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The 1939 New York World's Fair

The New York World's Fair of 1939 and 1940, was held in Flushing Meadows in the Borough of Queens. The non-profit Fair corporation was formed in 1935 under the guidance of business and civic leaders, and financed through federal, state, municipal and private funds. The Fair commemorated the 150th anniversary of Washington's inauguration in New York City and took "Building the World of Tomorrow" as its central theme. Participants included close to 60 nations, 33 states and U.S. territories, and over a thousand exhibitors, among them some of the largest corporations in the United States. The New York World's Fair of 1939 and 1940, held in Flushing Meadows in the Borough of Queens, is widely regarded as the most spectacular exposition ever held in the United States. By every measurement - size, cost, attendance, publicity, foreign government participation, number of exhibitors - it outranked every previous international fair. With 45 million visitors during its two seasons, the Fair was the best-attended event of the first half of the 20th century. Participation was unprecedented with close to 60 foreign nations, 33 states and U.S. territories, and over a thousand exhibitors, among them some of the largest corporations in the United States. A massive promotional campaign was waged across the country and around the world, with hundreds of programs and events attracting widespread media coverage. New York had not hosted a world's fair since the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1853 and the New York World's Fair planners were committed, according to one internal report, "to the building of the greatest international exposition in history."

The success of Chicago's 1933 Century of Progress exposition persuaded many that a fair in New York would stimulate local trade and industry long dampened by the lingering effects of the Great Depression. In the summer of 1935, leaders of New York City's civic and business community formed a preliminary steering committee to explore the possibility of mounting a world's fair in New York. While such a venture would be expensive (the overall cost would ultimately climb to over $155 million), the expectation was that visitors to a fair would send billions of dollars flowing through the New York City economy. As a result of the committee's deliberations, a proposal was formally announced and received an enthusiastic reception from public and commercial interests. In October 1935, the New York World's Fair 1939 Incorporated, a non-profit membership corporation, was formed. It included over one hundred charter members drawn from the leaders of New York's business, financial, artistic, and professional communities. Principal officers of the Corporation included Grover A. Whalen (President), Bayard F. Pope (Treasurer), George McAneny (Chairman of the Board), Percy S. Straus (Chairman of the Committee on Architecture and Physical Planning), Harvey D. Gibson (Chairman of the Finance Committee), Howard A. Flanigan (Assistant to the President and later Executive Vice President), W. Earle Andrews (General Manager), and John P. Hogan (Chief Engineer).

The Fair was the result of a close and complex collaboration between private investors and local, state, federal and foreign governments, with New York City donating $26.7 million to the Fair, the federal government $3 million, New York State $6.2 million, and foreign governments over $30 million. The Fair issued $27,829,500 in bonds backed by receipts from admission and rentals to concessionaires and exhibitors, and promised a yield of four-percent interest due in 1941. These were sold to businesses, unions and members of the public eager to reap a profit from the enterprise. State and federal cooperation was facilitated by the creation of the New York State World's Fair Commission and the United States World's Fair Commission. It was agreed that all profits would be dedicated to the construction of Flushing Meadows Park, to occupy the site following the closing of the Fair -- a commitment secured by then-New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses.

Physical construction of the Fair began in the spring of 1936 with the enactment of enabling legislation permitting the reclamation of 1,216 ? acres of tidal swamp -- chiefly occupied by a colossal city dump. Seven-million cubic acres of meadow mat and refuse were moved and leveled, and marshland filled in advance of the construction of the Fairgrounds; a feat still considered one of the largest land reclamations undertaken in the eastern United States. Following the clearance of the site and over the course of two years, thousands of architects, engineers, designers, artists, contractors, and trades people were mobilized, round the clock, to transform the Corona Dump into the New York World's Fair. The rapid construction of a virtual city complete with buildings, roads and lakes was only interrupted by the recurrent labor disputes and strikes that threatened the scheduled opening of the Fair and cost the corporation millions of dollars in overtime required to make up for time lost during stoppages. In conjunction with the Fair, several other large-scale projects that re-shaped New York City and the outlying area were undertaken, including highways and boulevards leading to the Flushing Meadow site, the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge, subway and railroad extensions, and LaGuardia Airport.

