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World's Fairs created new looks

| Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, 8:48 p.m.
At the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, a collection of grandiose domed and colonnaded buildings, the 'White City,' were illuminated by electric lights at night.
The Eiffel Tower was built for the 1889 world's fair in Paris. Credit: File
The most popular exhibit at the 1939 fair was the “Futurama” exhibit at the General Motors Pavilion — a 36,000-square-foot animated model of what the American landscape would look like “in 1960.” Visitors rode in a chain of moving chairs that snaked overhead, allowing them to look down at multilane highways, cities and suburbs, all laid out based on automobile transportation.
The 'Ferris' wheel, invented by Pittsburgh's George Ferris, was a highlight of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The Grand Basin at the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition was illuminated at night. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection

Electricity, ice-cream cones and great architecture. Ferris wheels, automobiles and culture. And your future laid out before you.

That's what world's fairs have always seemed to be about. We don't hear much about world's fairs anymore in the globally interconnected age of the Internet. But from the mid-19th century until well into the 20th, world's fairs were the way that new technologies and new ideas in lifestyles, architecture, art and even city planning were introduced to the public.

A fine holiday afternoon this season could be well spent at the Carnegie Museum of Art, where an engrossing exhibit called “Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World's Fairs” will run until Feb. 24. A recent visit to that show, led this writer to reflect on all the changes in architecture and planning over the years that were heightened, explained or introduced at world's fairs.

You can learn a lot about ways our lives were changed by looking back on some of these notable events.

For example, the most famous American world's fair was the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. It set a standard for neoclassical Beaux Arts architecture that reshaped American ideas about what cities and public buildings should look like — an influence that lasted most of the next 40 years. (Pittsburgh's own turn-of-the-century Carnegie Museum and Library buildings are good examples of that style.)

Construction of the fair was organized by Daniel Burnham, the eminent Chicago architect. He brought together a team of celebrated American designers for the fair. Among them were the New York firms of McKim, Meade and White; Richard M. Hunt and George Post; plus Charles Atwood and Peabody and Stearns of Boston. All worked in the ornate Beaux Arts style.

Using a plan for the fairgrounds devised by Frederick Law Olmsted (the chief designer of New York's Central Park), these architects produced the famed “White City,” a collection of grandiose domed and colonnaded buildings illuminated by electric lights at night. This vision stirred visitors to imagine whole cities built and laid out in this style.

All the main buildings appeared to be white stone, but they were mostly temporary structures — made of a sturdy type of plaster applied over a hidden framework and painted a pearly white. That didn't matter to the public, which was justifiably awed by the whole event. Though electric illumination in cities was not new, many of those arriving by train from the countryside had never seen electric light before. The “White City” left them dazzled.

The entire fair was electrified by a distribution system and on-site generators designed by Pittsburgh's George Westinghouse.

Another Pittsburgh engineer, George Ferris, produced what became the most-recognized symbol of the fair, the world's first Ferris wheel — a 264-foot-high structure that rotated 36 bus-size observation cars, each of which could hold 60 people. It was intended to rival the Eiffel Tower, the symbol of another world's fair in Paris just four years before.

The Columbian Exposition set so convincing a pattern that the St. Louis fair in 1904 (“Meet me in St. Louie, Louie ….”) mostly mimicked the architecture of Chicago, and even re-erected George Ferris' big wheel, brought down disassembled from Chicago. The fair is mainly remembered today for first popularizing the ice-cream cone.

But there was one other big new thing in St. Louis in 1904, and that was the automobile.

At Chicago in 1893, the transportation pavilion was full of the latest in passenger trains, locomotives, horse-drawn carriages and, yes, buggy whips. The official report on transportation at the fair — running to thousands of words — had only a one-sentence acknowledgment, with no elaboration, of the display at one far corner of the hall of “a gas-powered carriage from Germany.” Yet, just 11 years later, the St. Louis fair opened with the arrival of new-fangled automobiles that had made arduous treks to St. Louis from all corners of the country. No fewer than 140 automobiles were displayed at the fair.

All the combined creativity of Burnham and Olmsted and the others could barely have imagined in 1893 — or even in 1904 — the rapid changes that the automobile would bring to architecture and planning. But just 35 years later, at yet another famous fair — “The World of Tomorrow” fair of 1939 in New York City — all those changes were manifest.

By far, the most popular exhibit at the 1939 fair was the “Futurama” exhibit at the General Motors Pavilion — a 36,000-square-foot animated model of what the American landscape would look like “in 1960.” Visitors rode in a chain of moving chairs that snaked overhead, allowing them to look down at multilane highways, cities and suburbs, all laid out based on automobile transportation. The exhibit is widely credited with having prepared Americans for the age of superhighways, vast traffic interchanges and automobile-dependent suburbs that we are all so familiar with today.

The architecture of the 1939 fair was self-consciously intended to be as precedent-setting as the architecture at the 1893 fair. But here, it was forward-looking modernism that was being promoted. Much of the fair was strikingly modern in a style usually called “streamlined moderne — emphasizing sleek and curving facades. Though, it was the ambition of the fair's designers to promote this style, little came of it. Streamlined architecture, though occasionally used in some commercial buildings — think of movie theaters and drugstores from the '30s and '40s — never really caught on with the American public.

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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