Touring the Future
For all its emphasis on freedom and the liberating of people from the mundane, the plan of the fair and many of its exhibits were designed to structure the physical and psychological experience of the visitors and include them as part of the spectacle . The fair itself was divided into a set of thematic areas or zones, shuffling masses of people from one exhibit to the next either with roads or passageways for logical transition between spaces or with the flash of elaborate imagery that has come to be called "eye candy." The Trylon and Perisphere, frequently referred to as the Theme Center, served as the focal point of the site, and the long promenade of Constitution Mall stretched from the Center to the Court of Peace, not unlike LEnfants Beaux-arts style plan for the Mall in Washington, D.C.
The tour ostensibly was a display of products, people, and ideas which its designers encapsulated in a variety of ways. Over 200 films were produced for the fair, some of which are excerpted for this site. A number of corporations produced John Henry-like theatrical exhibits pitting woman or man against machine to promote their vision of leisure and efficiency through automation. Variety shows and musical revues, frequently masked as educational exhibitions, dotted the Amusement Area. Perhaps most striking, though, is the predominance of the diorama in the fairs exhibits, presenting Utopian visions of the future with small-scale models of cities and communities.
This virtual tour of the fair focuses on the general areas of the Theme Center, the commercial and industrial buildings, the complex of international exhibits, and the Amusement Area and contextualizes them within the fairs intended social engineering and the actual results of its design. It should be noted that the structures and areas described in this tour are primarily as the fair existed in 1939, except when noted.
The Theme Center
The 700-foot Trylon and 200-foot Perisphere were connected by a giant ramp called the Helicline, which led visitors back to the grounds once they had visited the structures. Fair-goers entered the interior of the Theme Center by riding a portion of the way up the Trylon in what was, at the time, the worlds largest escalator. From the Trylon visitors were directed into the Perisphere in order to view what Stanley Applebaum calls "a planned urban and exurban complex of the future," a diorama which filled the floor of the building, entitled Democracity.
While viewing the diorama, visitors listened to a recorded six-minute message of the future spoken by the popular newscaster H.V. Kaltenborn, followed by a film show presenting "happy farmers and workers," the prosperous Americans whom the visitors apparently would soon become.
Commerce and Industry
The Transportation Zone
While the Trylon and Perisphere were the most recognizeable icons of the fair, the commercial and industrial buildings were the largest and the greatest in number; without question they covered most of the fairs grounds. These structures surrounded the Theme Center and rested on streets with names such as the Court of Communications, the Avenue of Patriots, the Avenue of Pioneers, the Avenue of Labor, and the Court of Power. The fairs planners and designers intended to include a massive amount of practical and ideological information in the fair, but subtlety certainly was not to be found among their precepts. The existence of these buildings around the Theme Center made clear that the future of American cities, democracities, was dependent upon the support of business and technological enterprise.
Futurama was a massive, 36,000 square-foot scale model of America in 1960, complete with futuristic homes, urban complexes, bridges, dams, surrounding landscape, and, most important, an advanced highway system which permitted speeds of 100 miles per hour.
In the amalgamation of "democracity, the greenbelt, and the new superhighways," GM was to provide the means to navigate the new world. Responding to the embedded message of the exhibit, Walter Lippman wrote that "General Motors has spent a small fortune to convince the American public that if it wishes to enjoy the full benefit of private enterprise in motor manufacturing, it will have to rebuild its cities and its highways by public enterprise." While declaring Futurama as a major factor in the development of the American highway system may seem far-fetched, its role in the development of the American obsession with the automobile cannot be ignored. It is not a coincidence that the number of motor vehicles in America has risen from 0 at the beginning of the twentieth century to an estimated 240 million by the year 2000, nor is it a coincidence that the mileage of paved roads in America rose from 387,000 miles in 1920 to roughly 2,946,000 miles by 1970. General Motors staked its claim to the future by providing a comprehensive worldview in which it was to be the chief proponent of a better quality of life, and it did so at a crucial point in the redevelopment of the nation. Its message not only changed the face and the scale of advertising and marketing forever; it changed the ways in which Americans live, move, and build. GM's vision of 1960 was not too far off the mark, minus the floating dirigible hangars and auto-gyros.
Though the Ford pavilion has received slightly less attention in later years as Futurama, it was no exhibitionary slouch.
General Motors showed a vision of its products, but Ford demonstrated its contributions to the future. The Ford Exposition, designed by Walter Dorwin Teague and Albert Kahn (architect of the Ford River Rouge Plant near Detroit), contained a winding, half-mile road as part of the building's architecture. They called it the Road of Tomorrow.