The corporation, like the fairgrounds, grew rapidly. By the spring of 1936 the core administrative staff was in place and operating from temporary offices in the Empire State Building in advance of a move to permanent headquarters at the Fairgrounds. In the years leading up to the Fair, the corporate staff would swell to an estimated 8,000 individuals working in close to three-dozen organizational units. While hierarchical reporting lines were established and numerous organizational charts issued, the corporation exhibited a remarkable fluidity of structure as members of the staff, often working across departmental lines, strove to bring the many aspects of the Fair to fruition.

The Board of Design under Stephen F. Voorhees, president of the American Institute of Architects, was responsible for the layout and overall appearance of the Fair, establishing standards for all buildings, murals, sculptures, lighting, and landscaping. Robert D. Kohn, eminent New York architect and progressive planner, accepted responsibility for defining the main theme. The Fair was scheduled to open on April 30, 1939, the 150th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration in New York City; but while the Fair paid tribute to the past, the uplifting theme, "Building the World of Tomorrow," emphasized the promise of the future. A press release issued by the Corporation articulated its progressive goals: "The Fair will exhibit the most promising developments of ideas, products, services and social factors of the present day in such a fashion that the visitor may get a vision of what he could obtain for himself, and for his community, by intelligent, co-operative planning toward the better life of the future."

In order to integrate the thematic elements with the built environment, the Fair was divided into seven sectors or zones: amusement, communication, community interests, food, government, production and distribution, and transportation. Most zones had a Fair-sponsored focal exhibit offering an overview of the sector's theme and interpreting the social significance of the participants' displays located in that area. At the hub of these sectors stood the Trylon, a 700-foot obelisk, and the Perisphere, a 200-foot globe, the symbols of the Fair. The Perisphere contained "Democracity," the Fair's central thematic exhibit, a scale model of an imaginary metropolis of the future, designed by American industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss.

With the transformation of Flushing Meadows in full swing, President Roosevelt responded to a resolution of Congress and, in November 1936, invited the participation of the nations of the world. A major hurdle was cleared when the International Bureau of Expositions, the governing body of international fairs, granted formal recognition of the anticipated New York fair. Fair president Grover Whalen, a consummate and energetic promoter, traveled across the world gathering commitments from an unprecedented number of foreign governments. With the exception of Germany and China, Whalen signed every major country in the world, scoring a significant coup by securing a pledge from Stalin that the Soviet Union would construct a $4 million pavilion. While this imposing pavilion would earn revenue for the Fair, it provoked the displeasure of some members of the public who considered the dominant structure to be a political taunt; complaints were lodged that the statue of a Soviet worker holding a star aloft mounted high atop a 180-foot pylon threatened to exceed the height of the American flag that flew over the Fairgrounds.

The forward-looking theme and significant government participation helped to persuade a host of American corporations -- eager to introduce new products to the public -- to lease space from the Fair. Many of these exhibits proved to be both powerful promotional tools and among the most popular attractions at the Fair. Notable corporate exhibitions included the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, where long distance phone calls could be placed for free; the Borden Company, which offered demonstrations of an electronically-operated milking machine (the rotolactor); the Westinghouse Company, featuring corporate mascots Elektro and Sparko -- a mechanical man and his dog; and General Motor's "Futurama," which offered a birds-eye view of the world of the highways, cities and suburbs of 1960 as imagined by industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes.

The amusement zone drew visitors to the Fair as well and helped the corporation to earn additional income through admission fees charged by selected concessionaires, a percentage of which was paid out to the Fair. Billy Rose's Aquacade was the undisputed hit of the amusement zone. This water show, which featured Olympic champions Eleanor Holm and Johnny Weismuller and a cast (according to promotional literature) of "fetching mermaids and virile mermen," earned Rose an estimated five million dollars. Although Whalen had early on promised that the Fair would be free of "fan dancing" or lewd "girlie shows," the potential loss of lucrative attractions produced a more lenient position towards entertainments featuring nudity and exotic dancing. While this altered stance generated controversy, burlesque shows helped rent space in the amusement zone and brought in paying visitors craving something other than culture and education. Salvador Dali's Dream of Venus, Norman Bel Geddes' Crystal Lassies and the Cavalcade of Centaurs -- featuring scantily clad or naked women in tanks of water, refracted in mirrors or bare-breasted on horseback -- were among the attractions that drew criticism and crowds.

