A Centennial Treasure

Posted: October 10, 2008

Inside a climate-controlled room at Fairmount Park's Memorial Hall is a long-forgotten Philadelphia treasure: a three-dimensional "snapshot" of the Centennial Exposition as it looked on Independence Day in 1876.

The first people to see the model were astounded. In intricate detail, it depicts the nation's 100th-anniversary celebration in full swing, with Philadelphia at the epicenter, attracting millions from around the world.

Today - 132 years after men in straw hats and hoop-skirted women roamed the grounds - only a few of the exposition's 200 structures are left.

The model's home, Memorial Hall, is chief among them and is entering a new era. Once neglected and vandalized, it has undergone a $42 million transformation into the home of the Please Touch Museum, where the model will be the centerpiece of a new Centennial exhibit.

The restoration has long been the dream of Philadelphia historians, preservationists and architects hoping to save the Beaux Arts building, designed by Hermann J. Schwarzmann as an international art gallery and permanent Centennial memorial. They carefully researched the history of Memorial Hall and the Centennial; they studied the model and photographs; and they have lovingly restored the architectural gem to embrace its role as a children's museum.

"I actually get emotional about this," said Please Touch president Nancy Kolb. "I have always loved history and have had a long career in museums, so to save this building and tell the story of the Centennial is great for me. And the model is a key part of what we're trying to do."

Kolb, a former member of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, said much attention is paid to 18th-century Philadelphia, but little to the 19th-century Centennial, which drew 10 million visitors at a time when Philadelphia had fewer than one million residents.

"What happened in Philadelphia is a story we need to know," she said. "It was an opportunity for the city to shine, and it did. It was America's explosion on the world scene. The model is a record of that time. To me, it is the second most important object in the city, after the Liberty Bell."

Nobody had attempted anything like the Centennial Exposition. The sheer magnitude of it was mind-boggling. Planners created a self-contained city on Fairmount Park's Belmont Plateau, with police and fire departments, a water and sewer system, roads and public transportation, including North America's first monorail.

"It's amazing to think that all of this was here and most of it is now gone," said Stacey Swigart, Please Touch curator of collections, scanning the model in its huge glass case.

The nation's 100th birthday came during America's Gilded Age - a year of the corrupt politician Boss Tweed, the Molly Maguires, the Whiskey Ring, and "Custer's last stand." Throngs heard Dwight Moody's gospel message and Thomas Huxley's lectures on natural selection. The Philadelphia Athletics were playing, football was catching on, and Tom Sawyer was a popular new novel.

It was an optimistic, "can-do" time, and the celebration "didn't happen in Chicago or New York," Kolb said. "It happened here. I hope, as we tell the story, it will be a matter of Philadelphia civic pride."

The city was ready to party on July 4, 1876. Despite temperatures in the 90s, the fair drew big crowds to 60,000 exhibitors, some from as far away as Siam and Australia. As military bands played, 10,000 troops marched down Chestnut Street, passing a bunting-draped platform at Independence Hall where they were reviewed by Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

When ceremonies got under way at 10 a.m., 50,000 people packed Independence Square. In an emotional high point, Richard Henry Lee, grandson of a Declaration of Independence signer of the same name, came forward to read the revered document, said Swigart, who spent years researching the Centennial.

About the same time, she said, activist Susan B. Anthony marched in, uninvited, to read her own declaration of women's rights and present a petition demanding suffrage.

As the emphasis of the celebration shifted to the Centennial Exposition, fairgoers viewed artworks at Memorial Hall and wandered outside to see the arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty on display.

They admired a statue of a Civil War soldier and watched artists sketching the fair; photographers at work; carriages and steam engines passing; and crowds entering the vast, majestic Main Exhibition Hall, then among the largest buildings - if not the largest one - in the world.

Just west of Memorial Hall, many flocked to the July 4 dedication of the Catholic Total Abstinence Fountain, which today is adjacent to the Mann Center for the Performing Arts. In Agricultural Hall was a confectionery exhibit of historical figures in sugar and chocolate, including Chief Sitting Bull and Gen. George Armstrong Custer. A massive fireworks show that night drew oohs and ahhs.

John Baird didn't want the country to forget the excitement of that day. A former member of the Centennial Finance Committee who raised money for the fair, he spent $25,000 of his own money to pay for a model of the fairgrounds. When it was unveiled in 1889, after thousands of hours of work, people were simply astonished.

"There before them," the Public Ledger reported, "was everything that was in that enclosure of 236 acres - every one of the nearly 200 buildings . . . every piece of open air sculpture, every statue, every fountain, every road and path and lake." The spectacular model had captured a moment, like a photograph taken from a hot-air balloon.

Baird, a city marble magnate, wrote in 1889 that the purpose "was to preserve in permanent form architectural thoughts and ideas that cost a great deal of money and effort, and that it would be difficult to hand down to future generations for their instruction in any other way."

It was a huge undertaking; he collected maps, photographs and architects' drawings, then hired artisans to do the delicate work of re-creating the exposition to scale, one foot representing 192 on the fairgrounds. Buildings were carved in wood, assembled, then painted in the same colors as the originals. The landscape, roads, rail lines - even an experimental steam-driven monorail that crossed a gorge - were duplicated in minute detail.

The model was given to the city in 1890 and for the next five years was displayed at the Spring Garden Institute, a technical school where Baird served as an officer.

It was exhibited at City Hall from 1895 to 1900, when it was moved to Memorial Hall in what was the old Pompeiian Room in the basement.

And there it sat, largely forgotten, while park and city officials tried to find a suitable role for Memorial Hall. It had many lives over the years, said Barry Bessler, the Fairmount Park Commission's chief of staff, housing art collections until 1954, when it was turned over to the park commission. After standing vacant for four years, it was renovated and used for park offices.

"We had our offices there for over 50 years, but the building required significant restoration that we were not able to provide," Bessler said.

The Great Hall, with its inlaid marble, translucent green dome, and creamy Victorian stucco work, became a popular site for public functions and parties. Other parts of the building housed a swimming pool and gymnasium.

John Gallery, executive director of the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, remembered going to a costume ball there in 1969.

"It's been a long, long story of never finding the right use to restore and maintain the building," he said. "Some buildings are interesting because of their great architecture, some because of the stories behind them. Memorial Hall is interesting for its architecture and history."

Then came Please Touch to the rescue, with an 80-year lease on the building. When its efforts to move to Penn's Landing fell through in 2002, Kolb lobbied the board of directors to move to Memorial Hall. "It was built as a museum and it is going back to being a museum," she said.

Architect Jim Straw, whose firm Kise Straw & Kolodner worked on the makeover, said, "What we have tried to do is use the building as a lens through which we view not only Philadelphia and its role during the Centennial celebration, but all the things the building has seen within it. It's a national historical landmark. Just to have the honor of working on a building of this significance is career-defining, a project made in heaven."

And now, inside the dimly lit basement, the model waits in its vaultlike room to once again thrill the crowds with a special view of the nation's and Philadelphia's past.


Contact staff writer Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com. To comment, or to ask a question, go to http://go.philly.com/

askcolimore.

A longer version of this article appeared in The Inquirer on July 4, 2007.

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