The Ford Exposition also contained a number of exhibits demonstrating the process by which its cars were built, creating a culture of interaction between the audience (translation: customer) and the company. The central exhibit was The Ford Cycle of Production, a turntable 100 feet in diameter, weighing 152 tons and floating in 20,000 gallons of water. The Cycle rotated, displaying models telling the story of how the automobile industry spreads employment, from the producers of raw materials to parts suppliers to assembly workers to sales associates. Other Ford messages included a refutation to the belief that industry is at odds with nature; one such exhibit feautured the supposedly increasing use of farm products in the auto industry. Perhaps the most telling example of machine propaganda, though, is found in the exhibition displaying the differences between auto production by hand versus machine production: the films narrator says "Machinery creates cars at prices that people can pay, and creates millions of jobs in the process." Ford, like General Motors, is to be one of the great saviors of the future. In the words of David Gelernter, the message is clear: "Technology: Good."
Travel by air, sea, and rail also made their statements about the scale and mobility of the future.
As such, the Aviation Building, designed by William Lescaze and J. Gordon Carr, appeared in the form of an airplane hangar. Likewise the Marine Transportation Building exhibited twin prows on its facade, emblematic of the massive ships of the day and, of course, the future. Fittingly, a large portion of the Railroads exhibit was displayed outdoors, including the largest and fastest train of the day, Raymond Loewys 140-foot, 526-ton steam locomotive, the 6100.
The Communications Zone
If the Transportation Zone intended to represent the exponential increase in the efficiency and scale of physical travel, the Communications Zone, coupled with the Business Systems building, represented those same advancements in a virtual realm. The primary actors represented on the stage of communications were the telephone, the radio, and a new player, the television.
As visitors exited the Perisphere's Helicline, they found themselves halfway between the Court of Communications and Constitution Mall, directly in front of the American Telephone & Telegraph Building. At the time of The World of Tomorrow, it was still common to have to connect with a telephone operator in order to make a call. The AT&T exhibition demonstrated advancements in person-to-person calling and long-distance calling by providing the opportunity for fair-goers, chosen by lot, to make a free long distance call from the Demonstration Call Room.
Next to the map was a sign which again stressed the importance of scale and volume for which the commercial entities of the future were responsible. It read "Demonstration Telephone Calls to any one of the 16,000,000 telephones of the Bell System and to any of the 4,200,000 telephones of the other companies in the United States," emphasizing that AT&T was four times bigger and intuitively four times better than its competitors. On either side of the stage sat two spacious telephone booths in which the winners made their calls, and visitors to the exhibit watched them. What could be interesting about watching someone make a phone call? What the AT&T exhibition banked on was the emotional reaction which the winners would have to such a brush with the excitement of technology. It appropriated the people for its display and once again brought their product in close contact with the crowd and with the average American. Even though the winners were chosen by lot, the message was clear: "You, too, can enjoy the wonder of long-distance telephone calls."
Radio had long been considered a democratizing machine, allowing Americans of nearly all socioeconomic backgrounds the opportunity to listen to variety shows, participate in the emotional drama of sporting events, and even form a semi-personal relationship with the President by listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Fireside Chats in their homes. RCA's newest contribution to the future was television. In the original televisions, the image was viewed when reflected from a mirror in the lid.
Public television broadcasting began in the New York City area on the same day as the Fair, a publicity event the importance of which even Grover Whalen could not have foreseen. Although the first television sets cost several hundred dollars, RCA had transgressed the boundaries of imagination by bringing living images into the home. The RCA exhibit, indeed, was the world of tomorrow.
The Production and Distribution Zone
Closely aligned with the Communications building were exhibits of production and distribution, such as the Electrical Products building, Gas Exhibits, Inc., and the Petroleum Industry. To the late twentieth-century sensibility these may seem out of place, like a science fair located amidst a shopping mall or, more appropriately, an auto dealership. However, when placed in the context of the Depression era their juxtaposition becomes a bit clearer. According to Stanley Applebaum, "The industries represented in this zone were those that transformed natural resources into necessary commodities." In the context of the 1930s megaprojects of the Tennessee Valley Authority and Works Progress Administration, such as the construction of the Hoover Dam, buildings by corporations that appropriated natural resources made sense. The buildings of the United States Steel Corporation, Glass, Incorporated, and the Consolidated Edison Company demonstrated the "better living through science" mentality as well as General Electric or Westinghouse. The Con Ed Building, in fact, picked up the theme of Utopian community left off by Futurama with its City of Light diorama, designed by Walter Dorwin Teague and Frank J. Roorda.
It was considered the world's largest diorama and stretched the length of a city block, a completely lighted, colored, and animated version of the New York metropolitan area. Although the visitors could not purchase an independent unit of electricity, the product promotion was clear. These were the buildings which lit up the fair and provided the power for Futurama, the new air-conditioning, and a host of other products and events. This was the land of research and development, the point of entry into the world of tomorrow.
