A Visit to the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia

Landscape is history made visible”   JB Jackson

Source: Free Library of Philadelphia

Asked to visit and reflect upon a cultural and/or historical landscape, I thought “Wow! Philly has so many great sites, which one will I choose?  It didn’t take long for me to settle on the 1876 Centennial Exhibition grounds located in West Philadelphia.  Just a stone’s through away on the other side of the Schuylkill River from my neighborhood of East Falls, the Centennial grounds have long been an interest, though not yet investigated by me.  My interest is partly due to what I understand about my current home:  it, along with the other twins on my block, was built as a ‘model home of the future’ in 1875 and was used to house international delegates to the Centennial Exhibition.  (I have yet to dig up any hard evidence of this, though my neighbors swear by this story).  This assignment gave me the impetus to finally delve into the Centennial ,and on a more selfish note, it gave me the opportunity to invite my partner to join in the exploration.

Before departing, I conducted a bit of internet research on the subject and came across the Free Library of Philadelphia website (libwww.freelibrary.org/CenCol/index.htm)dedicated to this very subject.  It is chock-full of photographs, maps and illustrations.  This gave me a fantastic overview of the site and helped orient me during my on-site exploration.

There is so much interesting information about the Centennial Exhibition that I feel compelled to include considerable text here from a couple of the main websites I found. As the Free Library website succinctly explains:

“During the Centennial year of 1876, Philadelphia was host to a celebration of 100 years of American cultural and industrial progress. Officially known as the “International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine,” the Centennial Exhibition, the first major World’s Fair to be held in the United States, opened on May 10, 1876 on a 285-acre tract of Fairmount Park overlooking the Schuylkill River. The fairgrounds, designed almost exclusively by 27-year-old German immigrant Hermann J. Schwarzmann, were host to 37 nations and countless industrial exhibits occupying over 250 individual pavilions. The Exhibition was immensely popular, drawing nearly 9 million visitors at a time when the population of the United States was 46 million.”

“The most lasting accomplishment of the Exhibition was to introduce America as a new industrial world power, soon to eclipse the might and production of every other industrialized nation, and to showcase the City of Philadelphia as a center of American culture and industry.”

This gave me pause to consider.  In 1876, the U.S was just eleven years from the official end of the Civil War and yet it was poised to become an international power of such an extent that it would soon usurp even the British Empire, upon whose territory the sun never set.  As I prepared to visit the site, it struck me how that scenario – for both the U.S. and Philadelphia –  in no way reflects the situation today and I anticipated that the condition of the Centennial Exhibition grounds today reflects that reality.  (But don’t get me wrong,  I have no romantic notions of that time period.  The post-Civil War Reconstruction era in which African Americans began to make great strides  was about to abruptly end with the Tilden/Hayes compromise, sending the plight of African Americans backward with the institution of Jim Crow.  Likewise, the wholesale destruction and subjugation of entire Peoples was official government policy with the so-called ‘Indian Wars’.  This conquest, of course, corresponded to the plunder of millions of acres of land and the mass slaughter of wildlife as everyday people/immigrants scrambled to grab resources to make a better life for themselves.)

By all accounts, 1876 was a pivotal year and Philadelphia was host to one of the main attractions.  Over 20% of the nation’s population visited the Centennial Exhibition.  Today, that would be the equivalent of 60 million people visiting the city in one year – can you even imagine an event that would draw so many people?  By comparison, Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom received 16.5 million visitors worldwide in 2011. (www.wikipedia.org)  A look at some of the buildings designed to house the exhibition gives us some idea of the Exhibition’s vastness.

The Main Building

Horticultural Hall

After looking over hundreds of photos posted on various websites, my heart sank to realize how much of this historic landscape we’ve lost.    From the photographs, I could see the main buildings were massive, ornate and mesmerizing with their intricacy, statuary and glass windows. The Main Exhibition Building (measuring 1,880 feet long by 464 feet wide and was at the time, the largest building in the world by area enclosing 21.5 acres) and the (not shown) Machinery building (402 feet long by 360 feet wide) were located between Avenue of the Republic and Elm Ave (now Parkside Ave).  Only two (2) of the hundreds of buildings and structures built for the Centennial Exhibition remain today – Memorial Hall and the Ohio House.

