This week in North Philly Notes, Thomas Keels, author of Sesqui!: Greed, Graft, and the Forgotten World’s Fair of 1926, debuts a new video for his book and explains the appeal of World’s Fairs.
In 1964, I was ten years old and living on a farm outside Princeton, New Jersey. Like many baby boomers, I was taken to see the New York World’s Fair. Like many baby boomers, I was blown away by the fair’s gleaming vision of the 21st Century, an endless episode of The Jetsons sprung to life. Ours would be a future filled with personable robots, out-of-this-world architecture, self-driving cars, and push-button picture-phones. Not to mention an endless supply of Belgian waffles!
Later, I was haunted by images of the fair’s demise after it closed on October 17, 1965. The media were filled with pictures of such seemingly enduring attractions as the Bell Systems and IBM Pavilions being reduced to rubble by the barest touch of a bulldozer. Like the second Mrs. de Winter revisiting Manderley, I began to dream of returning to a ghost fair magically restored to its full glory. I would stroll past the Court of the Astronauts and through a sea of fluttering flags toward the Unisphere, its fresh steel gleaming in the sun and surrounded by sparkling fountains. All of these wonders still had to exist somewhere. How could such a perfect world be realized for only a few short months, only to be obliterated?
Perhaps this childhood experience explains why I was fascinated by the Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition of 1926 – aka “the Sesqui.” I stumbled across the Sesqui when I uncovered pictures of a giant Liberty Bell that straddled Broad Street at what is now Marconi Plaza in South Philadelphia. It became the cover of my first book with Temple University Press, Forgotten Philadelphia: Lost Architecture of the Quaker City. I knew nothing about the fair, since I was a relative newcomer to Philadelphia. Then I realized that most people – even lifelong residents well-versed in local history – knew nothing about the Sesqui. It was a true ghost fair that survived only in faded photographs.
As I wrote Sesqui!: Greed, Graft, and the Forgotten World’s Fair of 1926, and researched the fair further, I learned how it had become a victim of the virulent boss politics that choked Philadelphia during the 20th century. Originally designed by Paul Philippe Cret to grace the Fairmount (now Ben Franklin) Parkway, the Sesqui was shoved down to the southern tip of town by a cadre of politicos in thrall to William S. Vare. Vare was the boss of Philadelphia’s all-powerful Republican Organization, and the U.S. Congressman for the city’s First District. Critics compared him to Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini for his iron grip on the city’s politics and purse-strings.
The Sesqui’s new site just happened to be in the heart of Vare’s district. His constituents gained jobs, paved streets, sewers, and trolleys. Vare’s construction company scored millions of dollars in lucrative contracts. And the Sesqui lost any chance of succeeding, since it cost over $10 million just to fill in the swampy soil before a single building went up. When the Sesqui opened on May 31, 1926, its huge exhibition halls were still wet with paint and empty of exhibits. Its first guests, a quarter-million Shriners holding their annual convention, took a gander, went home, and told their friends not to bother.
When the Sesqui closed on December 31, it had attracted roughly five million customers instead of the anticipated fifty million. Its official cost to the city was $33 million, although the real price tag was far higher. And the “Flop Heard Round the World” made Philadelphia a national joke. One of the reasons the Sesqui is forgotten today is that the Organization made a concerted effort to bury it the moment its doors closed, both literally and figuratively. It was the only way to conceal the financial shenanigans and political chicanery that had doomed the Sesqui from the start.
I dream about the Sesqui sometimes. Except my version is the fair that was meant to be, the visionary Cret design along the Parkway. I stand in Logan Circle and look at the great Beaux-Arts structures around me – not only the Free Library but the Palace of Justice and Victory Hall, an auditorium honoring the Great War dead. I stroll along the Parkway, lined with the new headquarters of the city’s leading institutions, from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to the Philadelphia Club. I cross the Court of Honor and ascend the steps to the Museum of Art. Heading west, I cross the Schuylkill River via a magnificent bridge copied after the Pont Alexandre III in Paris. I gaze downriver at the beautiful fountains and ornamental gardens that grace both banks of the Schuylkill. And I give thanks for the ghostly Sesqui-Centennial, the seminal event that transformed grimy, industrial Philadelphia into a true City Beautiful.
Filed under: american studies, art, cultural studies, economics/business, History, Labor Studies, Mass Media and Communications, Philadelphia, photography, sociology, Urban Studies | Tagged: art, books, business, history, Paul Cret, philadelphia, politics, video, World's Fair | Leave a comment »