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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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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