Cleveland April 17, 2019
Most Clevelanders Don’t Realize That A World Fair Took Place Right Here In Town
Let’s take a walk down to the North Coast Harbor area. Here, we’ll see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Great Lakes Science Center, and FirstEnergy Stadium. Each structure is a delight in terms of its stature and architecture, but they all share one thing in common… they’re fairly young buildings in terms of Cleveland’s age, and they all occupy grounds that once hosted Cleveland’s very own world fair. Though history has largely obscured this Depression-era event, its story is preserved in local photos.
Throughout the 1930s, dozens of World Fairs took place throughout the globe... and right here in Cleveland.
Similar to its cousin, The Chicago World's Fair, Cleveland's own Great Lakes Exposition was meant to showcase innovation and international thinkers. It took place in the summers of 1936 and 1937 in the northern portion of Downtown Cleveland.
At this event, it seemed one could travel the world without ever leaving Cleveland.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Clevelanders doubtlessly needed a little escape. The Streets of the World exhibit included international themes, and places like Florida Manor provided a tropical escape right here in town.
Area companies debuted the latest technologies and fashions in their own respective exhibits.
The White Motor Company was one of many area businesses with a grand display at the fair. Higbee's, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, and even Sherwin Williams delighted visitors with unique booths and a focus on local industry. This, of course, put a heavy focus on regional pride.
And, believe it or not, the event even had sideshow performers.
"The legless girl" and the "tallest boy in the world" fascinated curious onlookers with their physical attributes, but these 260+ lb. ballerinas actually performed! As the 1930s came to an end, the "ideal" female image transitioned from tall, flat, and "boyish" figure to a soft, curvy (but not dramatic) one.
Time Magazine even went so far as to offer proportions in 1938, explaining that a woman standing at nearly 5 feet 7 inches should weigh around 135 lbs... making these women a far cry from what was considered the norm at the time. If this "freakshow" style of entertainment seems politically incorrect, you should have seen the nude cancan dancers and the recreation of Southern plantation-style living.
Despite all this, the event never became a full-fledged world fair... which may be why you have never heard of it.
In its first summer season, the Great Lakes Exposition drew a measly 4 million visitors. It nearly doubled that the following season, boasting a grand total of 7 million in attendance. To put that into perspective, more than 44 million people attended both seasons of the 1939 and 1940 New York World's Fair.
Thanks to workers from the New Deal Works Progress Administration, the campus of the event was built in just 80 days.
After two years of fun, the total amount brought in by this campus was $70 million. Despite the hard work put into its construction and the many memories made on the fairgrounds, it was dismantled almost immediately. The majority of it was disassembled on September 26, 1937, right after closing day, though small remnants of the event lingered. The Donald Gray Gardens, for example, remained behind Cleveland Stadium until the late 1990s.
While the event is now just a mere memory, those in attendance at the time doubtlessly made many memories.
From the Aquacade's water ballet shows to the Hall of Progress' television theater, there was so much to see at this ginormous celebration. A Ripley's Believe it or Not Odditorium was on site, and celebrities like Jimmy Durante and Jesse Owens were in attendance.
It's almost hard to believe that such grand structures stood in Cleveland for two seasons and then suddenly vanished...
After everything was packed up, the most impactful remnants of the Great Lakes Exposition could be found in photographs. Though the event offered a glimpse into local industry, it would not return again to fuel the local tourism industry.
...but fortunately, tidbits of this event are preserved in photographs.
The Great Lakes Exposition was doubtlessly one heck of a party! Did you know that such a big event took place right here in town?
If you enjoyed this tour through time, you’ll adore these
photos taken during the Terminal Tower’s construction.