With JB Jackson’s quote “Landscape is history made visible” squarely in my mind, my partner and I set off to visit these two structures and walk the grounds.  I knew from the maps I found that the landscape of the Centennial Exhibition was laid out with a classical design using an overlying rectangular grid with major axis to direct and channel the flow of pedestrians and vehicles (horse-drawn carriages).  Imbedded within the grid was a garden-style layout with multiple curvilinear roadways and walkways leading to various small exhibition components.  In addition to the massive main buildings and smaller structures, the grounds also featured fountains and sculptures and reflected some of the natural elements of the landscape, such as with the spring-fed series of small lakes.  Among the major axis there was Avenue of the Republic, Park Drive, Agricultural Avenue, Fountain Avenue and Belmont Avenue.

Belmont Ave 1876

Fountain Ave 1876

Today, Belmont Avenue is the predominant roadway through the site.  With thousands of cars a day, it is congested with traffic moving along at much higher speeds than the posted 25 miles/hr limit. Avenue of the Republic traverses the interior of the grounds, but again, it appears most people use it as a means to skirt around the much more heavily congested main streets of Belmont and Parkside avenues.

Avenue of the Republic

Fountain Ave

Parkside Ave with Victorian Homes facing Exhibition Grounds

Traveling at the speed and with the intention of just getting through or around the site, I would hazard to guess that most people ‘visiting’ the site today have no idea where they really are.  It’s peculiar to me to have so much attention on and resources for the historic sites of Old City and to simultaneously neglect the grounds of the Centennial Exhibition.  Being part of the Fairmount Park system, the grounds are tended to somewhat, but the potential to bring this history to life and to bolster the neighborhood it is in has so far not been realized.  The majority of the grounds consist of mowed lawn (with the occasional playing field) lined by majestic old oak and maple trees.

Our first order of business was to visit Memorial Hall along the Avenue of the Republic.

“Designed as a permanent monument to the Centennial, Memorial Hall was to become the most enduring and influential architectural achievement of Hermann J. Schwarzmann. The massive granite structure, surmounted by a glass and steel dome, was built to a design called Modern Renaissance, and held the Centennial art exhibition. John Sartain, chief of the Centennial Bureau of Art, gathered over 3,256 paintings and drawings, 627 works of sculpture, 431 works of applied art, and nearly 3000 groups of photographs, from 20 nations. So great was the response from exhibitors that a separate Art Annex had to be built, and photographs were displayed in a nearby Photographic Hall.” (www.freelibrary.org)

And, having curated art exhibitions myself, I just can’t resist sharing the following details:

“The paintings exhibited represented for the most part the prosaic art that was so popular at the time, when every picture had to tell a story and, if possible, point (sic) a moral.  The most popular painting at the Centennial was perhaps The Marriage of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales by W.P. Frith. An official report noted:  the crowd in front of this picture was impassable from the opening to the closing of the doors, and it was necessary to have a guardian continually stationed there to protect the picture, and keep the crowd moving.” Link to painting:  http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Powell_Frith_-_The_Marriage_of_the_Prince_of_Wales,_10_March_1863.JPG]

“Works exhibited were not avant-garde. The first Impressionist exhibition was held at Paris in 1874, and none of these painters were represented at Philadelphia. Auguste Rodin did exhibit some pieces in the Belgian section. More typical were works such as Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii, by the dean of American sculptors Randolph Rogers, William Wetmore Story’s Medea, and Howard Robert’s Premiere Pose, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. More popular among some visitors were works such as The Dreaming Iolanthe, sculpted by the famed Butter Lady of Arkansas, Caroline S. Brooks, and packed in ice throughout the Centennial.”

“Memorial Hall became the model for a series of public buildings in Europe: the Reichstag Building in Berlin, built 1884-94; Reichsgericht in Leipzig, Czech National Museum in Prague, University Library in Strasbourg, etc.” (www.libwww.freelibrary.org)

Opening Day at Memorial Hall

Even though the landscape today is more heavily populated by cars than by people, I could still envision what it must have felt like to be one of the more than 15,000 people in attendance at the opening day ceremonies outside Memorial Hall thanks to the long vistas acting as visual axis and the massive sculptures anchoring the building’s entrance.

