A tale of three world's fairs

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

How Seattle bested New York and inspired Spokane when it came to hosting a world's fair.

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."

The unity between private and public sectors, the cooperation of the unions, the back-room decisionmaking all appealed to his sense of administrative efficiency. New York had turned into a place where powerbrokers like Moses were being second guessed, resisted, even thwarted — often rightly so. In 1962, the year when his battle with Jane Jacobs came to a head over the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, Seattle reminded Moses of the halcyon days when he ruled New York City planning with an iron fist.

Despite a sense of sibling rivalry, the '64-65 New York fair was promoted in Seattle. The Seattle historian, Junius Rochester, whose father Al was one of Century 21's organizers, manned the New York booth, which featured a model of the Flushing Meadow fairgrounds under a transparent dome.

Even though Seattle's fair was comparatively small — physically, New York's was nearly 10 times the size — it was successful. The fair turned a profit during its six-month run and garnered enormous international publicity, especially for a provincial city whose name some of the BIE delegates stuggled to pronounce. It also left behind a permanent civic center and the Space Needle. Seattle showed that fairs were still viable. New York figured if a fair could play on puny Puget Sound, success in the Big Apple should be a cinch.

Seattle provided talent for the New York effort. Albert Fisher, the young man in charge of TV and film in Seattle who had squired Elvis Presley around the fairgrounds, was hired to do a similar job in New York. He helped produce NBC's opening-night live special on the fair and then joined the expo staff, running the TV, film and radio operation. He was later fired by Robert Moses for approving a Jonathan Winters show on the fairgrounds. (Moses disliked Winters' brand of humor, says Fisher.) Moses also threw NBC and Winters off the fairgrounds.

Moses envied Seattle's U.S. federal pavilion, which was funded by the government, and demanded one for his fair too. He also wanted a permanent science center like Seattle’s. Belgian waffles were the smash culinary hit of Century 21, and New York wanted those as well. Many of Seattle's food service and restaurant vendors also went to New York. In 1962, Seattlecould find very few professionals who had world's fair experience since the last fair had been held nearly a quarter century earlier. New York and its exhibitors had no such problem. They were able to find a few recent expo vets who knew how to put on a fair.

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The World's Fair grounds in Queens, N.Y.. Credit: PLCJr/Flickr

Even so, the New York fair was beset with problems. Moses was hopelessly old fashioned and made decisions that kept the New York fair from being forward-looking, He notoriously preferred Guy Lombardo's orchestra to the newly popular Beatles, for example. An Andy Warhol mural appeared briefly on the New York State pavilion, but was quickly painted over as too controversial. 

Without BIE sanction, many major foreign countries (Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany) would not officially participate in his fair. Partly as a result, New York became heavily reliant on commercial and corporate pavilions, some of which — General Electric, Johnson's Wax, Pepsicola ("It's a Small World"), General Motors and IBM — were memorable and hugely popular.

Seattle had been successful showcasing Northwest architectural talent, from John Graham and Victor Steinbrueck's Needle to Paul Thiry's Coliseum and Minoru Yamasaki's "Space Gothic" science pavilion. Yamasaki was hired to do the New York Trade Center's Twin Towers as a result of his Century 21 work, and the public raved about his ability to make high-minded modern structures with mass appeal. One critic called his pavilion "poetry in architecture."

Moses had dismissed his architectural advisors in favor of a more laissez fair approach when it came to corporate pavilion design. As a result, the fair ran afoul of critics who saw it as a huge sell out. If Seattle's fair was praised for being a "jewel box," the critics unloaded on the Moses-driven enterprise as too commercial and chaotic.

Wrote critic Vincent Scully, Jr. in LIFE magazine: "[I]f the current extravaganza in Flushing is the best we can do, then God help us all. I doubt whether any fair was ever so crassly, even brutally conceived as this one." He called the U.S. pavilion a "pompous pile of absolute nothing." The Saturday Review referred to the fair as "Motleyland, USA..." The fair’s New York State Pavilion with its Space Needle-inspired towers is mostly a ruin today, known by some as “the Eiffel Tower of Queens.” Perhaps Seattle was lucky to escape the full, stern gaze of the nation's architecture critics.

