A tale of three world's fairs

How Seattle bested New York and inspired Spokane when it came to hosting a world's fair.
This promo for Seattle's 1962 World's Fair envisioned a red Space Needle.

This promo for Seattle's 1962 World's Fair envisioned a red Space Needle.

World's fair anniversaries abound this spring. In May, Spokane celebrates the 40th of the opening of its eco-oriented 1974 expo. On April 22 New York celebrates the 50th anniversary of its 1964-5 extravaganza in Flushing Meadows. Besides being events worthy of remembrance on their own merits, both have interesting connections to Seattle.

The 1962 Seattle fair created a new model for international expositions in post-World War II America. Seattle's model beat New York's, and paved the way for Spokane's. In other words, these fairs signaled both the limits of and the path to success for a new era of expos launched by Century 21.

World's fairs had been going strong since the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, but World War II brought them to a screeching halt. The hiatus lasted until 1958 when expos were revived with an "atomic"-themed fair in Brussels, Belgium. The two prior fairs had been held in New York and San Francisco in 1939-40. After the war, Americans looked at the possibility of a domestic fair revival.

The prospects seemed dubious. The last American fairs had been financial failures and brand new innovations like Anaheim's  new Disneyland threatened to replace fairs with permanent theme parks. Plus television, a technology showcased at the late 1930s fairs in Paris and New York, offered the potential of allowing people to enjoy international spectacle without getting off the couch.

Seattle didn't know enough to be scared off by the conventional wisdom and began pursing a fair for purely parochial reasons: Local leaders wanted to put the unknown city "on the map." The fair coincided perfectly with the U.S. government's desire to send, and fund, a post-Sputnik science message. The marriage of local self-interest — building a civic center — and federal science funding fueled Seattle's bid.

The city sought official sanction from the body that regulates world's fairs, the Bureau of International Expositions (BIE) in Paris. Such sanction was vital: No one would take Seattle seriously if it hadn't earned the seal of international approval, and many foreign governments could not participate in any exposition that didn't have it. Against the odds, Seattle beat out New York and other potential suitors for the right to host the fair.

One reason Seattle won was New York's checkered history with fairs. Not only had its 1939-40 fair failed financially but international exhibitors had been made miserable by price gouging and work stoppages by New York City's trade unions. Seattle promised — in writing — labor peace.

In addition, obscure Seattle looked to be an interesting and fairly low risk experiment. Could a small, forward-thinking city host a small-sized, limited-run expo free of controversy and red ink? If Seattle helped to celebrate the "New Frontier" in space, it also represented a new frontier for expos, suggesting that such events could be small, brief and maybe even profitable.

The New Yorkers, led by Master Builder Robert Moses, decided to host a fair without official sanction. Moses refused to follow BIE rules, saying he didn't want "a bunch of clowns" in Paris telling him what to do. He decided to put on a big old-fashioned expo at the site of New York's 1939 fair: an ash dump in Queens.

The BIE preferred shorter, fewer fairs which were spread out over time, but New York rumbled forward anyway, opening its fair a mere two years after Seattle's. The BIE sent a letter telling members in some 40 countries not to participate. An auspicious start for a fair whose theme was "Peace Through Understanding."

Moses visited Seattle in '62 and wasn't too impressed with the fairgrounds. Too much concrete, said the man famous for laying expressways. Still, Moses envied Seattle's process. "There is much less fault-finding and bickering here than on the Atlantic seaboard," he observed. "You can give us some wholesome lessons in local leadership and citizenship. We spend too much time in the East tearing each other down."


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Apr 18, 12:40 p.m. Inappropriate

"the arrogant dinosaurs of New York" - that alone made this worth reading. Thanks for another excellent look back, Knute...

oscar

Posted Mon, Apr 21, 1:03 p.m. Inappropriate

I never had a chance to visit the New York fair. As my father said "That's farther away than Mexico"! But I did experience it vicariously through View Master slides. The Uniroyal Ferris Wheel (clad to resemble a giant tire) or the Chrysler pavilion (in the shape of a V-8 engine) were exotic but hardly artful.


As a 15 year old, I found Expo 74 a little depressing. The theme seemed to be "Who knows? The future might not suck as bad as we fear." The US Pavilion featured an enormous pile of garbage. Probably the most high-tech display was the Book of Mormon Pavilion, which featured a stone-stiff mannequin of Joseph Smith with an actor's face projected onto its head by a 16mm movie projector. Hardly Disney's Carousel of Progress! The one piece of genuine high technology that I remember was a microwave oven with touch-sensitive keypad. But the fairgrounds were beautiful at night.

dbreneman

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