Of course messages were not Westinghouse's only concern. Producers of domestic appliances such as refrigerators and dishwashers, Westinghouse aggressively marketed their products to women with contests that displayed an easier and more leisurely way of life with machines. Perhaps the most dramatic of these is an episode in a movie which Westinghouse produced for the fair, The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair. Westinghouse's Middletons are designed to represent the "average" American family (they are, after all, from Indiana), who visits the fair and experiences the wonders of technology. The women and men of the family part ways at the fair, and the women marvel at a dishwashing contest in the Westinghouse building in which "Mrs. Modern," a Westinghouse character, washes her dishes with a Westinghouse washing machine, while "Mrs. Drudge" does hers by hand and loses the contest on "all three counts," not the least of which is the fact that she is not as "neat and refreshed as when she started."
The Middletons served the same purpose as the lucky winners in AT&T's telephone booth and the drivers in the tiny cars of Futurama: they were role models for the consumer culture propagated by the fair, dangerously exclusive prototypes of the average ideal American customers, teaching the fair's visitors what, how, and why to buy.
The Food Zone
The buildings which represented literal consumption were located in what was called, fittingly, the Food Zone. While the buildings representing food and drink products were dotted throughout the fair, most of them were located on either side of Constitution Mall, between the Avenue of Patriots and the Avenue of Pioneers, interspersed with the buildings of production and distribution. Once again the Food Zone unified the visitor, the prospective customer, with the product by displaying the production of goods as an exhibit or spectacle.
Characterized by a massive art-deco mural displaying farming and food production (as well as four giant golden wheat stalks), the Food building promoted the food of the future. That display included advancements in how food was produced, new types of places in which to eat (i.e. new restaurants), and newly developed or improved foods.
Many of the day's corporate giants in food distribution were represented, once again with buildings in the style of the architecture parlante. The Continental Baking Company Building, designed by Skidmore & Owings and John Moss, "was dotted with red, blue, and yellow balloons like those on the wrapper of Wonder Bread." Inside the building, visitors could watch the baking of Wonder Bread and Hostess Cake.
The Continental Baking Company Building, however, also represented a marked and concerted unity between nature and technical advances in the food industry, for in the back part of its complex was located the only wheatfield which had been grown in New York City for 50 years.
Other structures of note included the Heinz Dome, the Beech-Nut Packing building, and the Schaefer Center, a restaurant sponsored by the Schaefer corporation which seated 1600 and displayed an extensive, open-air bar.
The National Dairy Products Corporation Building also promoted its products with giant "Sealtest" and "Kraft" logos on its exterior. In the words of architect Robert Venturi, it is accurate to say that the buildings and exhibits of the Food Zone both announced their function and served as a "decorated shed," as a billboard advertising their products.
Named the "Dairy World of Tomorrow," the Borden building contained a massive revolving platform called the Rotolactor on which 150 pedigreed cows were washed, dried, and mechanically milked. A favorite attraction of the Food Zone, the Rotolactor epitomized how technology advanced the production of such a widely-used product as milk. Indeed everything American, including cows, would be influenced by the advancing technology of the World of Tomorrow.
The Amusements Area
Just east of the commercial and industrial buildings was located the Amusements Area, covering roughly one-third of the fair's grounds, primarily with Fountain Lake (named Liberty Lake in 1940). If the commercial and industrial buildings and complexes of the fair represented efficiency and utility in the future, then the Amusements Area represented frivolity. 1939 was also the year in which Dorothy was lifted out of Kansas in MGM's The Wizard of Oz, and the Amusements Area, in a sense, made the fair a literal land of Oz in the great metropolis, minus the flying monkeys but complete with the "little people" of the film.
Michael Robertson writes that "The Amusement Zone of the 1939/1940 Fair was extremely popular, but it was peripheral to the Fair planners' intentions of displaying the benefits to be realized in corporate America's vision of the World of Tomorrow." Indeed, the Amusements Area was in actuality not a specific Zone as defined by the planners, nor did it fit specifically within the "Building the World of Tomorrow" theme of the overall fair.
Two of the more auspicious exhibits were the Frozen Alive Girl and the Dream of Venus Building, designed in part by Salvador Dali, which featured scantily-clad women and masked the display as the promotion of art or supposed advancements in biotechnology.
The significance of the Amusements Area is encapsulated well by Stanley Applebaum: "However highminded the aims of the Fair Corporation and however educational some of the Amusement Area entertainments, the timeless and universal aura of carnie and Coney were all-pervasive." If the fair was to be, in fact, for "the people," then it had to include some naked sensationalism (no pun intended), and the Amusements Area provided spectacles somewhat free of social theory.
The Government Zone
For the World's Fair to be truly successful, though, it had to be a conspicuous international event, and the nations of the world were represented in the Government Zone of the fair, sometimes called the foreign section. The Government Zone was located at the north end of the fairgrounds, with the United States Federal Building capping the axis created by the Chrysler Motors building, the Theme Center, Constitution Mall, the Lagoon of Nations, and the Court of Peace.
