Monday, June 01, 2009

All’s Fair

Seattle’s Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition grounds in 1909, photographed from a balloon looking north. This is the present site of the University of Washington.

In the summer of 1909--two decades after a massive fire wiped out downtown Seattle, 10 years after the Klondike Gold Rush washed a fortune (and more than a few grubby miners) through the city, and in the midst of a local building and population boom--Seattle threw itself a party: Washington state’s first world’s fair. The intent was at least twofold: to focus public attention and money on this drizzly corner of the Pacific Northwest, and to show up rival Portland, Oregon, which had staged an extravagant Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in 1905. During its slightly more than half-century history, Seattle had overcome its backwoods bumpkinhood to emerge as a major player in Pacific Rim trade. City fathers didn’t think it possible to overstate their pride in that hard-won prominence.

This was the era of ostentatious world’s fairs--Paris in 1900, Buffalo in 1901, St. Louis in 1904, Portland a year later, and preceding all of those, the gaudiest example of them all: Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. In a time when Earth seemed incomprehensibly large, back when most people didn’t travel very far from home, and radio, movie newsreels, television, and the Internet didn’t yet make news and images of the planet accessible to everyone, these fairs represented an opportunity for people to see something of the globe without having to pack steamer trunks or test the stability of their stomachs on long ocean voyages. They also provided opportunities for the host cities to make profitable international trade connections. Seattle, seeing great business opportunities in strengthened ties with the Far East, in particular, was willing to do whatever it took to invite the world to its doorstep in 1909.

Edmond S. Meany, a onetime state legislator and professor at the University of Washington, proposed mounting the Seattle fair on the UW campus, which remained largely vacant, even 10 years after that institution relocated from downtown to the north shore of Portage Bay. Organizers agreed--even though it would mean the fair had to be non-alcoholic, since state law forbade liquor on the campus grounds. An organizing committee was assembled, funds were raised, and San Francisco architects John Galen Howard and John Debo Galloway were engaged to plan the site.

The resulting Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition (A-Y-P)--which opened 100 years ago today--proved as enlightening as it was entertaining. By the close of that fair’s very first day, almost 80,000 adults and children had passed through its entrance gates, some of whom would return time and again. They came to rub elbows with dignitaries, such as perennial Democratic presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes, automaker Henry Ford, and even President William Howard Taft, who was stung painfully by a bee during his visit. They came to gawp at the neoclassical edifices that dominated this “Most Beautiful Exposition,” as it was advertised. (Early on, it was suggested that an “ancient Russian” vernacular of architecture be adopted for the fair buildings, recalling Alaska’s long-ago colonization by that European power; but it was ultimately determined that most designers weren’t sufficiently familiar with the style.) Visitors came to wander through dozens of state and international pavilions, with their exhibits of foodstuffs, handicrafts, industrial goods, and sometimes curious artwork (including a giant elephant, made from English walnuts, in the California Building). And they came to stroll among the fountains, manmade waterfalls, and well-manicured acreage, designed by the famous Olmstead Brothers. (A fairgrounds map is here.)

States such as California, Oregon, and New York, as well as the District of Alaska erected gaudy pavilions on the grounds. Other structures celebrated U.S. mining, manufacturing, and the fine arts. Oh, and let’s not forget the Forestry Building (left). Constructed of raw, old-growth logs and unfinished timber, it was modeled on a somewhat smaller wooden temple that featured in Portland’s world’s fair. Seattle’s version was designed by Charles W. Saunders and George W. Lawton, and despite its rough character, it echoed the fair’s classical forms. This was especially true of its sweeping, 320-foot entrance façade, across which stretched a succession of 50,000-pound log columns supporting a balcony and a roof with twin cupolas. (Following the fair, the Forestry Building was used by the university for a variety of educational purposes, but was demolished in 1931, after being undermined by beetles.)

While expo planners had hoped to draw more international participation, at least Sweden, Canada, and Japan contributed exhibit buildings to the site. That last pavilion, together with the Hawaii Building, justified the “Pacific” part of this exposition’s protracted moniker. Visitors who tired of educational presentations could pay $1 to climb high above the fair in the basket of a helium balloon. Or they could stroll across to the Pay Streak amusement zone. As was common with world’s fairs during the 19th and 20th centuries, the A-Y-P’s earnest, educational exhibits and grand architecture were balanced out with an amusement center full of mirth-inducing delights. The Pay Streak stretched along the fair’s western border. Among the draws there were a Chinese Village and Ferris wheel, the Vacuum Tube Railway, the pyramidal Temple of Palmistry, the Upside-Down House, Alkali Ike’s Wild West & Indian Show, a Baby Incubator display, a Streets of Cairo attraction, the Haunted Swing, and L.A. Thompson’s Scenic Railway (a roller coaster weaving through mountain environments). Oh, and there was also something called the Human Laundry, which dirt-loving children did their best to steer around, lest their parents get any bright ideas.

Although the Pay Streak specialized in frivolities, even it had a thing or two to teach fairgoers. Along its crowded length could be found huge, artistic re-creations of historical turning points, such as the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg and, in a structure of particularly martial character, the 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads, also called the Battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac, which pitted two ironclad vessels against each other in the waters off Sewell’s Point, Virginia. (That clash ended inconclusively, with both the Union and Confederacy claiming victory.) In addition, there were “ethnographic attractions” professing to show how “primitive peoples” lived. The most popular of those were a pseudo-Eskimo village (complete with dogsleds, despite the fact that it was summer in Seattle) and a tiny collection of grass-roofed huts inhabited by Igorrote (or Igorot) natives of the Philippines, who demonstrated their traditional crafts and shocked constitutionally delicate observers by dancing in their loincloths.

There was so much fun to be had for so little. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s calculations, someone partaking of every one of this expo’s paid attractions would have to plunk down only $15.20 (not including the costs for food and souvenirs). Yet, up to 2,000 people evaded paying the 50-cent admission fee to the fairgrounds, by sneaking in by way of an unguarded, quarter-mile-long sewer tunnel. It took a week for officials to figure out why so many visitors had “muddy shoulders”--the result of their squeezing through the manholes at either end.

By the time the A-Y-P closed on October 16, 1909, it had welcomed more than 3,700,000 visitors. Seattle certainly benefited from the tourist dollars brought in by that extravaganza, but hopes that the fair would immediately boost trade were not realized. Still, that event left behind several structures that remain in use on the University of Washington campus, including the Fine Arts Palace (now Architecture Hall), the Women’s Building (today’s Cunningham Hall), and Geyser Basin (today’s Drumheller Fountain), from which views of Mount Rainier can be enjoyed on clear days, just as they were a century ago. The A-Y-P also heightened international recognition of Seattle’s role as a conduit to commercial interaction between the continental United States and Alaska, and between America and Asia. That interaction would be front-and-center once more when Seattle hosted a second world’s fair, the Century 21 Exposition--complete with its signature Space Needle--in 1962.

LEARN MORE: Paula Wissel’s radio interview with A-Y-P centennial program manager Michael Herschensohn; a slideshow of the 1909 world’s fair; “100 Years Later, Seattle’s First World’s Fair Remembered,” by Don Duncan (The Seattle Times); “The Great White Fair,” by Bond Huberman (City Arts); “A Fair to Remember,” by Ina Zajac (Columns); “Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition,” by Alan J. Stein and Paula Becker (The Seattle Times); for lists of A-Y-P Centennial-related events and exhibits, click here, here, or here.

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