Although more than 25 million paying visitors attended the Fair during the 1939 season, attendance fell far short of the projected 50 million that was needed to repay investors. Operating costs far outpaced expected income and, by August, the Fair was facing bankruptcy. The blame was laid on construction costs that exceeded budgeted funds; the 75-cent admission fee -- 25 cents more than the standard fee for fairs; and the excessive pomp -- parades for visiting dignitaries, elaborate ceremonies and lavish receptions - which acted as a deterrent, in the words of one Fair official, "[to] the common run of people …ill at ease rubbing elbows [with] …the high silk hat group." With the Fair teetering on the brink of insolvency, the board of directors elected to extend the exposition for an additional year hoping to recoup losses incurred during the '39 season.

Gone was the optimism of the first year with its message of better living through collective planning so carefully crafted by the Board of Design and the initial planners. With war spreading throughout Europe, a more pragmatic mood prevailed both in the administration of the Fair and across the country. A new theme was adopted for the second year, "For Peace and Freedom," and with this signal change, came other alterations. The flash-and-dazzle Whalen was replaced as the chief executive of the Fair by the staid and no-nonsense Harvey D. Gibson, president of Manufacturers Trust Company and chair of the Fair's Finance Committee. His first act was to slash the price of admission to 50 cents; a series of austerity measures that included staff reductions and consolidation of departments and functions followed. Hoping to bring in the "common run of people" - people from small towns and rural regions of the country - the Fair launched promotional campaigns, contests and new attractions that would recast the high concept exposition to project the aspect of, in Gibson's words, "a super country fair." As part of the transformation of the theme and folksy re-orientation, the 1940 Fair lost some of its international flavor. Moreover, the political situation overseas prevented the robust foreign participation of the previous year. Ten nations did not return including several under Nazi occupation, and the Soviet Union withdrew, dismantling its pavilion and leaving a 100,000 square foot vacant lot in the center of the Fairgrounds. In its stead, the site became the "American Common," a performance venue given over to patriotic pageants and events celebrating democracy and American diversity.

The Fair closed on October 27, 1940 yielding its highest day of attendance of over 550,000 visitors. But overall attendance lagged far behind the 1939 season and while profits in the 1940 season did exceed expenses, it was not sufficient to wipe out the debts incurred the previous year. When all outstanding financial matters were settled, bond holders only received 40 cents on each dollar invested. Demolition, which under an agreement with the Park's Department was to be carried out by the Fair Corporation, began the day after the gates of the 1940 Fair closed. The unwinding of the corporation and the dismantling of the Fairgrounds structures was overseen by Howard A. Flanigan. Asked whether he regretted this task he told an interviewer, "Isn't it better to let it die while it's still lovely, than to let it stand on and become shabby?" Over the next four years an ever dwindling staff managed matters related to the resolution of Fair business. The formal dissolution of the New York World's Fair occurred in March 1943, but the corporation continued to function through the fall of 1945 (ten years after the boisterous launching of the enterprise) when lingering legal and financial affairs were quietly concluded by a staff of one operating from a desk at the offices of Manufacturers Trust.

The New York Times, reporting on the closing of the 1940 season, penned the following epitaph:

On the tombstone of the Flushing giant should be carved something like this: "Born, April 30, 1939. Passed away officially at midnight, October 27, 1940. A short life - and not always a merry one." ….It has been a fabulous history - one that undoubtedly will mellow and improve with age and recitation and will become part of American folk legend when the fairgoers of '39 and '40 tell it to their grandchildren in 1975.

Sources: Gelernter, David. 1939: The Lost World of the Fair. New York: Avon Books, 1995.

Gibson, Harvey. Harvey D. Gibson: An Autobiography. North Conway, New Hampshire: The Reporter Press/Paul K. Blanchard, Inc., 1951.

Harrison, Helen, ed. Dawn of a New Day: The New York World's Fair 1939/40. New York: New York University Press, 1980.

Monaghan, Frank. New York World's Fair 1939. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1939.

Official Guide Book of the New York World's Fair 1939. New York: Exposition Publications, Inc.

Rydell, Robert W., John E. Findling, and Kimberly D. Pelle. World's Fairs in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Tyng, Francis Edmonds. Making a World's Fair: Organization, Promotion, Financing, and Problems, with Particular Reference to the New York World's Fair of 1939-1940. New York: Vantage Press, 1958.

Wurts, Richard and Stanley Applebaum, et. al. The New York World's Fair 1939/1940 in 155 photographs by Richard Wurts and Others. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1977.

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