disastrous 1906 earthquake and fire and to celebrate the completion of the Panama Canal, which linked the West Coast with the rest of the country via a waterway. The exposition grounds stretched across 635 acres along the San Francisco shore from what is now Crissy Field to Fort Mason. And what a brilliant sight it was! More than 100,000 pieces of jewel-cut colored glass sparkled by day and night on the 43-story Tower of Jewels. Giant elephant heads led the way to an amusement ride in the Joy Zone. Redwood trunks were substituted for marble columns in the state of Oregon’s Greek temple. Statues in the Court of the Universe depicted heroes of legend.
It is a challenge to decide which is more fascinating “” the extraordinary buildings or their holdings. The Palace of Fine Arts was a magnificent structure when it was built in 1915 for the exposition. Today it is just as impressive, after a successful project revived the almost-disintegrated building to its exposition-time splendor.
Inspired by Roman and Greek elements and romantic in concept, the massive Palace of Fine Arts encompassed three acres, its great rotunda prominent on the skyline. Much of the building was covered with staff, a mixture of plaster and a burlap-type fiber that was pliable and easily coated with finishes that could be mistaken for stone or marble. (The same temporary material was used for buildings at other fairs.) Even before the exposition closed, plans were under way to utilize the building for continuous art exhibits. But the plan was short-lived, and the Palace of Fine Arts experienced a checkered career. During different periods it became the site of 18 tennis courts; a storage area for Army trucks and jeeps; and a motor pool for United Nations limousines. Through years of neglect, the once-proud building became a crumbling ruin.
Reconstruction of the Palace began in 1964. With the exception of the steel structure of the gallery, the building was stripped to the ground and rebuilt in detail. Every feature, from the rotunda and colonnade to the lavish decorations and sculpture, was included in the revitalization project.
Today more than a half-million visitors come to the Palace of Fine Arts each year to discover its multifaceted feature, the Exploratorium. Here visitors learn about science, art, and perception by investigating and experiencing. They peer through lenses, look in mirrors, stare through filters, experiment with magnets and electricity, pluck guitar strings, bang drums, spin wheels, and swing pendulums. They see exhibits in the making or being repaired in carpentry, machine, welding, and electric shops. They also can attend concerts and movies in the 1,003-seat Palace of Fine Arts Theatre.
The Exploratorium is open Tuesday through Sunday and is located near the Golden Gate Bridge at 3601 Lyon St. in San Francisco; phone (415) 397-5673 or visit www.exploratorium.edu for more information.
The 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, is well-known because of the merry movie that celebrated it, Meet Me In St. Louis, starring Judy Garland. The exposition was designed to celebrate the centennial of President Thomas Jefferson’s vision of a continental United States through the purchase of the Louisiana Territory and to honor the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Dozens of nations re-created their arts and culture, entertained, and sold their wares to more than 19 million visitors who came to the fair from around the world.
The 1904 expo used the western half of Forest Park, a 1,371-acre city preserve that was created in 1876. It is still one of the largest urban parks in the United States. With a wide choice of indoor and outdoor activities, plus the only remaining structure built for the exposition, the site may be as rich in attractions, many of them free, as the 1904 event.
The one building that still stands from the 1904 exhibition is the Saint Louis Art Museum, designed by famed architect Cass Gilbert in the romantic Beaux Arts style. It was intended to serve as the exposition’s Palace of Fine Arts and, after the closing of the fair, to hold the fast-growing collections of the School of Fine Arts (now part of Washington University). It was built of sturdy limestone rather than staff. The museum is now known for its many different kinds of art, some displayed in special exhibitions. Monumental sculptures by Daniel Chester French and Louis Saint-Gaudens have flanked the front entrance stairs since the days of the 1904 fair.
The museum is located at 1 Fine Arts Drive in Forest Park and is open Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is free; special exhibits may involve a fee, however. For more information, phone (314) 721-0072 or visit www.slam.org.
The neighboring Saint Louis Zoo also can trace its history to the 1904 fair. Part of the exhibition was the huge walk-through Flight Cage erected by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo. (Renovations on the aviary in honor of the expo’s centennial are now ongoing, and it’s scheduled to reopen in summer 2004.) The cage is still one of the world’s largest free-flight aviaries, measuring 228 feet long, 84 feet wide, and 50 feet high. After the exposition, the cage was purchased by the city, a move that led to the formation of the zoo in 1916.
In the ensuing years the 79-acre zoo has assembled more than 700 species and has been progressive in its methods, pioneering moat enclosures rather than barred cages. Two exhibit halls offer interactive computers, video displays, high-tech exhibits, and live animals that express the need for conservation of threatened wildlife and wild places.
The Monsanto Insectarium is one of the newest additions to the Saint Louis Zoo. Visitors, greeted by an eight-foot-long steel sculpture of a centaurus beetle, follow a path through 20 major exhibit areas presenting more than 100 species of live insects. You can see a working beehive and try to match a female firefly’s flash pattern to that of a male’s. The Mary Ann Lee Butterfly Wing, a geodesic dome, is coated with lush, green plants and tropical flowers set among rock outcroppings, a waterfall, and a pool. These natural elements entice butterflies and moths to flutter near the pathways and overhead, and green and blue dragonflies and black-winged damselflies to hover near the pool.
General admission to the zoo is free, and from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. fee areas, such as the Children’s Zoo, Insectarium, and Conservation Carousel, are free. After 10:00 a.m., fees are $4 to the children’s zoo, $2 for the Insectarium, and $2 for the carousel. Phone (314) 781-0900 or visit www.stlzoo.org for more information.
Also at Forest Park is The Muny, an outdoor musical theater; and just south of Forest Park is the St. Louis Science Center, a fun, free place with interactive exhibits in a space station setting. (A charge is levied for special exhibits, shows in the Omnimax Theater, and planetarium.)