Memorial Hall from Avenue of the Republic

Memorial Hall

(A close look at the photo shows the temporary toilets and tents located in front of the building.  What do you think this says about the value placed on this building and site?)

Pegasus Statue

According to the plaque at the base of the statues, they represent Pegasus Tamed by the Muses Erato and Callipe by the artist Vincenz Pilz.  Originally placed atop the Imperial Opera House in Vienna, they were removed in 1870 and subsequently installed in front of Memorial Hall for the Centennial Exhibition. Photo to the left shows the scale of the statues with people in lower right corner.

Layered Statues of Memorial Hall

The statuary of the building is tremendous and from the websites I visited, it seems the whole exhibition was saturated in sculpture.

And while much of the original features remain, there is plenty of evidence of missing components (fountains and statues), substitutions (concrete walkways) and adaptations.  The most glaring example being that the Please Touch Museum is now located in Memorial Hall.  To me, this shows the city’s lack of vision and purpose with regard to this building and the Centennial Exhibition grounds overall.  I could imagine the building being fully restored to its original grandeur and used for cultural and educational activities.

At least inside the main entryway, the recent renovations seek to match the color and style of the Victorian era in which the building was designed.

Memorial Hall Interior Detail

Interior Glass Dome

Standing under the vast ceiling and vaulted glass dome reinforced my ability to imagine how exciting it must have been to be part of the crowd in 1876.

Visiting the small spring-fed lakes, I could imagine people leisurely paddling row boats dressed in effusive Victorian garb under decorative hand-held umbrellas.  Today, the waterways are not enjoyed by the public and, for the most part, neglected habitats.  However, there does appear to be some kind of attention being given to the larger of the two lakes I visited.  With the beginnings of a new walkway around the circumference and what appears to be the formal cultivation of a marshland.  My partner and I enjoyed a great discussion around the pros and cons of developing  the small lakes into natural versus  man-made elements in the landscape (and are these two options mutually exclusive?).  To me, this is yet another example of the incredible potential this site offers the city and surrounding neighborhood.

The Ohio House is the only other structure remaining from the Centennial Exhibition.

State Buildings of the Centennial Exhibition

Ohio House Today

It is an example of the dozens of houses built by various States to exhibit their unique craftsmanship, resources and industries.

Today, the Ohio House is home to the Centennial Café  and is a great little spot for breakfast or lunch offering indoor or outdoor dining.  I’ve enjoyed breakfast there on several occasions but today was the first time I located and read the signage giving information on the particulars of the building.  This allowed me to further appreciate it and envision the many similar buildings once lining State Avenue.

Civil War Monument

There’s one more feature I think deserves highlighting.  Though it was built after the Centennial, the Civil War memorial gating the Avenue of the Republic is remarkable for its size and sculpture.   It took over a decade to construct and features work by several different artists. In the photo, you can see the scale of the monument in relation to the blue street signage.

Whispering Bench

Added to that, the memorial includes the amazing whispering benches.  Located on either side of the memorial behind the facade are cured granite benches.  I sat at one end and my partner sat at the other and with a mere whisper, we could hear each other as if we were side by side.  We both experienced this phenomena recently when we visited the Baltimore Science Museum, but to have such an artwork installed here as part of a civil war monument in the middle of this neglected landscape was both haunting and astounding.  For this reason alone, one would expect this site to be more heavily visited.

To me, there’s no question that the Centennial Exhibition grounds and the few remaining elements on the site are a tremendous resource for Philadelphia in need of a master plan and the dedicated resources to follow through with that plan.  Thanks in great part to the landscape design and the historical records in collection, the framework exists on which to build a new vision that can illuminate the past, bolster the present and lead to the future.


About lifeamongtherubble

Graduate Student
Gallery | This entry was posted in Centennial Exhibition, Landscape Architecture, Philadelphia, Urban Form and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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