Historians hunt for model of Vandergrift from 1904 World's Fair

Mary Ann Thomas
| Wednesday, April 3, 2013, 12:20 p.m.

Aficionados of Victorian Vandergrift's history are fanning across the country to find an architectural model of the town that garnered two gold medals at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.

As strings of industrial towns were mass-produced like ingots at the turn of the century, Vandergrift was different.

George Gibson McMurtry, steel tycoon and Vandergrift's founding father, hired fabled landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York City's Central Park, to plan the town of Vandergrift.

Now, history sleuths are combing the Library of Congress in Washington, Stanford University and other sources in Chicago, Wisconsin and elsewhere for clues to find the World's Fair model of the town.

“Our progress is slow,” said Gene Iagnemma, a local historian in Vandergrift.

“I'll give it five years,” he said nonchalantly as he sat surrounded by century-old artifacts in the Victorian Vandergrift Historical Society & Museum.

“This is important because it's part of our history,” said the 74-year-old lifelong resident.

Curiosity was steeped by years of rumors that finally resulted in an organized hunt.

“No one has attempted to find it out before,” Iagnemma said. “At least there's no recollection of such an effort.

“There's no guarantee that we'll find this,” he said. “But we will find out what happened. That's actually the thing I feel confident about.”

Vandergrift played prominently at the World's Fair as a result of its much-touted town plan.

Creating desirable development of towns was an issue at the turn of the 20th century when cities were expanding too quickly — haphazardly — trying to keep up with the spread of the Industrial Revolution.

In fact, one exhibit at the 1904 World's Fair was known as the Model City, according to Sharon Smith, a curator in the exhibits and research department of the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis.

“It was a big deal,” she said. “This fair was all about education, and, in a sense, that is why people came here — so they could learn about anything and everything.”

And people are still looking for artifacts from the 1904 World's Fair, according to Smith.

Starting from scratch

Iagnemma and his handful of researchers had to first verify that, indeed, the design for the town of Vandergrift had won World's Fair gold medals.

There was a strong belief that it was so. The Victorian Vandergrift Historical Society & Museum bought two gold medals from the 1904 World's Fair to serve as stand-ins for the ones that local historians continue to search for.

Iagnemma raised the issue to Anne Mosher, an associate professor of geography at Syracuse University, who recently found proof of the medals.

There in a book, “The story of Pennsylvania at the World's Fair St. Louis, 1904,” are two entries on page 360: Apollo Iron & Steel Co., gold medals in each of the categories of “Housing of the Working Classes” and “General Betterment Movement.”

Iagnemma does not know who made the model or who submitted it to the World's Fair.

But they suspect Olmsted's architectural firm or McMurtry's company, Apollo Iron & Steel.

In fact, it was through an earlier World's Fair — the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago — that McMurtry learned of Olmsted's work as he designed those fairgrounds.

Checking out this lead is Tony Gallo, a Vandergrift native and playwright who lives just around the corner from the Library of Congress.

Gallo wrote “Vandergrift!” and has been a long-time supporter of all things Vandergrift.

“I am doing this because I love my hometown,” he said.

He describes the research as “quite difficult.

“Much of the information is on microfiche, and some is scattered widely,” he said.

Exploring the origins of the model, Iagnemma considers that Apollo Steel, which paid Olmsted to design the town, could have commissioned the model and presented it at the World's Fair.

“But I never heard that,” Iagnemma said.

It's not that he dismisses the possibility, it's just that given the local presence of the steel company, there would have been some knowledge locally if such a model had been created — let alone garnered a gold medal at the World's Fair.

The biggest clue came in the form of the late Thelma Orr, a Vandergrift native who went on to be an assistant librarian at the Vandergrift Library.

After she graduated from high school, she and bunch of friends went to the World's Fair in Chicago in 1934.

“She said that she was shocked when she saw her hometown,” Iagnemma said.

Orr saw the fabled Vandergrift model.

“I wish I would have asked her about it,” he said.

“But if the model in Chicago is the same as the one in St. Louis — it must have been a world class quality,” Iagnemma said.

“The medals and model might be in a dusty warehouse in Chicago,” he said.

The artifacts were rumored to have been stashed there in anticipation of a World's Fair in 1992.

“Obviously, the World's Fair never materialized,” Iagnemma said, “but they could still be sitting there, sitting in the dark.

“Think about it logically: would anyone throw away the model or the medals?”

Mary Ann Thomas is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-226-4691 or mthomas@tribweb.com.

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