The Jefferson Memorial Building, now part of the Missouri History Museum, stands where the 1904 fair’s main entrance once was located. Also a part of the history museum is the Emerson Electric Center. Its lobby is organized around a replica of Charles Lindbergh’s plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, suspended 18 feet overhead, and a shimmering marble river mosaic that sweeps 60 feet across the floor. A major exhibit about the Lewis and Clark journey will open there in January 2004. General admission to the museum is free, but a fee is charged to see special exhibits such as the Lewis and Clark event. For more information, phone (314) 454-3150 or visit www.mohistory.org.
Seattle, Washington, is an exciting city chock-full of things to discover. So it’s little wonder that two reminders of the 1962 World’s Fair are located within 74-acre Seattle Center, where the fair took place. The Seattle Center is now crowded with attractions, including the Pacific Science Center, which offers interactive science exhibits, a planetarium, and more; several theaters; ice hockey and skating rinks; and the Experience Music Project, an interactive music museum featuring high-tech exhibits of American popular music history, artifacts, hands-on equipment, and live performances. Add to this gardens, pavilions, other sports facilities, and the Fun Forest amusement park, and the number of attractions is mind-boggling.
The Space Needle and the Monorail are the 1962 fair’s biggest souvenirs. Standing 605 feet tall, the Space Needle’s observation deck offers a spectacular 360-degree view that is thought by many to be one of the most awe-inspiring in the world. The deck recently has been updated to include interactive games that help visitors learn about what they’re seeing from this vantage point. For a memory-making treat, try the SkyCity Restaurant, located at the Space Needle’s 500-foot level.
The Monorail provides a breathtakingly brief 90-second ride from downtown Seattle to the Fun Forest Amusement Park and other Seattle Center attractions. It is worth the speedy trip if only to say you’ve ridden on the only monorail in the world that travels between two buildings.
For further information, contact the Seattle Center at (206) 684-7200; www.seattlecenter.com.
Imagine what life was like 100 years after the United States declared its independence. Even while looking at the regal Victorian facade of Memorial Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the only major structure still standing from the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, it is difficult to visualize that era. The now-serene Fairmount Park setting in which the structure stands once drew throngs of people.
And, indeed, what a wondrous event the Centennial Exposition must have been. Memorial Hall featured an art exhibit that included works from around the world. The hall was one of more than 250 buildings built for the first world’s fair in the United States; among them was the “period piece” English pavilion that sparked a new trend in American architecture. Inside the gigantic main building, spellbound visitors studied display cases filled with the latest discoveries.
Mechanical marvels were sometimes supersized. The Corliss steam engine, which stood nearly 70 feet tall and weighed 650 tons, was impressive enough to warrant President Ulysses S. Grant to put it into action. Dancers in the Tunisian Cafe introduced the exotic. “The Torch of Liberty,” the right arm and torch from the Statue of Liberty, rose high above the grounds. Visitors climbed through the interior of the statue arm to an observation deck encircling the torch-top for a bird’s-eye view of the fair and surrounding areas. Eager fair-goers arrived in railroad freight cars packed so tightly that some folks hung onto the roofs.
Memorial Hall served as Philadelphia’s main art museum for 50 years after the exposition. Currently it houses a police station and the Fairmount Park Commission administrative offices. However, a model of the Centennial Exposition is displayed in the building.
Otherwise, most of the enticements of the 1876 Centennial are long gone. But Fairmount Park remains a compelling place to explore. Spanning more than six square miles, it is the world’s largest municipal park, offering an escape into the pastoral splendor of the 18th century via East River Drive and West River Drive, which run along either side of the Schuylkill River. Outdoor activities in Fairmount Park are encouraged with 100 miles of jogging, biking, and bridle paths, as well as rustic trails, green meadows, and winding creeks.
Beautiful, historic colonial mansions in the park were once the estates of prominent city residents. Most date from the 1700s. The Georgian-style Mount Pleasant, for example, was built in 1761 by a Scottish privateer who sold it in 1779 to Benedict Arnold, who intended to live there with his new bride, Peggy Shippen. But the couple never got the chance to call it home, because they fled to England soon after Arnold was accused of treason. Other homes include Cedar Grove, a Quaker farmhouse built in 1740; and Sweetbrier, a Federal-style showplace when it was built in 1797. The Japanese House enhances the park’s sylvan tranquility. It is a reconstruction of a 17th-century Japanese scholar’s home and teahouse complete with a Japanese pool, garden, waterfall, and swans.
These houses are open to the public; visit www.phila.gov/fairpark/museums1.htm for specific information about hours and admission fees. For further information about Philadelphia sites, contact the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau at (215) 636-3300 or visit www.pcvb.org.
The Sunsphere, a high-rise golden glass globe held 266 feet aloft by a tower of blue steel, was the centerpiece of the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tennessee. Today it’s still a commanding, eye-catching presence, and an easy way to find the city’s new convention center.
For travelers, the Sunsphere also marks World’s Fair Park, a lively mix of arts and crafts shops and a tempting candy-making center. A pause at this corner of the city can be a pleasurable interlude with, maybe, a purchase or two.
Pottery, paintings, stained glass, sculpture, and photography are displayed in shops and galleries within the park and nearby. The 1917 Candy Factory Building is now occupied by chocolatiers, whose sweets are made on-site. Victorian houses nearby serve as shops and galleries. In the park, too, is the pink marble, modular-shaped Knoxville Museum of Art, which features an eclectic permanent collection and important traveling exhibitions, plus fun, family-oriented activities.
For further information about World’s Fair Park and Knoxville, including a free visitors guide, phone (800) 727-8045 or visit www.knoxville.org.