Bringing the 1904 World’s Fair to Life

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Palace of Electricity. Charles Van Ravenswaay Collection, P0014. The State Historical Society of Missouri
Forest Park today
Forest Park today

The decision was far from unanimous. By a vote of 4-3, St. Louis architect Isaac Taylor was chosen to plan and oversee construction for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition – known to many as the St. Louis World’s Fair. Following the vote, Taylor knew he had been presented with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and he dedicated the next three years of his life to making sure the fair would be a spectacular sight to see.

Palace of Education and Social Economy. Louisiana Purchase Exposition Snapshots. The State Historical Society of Missouri.

Creating a Masterpiece

Taylor was a top architect in St. Louis at the turn of the 20th century, during the city’s “golden age” of architecture. Prior to his work on the World’s Fair, he designed dozens of structures – corporate offices, hotels, factories and government buildings – in Renaissance, Romanesque and Modern Classic styles. His reputation as an architect had been secured with his design of the Liggett & Myers building, a massive brick and granite structure that is now a cornerstone of St. Louis’ Washington Street Loft District.

Taylor was determined to create a masterpiece for the 1904 fair – an event honoring the 100th
anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase. He took a leave of absence from his successful St. Louis architecture firm to devote himself full-time to the project, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week for three years until the project was complete. He was described as a “whirlwind of energy who never seemed to fail. Everyone marveled at his dedication. Nothing seemed to stop him.”

An article in the St. Louis Republic recounted his efforts:

“It is a task equal to the pyramids, this building of a World’s Fair, that Mr. Taylor is doing with no trumpeting, yet with nevertheless herculean labor … He combines the fancy of an architect, the acumen of a businessman, and the force and strategy of a general.”

A Challenging Project

The World’s Fair project was not without its challenges – chief among them was funding. St. Louis leaders made no secret of the fact that they wanted their fair to be significantly larger than the Chicago Exposition held a decade earlier – and that required a substantial amount of money.

The site for the fair, Forest Park, also proved to be a challenge. More than half of the park truly was a forest, and a large section of the property was a swamp. Overseeing more than 7,000 workers, Taylor cleared areas for exhibit halls and other structures, drained the swampy terrain, changed the course of a river, built roads and an intramural train system, erected the buildings, landscaped the grounds, and filled the site with fountains and lagoons.

Taylor’s goal was to create the most beautiful city – in the Beaux Arts style – the world had ever seen. By all accounts, he succeeded. He was praised not only for his imagination but also for his practicality and ability to enforce the fair official’s $15 million dollar budget and keep the project moving forward. When complete, the 1,200 acre exposition site included more than 1,500 structures, many of them designed by Taylor himself.

What Remains Today

Most of the buildings designed specifically for the fair were temporary structures and no longer stand today – with one notable exception. The St. Louis Palace of Fine Arts, designed by architect Cass Gilbert, reopened as the St. Louis Art Museum a few years after the fair closed.

The “flight cage” aviary at the St. Louis Zoo and the concrete fence running along Forest Park Boulevard are the only other remaining structures built for the fair. The flight cage was the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibit and the largest aviary ever built at the time. It remains one of the largest free-flight cages in the world today.

In the years leading up to the World’s Fair, Washington University began construction on a campus adjacent to Forest Park. The new facility served as a model campus during the fair, and many of the buildings were leased to the fair. University Hall housed the exposition’s administrative headquarters while other structures were used as offices, exhibit halls and dormitories for visitors. The buildings, still in use today, are a lasting reminder of the vital role Washington University served during the fair.

A Lasting Legacy

Although most of the fair’s original buildings are gone, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition helped establish Forest Park as the heart of St. Louis. It also focused worldwide attention on the city and led to the construction of new hotels, office buildings and homes – a building boom that continued until World War I.

Following the exposition, Taylor returned to his architecture firm. During a career that spanned nearly 50 years, he completed more than 215 projects. His post-fair projects included the Jefferson Memorial Building built at the entrance to Forest Park on the site of the main entrance to the fair. The building was constructed with profits from the exposition and now houses the Missouri History Museum, which features an ongoing exhibit dedicated to the 1904 World’s Fair.

Written by Liz Coleman