The Lagoon of Nations was part of the Flushing River, and, encircled by the Bridge of Flags, it combined with the Court of Peace to form the center of the foreign section. More than 60 nations were represented in the 1939 fair, including Chile, Portugal, Venezuela, France, Brazil, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Belgium, Canada, Argentina, Ireland, Norway, Italy, Romania, Turkey, Sweden, and Japan, as well as a building representing the League of Nations. The fair also contained a Court of States with structures representing 33 states and Puerto Rico. Aside from the Amusements Area, the Court of States was "the only part of the Fair . . . in which the Design Board tolerated replicas of historical architecture," according to Stanley Applebaum. In retrospect, the Government Zone appears to be an early and "authentic" precursor to the international structures of Disney's EPCOT center.
The majority of the national buildings were dedicated less to the promotion of the future as to the best of that nation's particular cultural traditions, including food, dance, and art. They served as the architectural and cultural embodiments of a nationalism which pervaded the world of the early twentieth century. Given the international political tension of the late 1930s, the juxtaposition and histories of some of the buildings of the Government Zone deserve further exploration.
By the late 1930s Germany, Italy, and Japan had begun their assaults on their neighbors, and in a very real way the pavilions of Czechoslovakia and Poland became the only remaining icons of independent ethnic identity in the world. In fact, by the time the Czech pavilion was constructed, the Czech nation ceased to exist, thanks to the 1938 Munich accords.
For Poland and Czechoslovakia, the world of tomorrow was the only place for the unpersecuted display of national pride and identity.
It may also be argued that the tensions of the cold war between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were displayed early on with the 1939 fair. The U.S.S.R. pavilion was the second-tallest structure at the fair, after the Trylon. A giant tower covered with red Karelian marble, the same marble used on Lenin's tomb, supported a 79-foot high statue of the ideal worker, holding a star.
The Treaty made Lithuania into a Soviet republic, and as such it turned the Lithuanian exhibit into the same icon as the Polish and Czech buildings, a representative of a country which no longer existed.
By the time the 1940 fair had begun, France had fallen to the Nazi party, Italy had invaded Ethiopia, and Britain had declared war on Germany. In the World of Tomorrow, the Soviet pavilion had been razed and replaced with a space called the "American Common." The World of Tomorrow, for all its optimism, was not without anxiety. In the words of John Crowley, America was definitely "getting the jitters."
You Have Seen the Future
It has been said that a visitor to the fair could attend every day for two weeks and only skim the surface of most of the exhibits. The fair also included a section on Community Interests, complete with the "Town of Tomorrow" displaying the 1789 vision of "man and the community" versus the 1939 vision of "man in the community." It included a gallery of Modern art sponsored by IBM as well as another gallery building entitled the Masterpieces of Art, a "priceless international loan show of paintings." It contained a number of buildings not designed for the people but for its organizers and for the social elite, such as the Administration Building. The fair's Medicine and Public Health Building displayed advancements in healing, such as a machine designed to keep an isolated chicken heart beating, prefiguring developments in heart transplants. Clearly, a wealth of information beyond that found in the Theme Center, the commercial and industrial areas, the Amusements Area, and the Government Zone existed in the rest of the fair, enough to occupy its 45 million visitors time and time again.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of a virtual tour is its ability to establish a critical distance between the virtual visitor and the actual cultural event that was The World of Tomorrow. The fair's exhibits attempted to turn the values of its organizers into icons and symbols. In the Government Zone, the buildings and sculptures stood as public images of how each nation desired itself to be perceived and, in some cases, as an assertion of its very existence. The Amusements Area masked sensationalism with the marketing of education; even watching midgets was somehow to be "good for you." The commercial and industrial areas unabashedly promoted a Utopian vision of "better living through technology" for their constructed, idealized, average American family. The Trylon and Perisphere represented the chief values assigned to The World of Tomorrow: clarity, purity, insight, efficiency, and perfection. Each night the fair closed with an array of electricity, color, light, and fireworks displaying the evident brilliance and exuberance of the future.
The fair was originally intended to mark the 150th celebration of George Washington's inauguration in New York City, and his statue, designed by James Earle Fraser, stood at one end of the Court of Peace, looking down Constitution Mall to the Theme Center. There is a certain irony that among all of the fair's visionary symbols and images, Washington seems strangely out of place. The World of Tomorrow ostensibly had nothing to do with Washington or his world; it had allowed Westinghouse to capture it in the Time Capsule and buried it, ready only to meet it again in 6939 A.D.
The 1939 New York World's Fair not only structured the experience of its visitors but it attempted to re-write both the past and the future. The successes and failures of The World of Tomorrow illuminate how well it influenced its citizens and to what extent it kept its promises.