One reason for the harshness was that people expected better of New York. The fair's PR head set the bar high by promising "the greatest event in history." People did enjoy the fair and the numerous Disney-designed attractions, and Disney went on to create a "permanent" fair-like attraction at EPCOT in Florida. More than 50 million visitors attended the New York Fair, over five times Seattle's attendance. Tthough the New York numbers fell far short of the 70 million people Moses had projected, the fair was an enormous media sensation which spread the sights, sounds and colors of the Space Age far and wide.

In the end, though, the New York effort replicated the failure of the last big fairs that preceded it. It lost money.

Instead of a promised $40 million profit the New York fair returned less than 20 cents on the dollar to bondholders. That was worse even than the performance of the city's 1930-40 fair. The Queens fair conveyed less a high-minded vision of the future than one that was primarily commercial, and it failed to transform the urban environment in a way that left a positive legacy. Moses wanted the fairgrounds to become a new "Central Park." A half-century later, the site has fallen well short of that expectation. The 1967 Montreal expo, modern, memorable, and BIE sanctioned, is widely regarded as the best big fair of the era.

If big fairs were considered risky after New York's flop that did not deter smaller cities such as San Antonio from seeking to replicate the Seattle model. Fairs in emerging, mid-sized American cities could generate enthusiasm for far less risk. One of those aspiring places was Spokane which, in 1974, became the smallest city ever to host a world's fair.

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Gazing up into the USA Pavilion at the 1974 Spokane Expo. Credit: FunGi_/Flickr

Seattle was clearly an inspiration and, in similar fashion, the purpose of Spokane's fair's was civic: to act as a catalyst for urban transformation. In this case, reclaiming the Spokane River and cleaning out the old infrastructure and blight of an aging railroad town. Coming 12 years after Seattle's, the Spokane fair also reflected a new orientation. Seattle's fair exemplified the old expo spirit that technology and commerce will make the world a better place. (With one only cautionary note: a Cold War warning that the whole thing could be derailed by nuclear war.) But generally, the Century 21 spirit reflected a go-go enthusiasm for things like atomic autos. So too New York's.

By the early '70s, technological skepticism had crept into our thinking. Not blowing ourselves up was already part of the technology challenge, but so too was not poisoning ourselves with the pollution of "progress." The Spokane fair itself was an environmental clean-up project. It was also a cautionary tale about the limits of the old technology and a showcase for new technologies that promised to mitigate or remediate the damage done by the old. This attitude would have chilled the bones of builders like Robert Moses, and it lacked the Kennedy-era optimism that suffused Seattle's fair. Writer Calvin Trillin famously said that Spokane's Expo '74 was the first that "institutionalized the mea culpa."

Expo '74 was the first world's fair to reflect a theme of environmental consciousness, less capitalistic extravaganza and more Earth Day on steroids. The Environmental Protection Agency was ascendant, not NASA. Some critics claimed the fair was merely co-opting environmentalism, but after Spokane, green themes such as recycling and sustainability became staples of the next generation of expos around the world.

Spokane scooped fairs in other ways too. It was the first and only post-war American expo to feature a major pavilion from the Soviet Union, a trick neither Seattle nor New York managed to pull off, though they did try. The Soviet Pavilion was a Cold War coup.

While Spokane's Expo left a large and mostly positive impact on its host city — Riverfront Park and a revitalized downtown — it wasn't a particularly sustainable model for American fairs. Indeed, after Spokane, fairs seemed to fizzle, even small, seemingly low-risk ones in cities like Knoxville and New Orleans. The last world's fair in North America was held in Vancouver, BC in 1986. Within 25 years, the magic of Seattle had dissipated, the eco-orientation fizzled and small fairs turned out to carry major financial risks too. The last U.S. expo in New Orleans in 1984 limped along amid corruption scandals and bnkruptcy.

Every world's fair has a kind of magic that is not reproducible, nor are the local or international dynamics that can determine success or failure. Still, Seattle can take credit for out-competing the arrogant dinosaurs of New York, for putting on a superior Space Age show with long-lasting civic benefit, and for having helped give courage — and a road map — to another small Northwest city which went on to break new ground on the international stage.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.