September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
All world’s fairs are, in a sense, overrated. To lure enormous exhibitors to the site, publicists promise enormous crowds. To lure enormous crowds, publicists promise enormous exhibits. And like theme parks, fairs seldom fulfill the promises of their publicists in any respect except size.
Grover Whalen, New York City’s consummate salesman and civic greeter, put all his energies into promoting the 1939 world’s fair, and, as a result of his ebullient enthusiasm and the balmy claims of his team of architectural designers and urban sociologists, the World of Tomorrow overstated its significance more fulsomely than any gathering in history.
This fair, Whalen declared, would not be a mere entertainment, a collection of tricky new vehicles, grind shows, and scary rides. For the average man, the fair would be “a vision of what he might attain for himself by intelligent, cooperative planning.” In the words of Robert Kohn, the chief architect, the fair would offer a view of paradise, a vision of the world “as it could exist tomorrow morning if we willed it so.” Above all, the World of Tomorrow would be profitable . Whalen promised to attract 50 million paying customers who would spend a billion dollars in New York.
That neither the profits nor the Utopian dream materialized was not the fault of Whalen and his urban planners. The world was drifting toward war. The public was feeling poor. The architectural style was coldly repellent. (Fortunately, its influence was negligible, or America would now be graced with innumerable perispheres, trylons, heliplanes, and huge plywood sheds painted with lumpish murals in contrasting primary colors.) Most visitors found these glimpses of the future less appealing than Billy Rose’s Aquacade, the giant parachute jump, the Heinz pickle pins, the flickering images on a television screen, and the ladies of the Amazon show, who exposed one breast but concealed the other, “in deference,” as E. B. White observed, “to Mr. Whalen.”
In contrast, Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, which opened a year behind schedule in the midst of a period of financial panic, was a vast agglomeration of borrowed styles and random ideas, heroic statuary and artificial marble, unified only by a color scheme (white) and a grandiose landscape based more or less on the boulevards and parks of Paris. This derivative Beaux Arts confection so infuriated the architect Louis Sullivan that he predicted the “damage” it wrought to the American mind would last for half a century. As for its contribution to the average man’s vision of a better world, the playwright Ben Hecht quoted an aged Chicago newspaper reporter who remembered it as “the triumphant return of paganism. … Experts writing in the newspapers conceded that no city since Biblical days had ever been so lost to decency.”
Scorned by critics of high culture, Chicago’s “White City” won the affection of the vulgar masses. It gave many Americans their first-ever view of the movies, the phonograph, the Sousa band, the Ferris wheel. It introduced, and gave name to, the carnival midway, where (if some accounts can be trusted) one might have enjoyed seductive glimpses of the proto-goddess of belly dancers, the original Little Egypt. It also imposed its overbearing standards of scale and style on every subsequent world’s fair and on countless civic centers, malls, and theme parks around the world.
Given a bad start, an inexperienced press agent, a swampy site, an elusive theme, and a number of derisive sister cities wishing it ill, the Columbian Exposition became one of America’s formative events. Underrated it was, but it cannot be overrated now.