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A Look Into the Future
by Bob Brooke

 

In 1935, at the height of the Depression, a group of New York businessmen decided that what the city and the nation needed to lift itself out of the difficulties of the times was an international exposition. They promoted it as the greatest international exposition in history—a world's fair that will be easy to see, easy to understand, easy to like, easy to get to. It was to be a testament to the future—a celebration of Art Deco and the age of industrial design.



Grover Whalen was in charge of marketing. He brought 60 nations and international organizations to the Fair, as well as 33 states and territories of the United States. He also marketed the Fair aggressively to the American public, promoting it in print, radio, and above all newsreels. In fact, it was difficult to tell where the line between reality ended and the publicity stunt began. He even commissioned Howard Hughes to deliver invitations to the nations of the world during his famous around-the-world flight. He also had the Trylon and Perisphere—the symbols of the Fair—painted on the sides of the plane.

Robert Moses, who later became famous as the organizer of the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair, insisted that the Fair organizers create a new park site on a trash heap in Flushing Meadows, Queens—a statement about the promise of tomorrow to repurpose the trash of the past. The Fair covered 1,216 acres. Only the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair was larger.

The size of the fair required a trolley system and manned push-carts in which visitors could relax while crossing the fair’s grounds. Like many of the massive world’s fairs of the 19th and early 20th century, the Fair was organized around a momentous historic occasion. The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival, but the 1939 fair was to commemorate the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s presidential inauguration in New York, then the capital of the United States.

But although Whalen wanted to look back to the past, the Fair’s designers were looking to the future—“The World of Tomorrow”—created as a display of Modernism and the streamlined motif by the leading industrial designers of the day, Norman Bel Geddes, Raymond Loewy, Henry Dreyfuss, and Walter Dorwin Teague. The persuaded the American corporations exhibiting at the Fair that the simplified beauty of Art Deco could seel their products.

The designers used the Fair to promote the clean lines and pure forms demonstrated in commercial products, such as automobiles, toothbrushes, and airplanes. They all leaned heavily towards socialism. Bel Geddes even boasted that he would design “social structure” in objects of daily use. These men believed in clean, rational design for all of society. The designers also established a relatively low maximum line of height for the buildings, save for structures like the Trylon and the Soviet pavilion, in order to allow visitors to view the fair’s architecture against the backdrop of "Manhattan's spires."

The Fair’s organizers hired such noted architects as Alvar Aalto and Skimore and Owings. They divided the Fair into seven zones—Transportation, Government, Communications and Business Systems, Community Interests, Food , Production and Distribution, and Amusements—plus a Theme Center to make it easier for fairgoers to navigate the grounds.

The organizers also color coded the different sections of the Fair to create a visible navigation system. With the Theme Center as the only stark white area, the main axis as shades of red, the Avenue of Patriots as primarily yellow, and blue for the Avenue of Pioneers, with a passage of varying colors connecting the three ends of the Mall and avenues, named Rainbow Avenue. "Bright, colorful, and inventive" lighting was encouraged for the exhibitions at night, but it was required to be restrained so that the floodlighting of the Perisphere and the searchlight canopy over the Court of Peace were emphasized, except for the fireworks and special light shows which were to be displayed nightly. In addition, sound was regulated to the point that no "outside spiels" could be displayed unless crucial to the exhibition.

The Fair opened on April 30, 1939, ushered in by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and displayed on the medium of the future, television in its first day of public broadcasting in New York City.

Paid admission that day numbered 198,791, with general admission costing 75 cents for adults and 25 cents for children ages 3 to 14. The admission fee was considered fairly high in its day, since the subway ride to the fair cost 5 cents. separate admission charges were required for roughly one-fourth of the fair’s exhibits.

Each day parades and fireworks highlighted the fair’s activities, designed to draw visitors from across the nation and the world. Whalen and La Guardia in particular continued to aggressively market the fair in the media, posing with guests as well as with sponsors of exhibits, such as Henry Ford on Ford Day .

The 1940 Fair
But things changed drastically by the time the Fair was to open on May 11, 1940. Europe was well into the second World War. The Soviet pavilion was gone, replaced by the "American Common." Fountain Lake in the Amusements Area had been renamed Liberty Lake. The British, Polish, Czechoslovakian, and Finnish pavilions had reminders of the war in their exhibits. Norway and Denmark were only minimally represented the second summer. In June of that year France fell to Germany. Gibson, in the business of promoting international cooperation and the benefits of technology for tomorrow’s America, obviously had his work cut out for him. The mind of the nation was no longer on the future of the 1960s but on the possibility of war. The momentum of April 1939 and the allure of the new had subsided.

But regardless of how exciting the Fair was in 1939, it didn’t live up financially to the hopes of its organizers. When the 1940 Fair opened, adult admission had been reduced to 50 cents per person. It also had a new business manager, Harvey Dow Gibson, who brought in “rowdier” amusements and renamed the Amusement Area the “Great White Way.” He even changed sensationalized the language in the Official Guidebook.

The fair closed on October 27, 1940, having drawn approximately 45 million admissions and 48 million dollars. Unfortunately, the Fair Corporation itself had invested 67 million dollars of the roughly 160 million dollars used for the original construction, promotion, and operation of the fair. What Whalen called "the greatest civil engineering feat of the century" had failed economically.

The history of the 1939 New York World’s Fair is, in a sense, the history of the transformation of the American sensibility, from a late-Depression-era futuristic vision to the one of apprehension and anxiety which characterized the pre-World War II period. It has served as a model for future world’s fairs, and its exhibits and the people involved with it profoundly influenced movements in design, art, architecture, advertising, marketing, urban development, and cultural studies. It was and remains a cultural icon, an encapsulation of a period of tension and possibilities in the history of American culture.

The Promise of Tomorrow
The fair had marketed its message well in the press and in an infinite number of commercial products, from playing cards and board games to household items such as soaps, glasses, plates, and radios, most of which displayed the Trylon and Perisphere. The fair had attempted to transform itself into the literal world of the future by providing a very clear vision of the chaos of the past and the purity and peace of a socially-planned future.

The futuristic vision of perfection embodied by The World of Tomorrow is perhaps best exemplified in a film entitled The City, based on the writing of Pare Lorentz and produced for the American Association of Planners. Lorentz’s City offered an apocalyptic vision of contemporary urban life in America and claimed the solution to its woes rested in Mumford’s greenbelt communities. The rhetoric of the film attempted to sell the idea of anti-urban regional planning which in fact as come true in the 21st Century.

Thought the Fair became a cultural phenomenon and a highly successful media event, many of the 45 million visitors to it didn’t buy the corporate message of the future and basically looked at it as pure spectacle and entertainment.

Gibson noted that not only was the Fair too pricey for its target audience—the combined cost of an admission ticket and a tour of the most popular exhibits would be nearly $100 today—thus driving away the “folk” for whom the organizers created the Fair. Furthermore, few of the multitudes entering the gates had any desire or means to purchase things like T.V. sets or cars to ride the superhighways of the future. For them, the Fair was a respite from the long, hard years of the Great Depression. Basically, Americans were not ready for the radical world of tomorrow that the Fair portrayed.

The World of Tomorrow was intended to be a clear demonstration of how life was going to be in the United States and in the rest of the world from that point forward. the fair was, in the end, an amusement show with a message. The World of Tomorrow promised a worldview of a society dominated by leisure and abundance granted by the use of technology, and in many ways the fair’s visitors and scholars have seen it fulfill its prophecy.

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