1876: The Eagle Screams

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Philadelphia’s vast Fairmount Park stretches acre after acre, plateau after ravine, all empty now under the brittle blue of a winter sky. The people that came here in crowds a century ago to celebrate the country’s centennial are hard to imagine, however many faded photographs and woodcut illustrations one has seen of them. The some two hundred Exhibition buildings they massed in front of and wandered through are gone—torn down or changed utterly. A basketball court and swimming pool have been installed in Memorial Hall, the one principal building that remains, and the aura of canvas shoes and chlorine surrounds the marble and the ornate moldings.

It was a hundred years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. America wanted a party, and despite the recent conclusion of a savage war and the evidence of corruption in the White House we did ourselves proud

In the basement of Memorial Hall is a scale model of the 1876 Exhibition. Walking around it, identifying the buildings, the fountains, the statues, helps in recapturing some sense of what was. Over there is the Saracenic splendor of Horticultural Hall, the Exhibition’s polychrome hothouse of glass and iron. Here, flanking the entrance, are the huge Main Exhibition Building and the factorylike, utilitarian Machinery Hall. There, almost in the middle, is the Woman’s Pavilion, resembling a beflagged and ornate railway station. And across from it is Agricultural Hall, an exuberant crossbreed of barn and church, of silo and Gothic arch.

But even with the model a distance remains, a lack of fellow feeling with the makers of the Centennial Exposition. Their style is not our style, a point architectural critics have made with a vengeance, labelling Exhibition architecture everything from odd, through debased, to monstrous.

And their world view is not our world view. Witness our own inability —unwillingness, perhaps—to put together a similar Bicentennial celebration. Philadelphia worked on Bicentennial plans for sixteen years, twice as long as it took to free the colonies from England, making and unmaking plans for an exhibition, discarding one site after another, trying to please social activists who wanted jobs for the poor instead of a party, businessmen who wanted the revenue from an exposition, homeowners who didn’t want the disturbance. The American Revolutionary Bicentennial Commission, which rejected Philadelphia’s $6oo-million final plan, was still trying to define its role six years after its creation, in a confused debate constantly interrupted by conflicting demands for “relevance"—relevance to the past, relevance to present difficulties, relevance to everybody’s problems.

 

Our ancestors of a hundred years ago also lived in a world plagued by problems. Since the Exhibition opened only eleven springs after Appomattox, they too had memories of a bitter war that were achingly fresh. Animosity still ran so high that when the HayesTilden election of 1876 failed to produce a clear victory, underground armies began to organize, and there was talk of another civil war.

On every side there was evidence of the decay of private and public morality. Henry Ward Beecher had been tried for adultery. The Whisky Ring was uncovered, as were the Tweed Ring in New York and the Gas Ring in Philadelphia. The investigation of the Grant administration by the House of Representatives had begun. Roving bands of tramps threatened the citizenry. Fewer than half the adults living in the United- States had the franchise.

Still, the country had a celebration, an affair of fireworks and snapping flags, hymns, prayers, and prizes. Some thought such festivities inappropriate. James Russell Lowell caustically exhorted the country to celebrate her special vices:

Show your State Legislatures; show your Rings; And challenge Europe to produce such things As high officials sitting half in sight To share the plunder and to fix things right; If that don’t fetch her, why you only need To show your latest style in martyrs—Tweed; She’ll find it hard Io hide her spileful tears At such advance in one poor hundred years!

But it was another poet, Walt Whitman, who caught the spirit that prevailed. “Away with the themes of war!” he declared in his “Song of the Exposition”:

Away with old romance! I raise a voice for far superber themes… To exalt the present and the real…