Dismantling the Centennial

Dismantling the Centennial

There is plenty to say about advertising during the Centennial. There is also something to say, and to illustrate with advertisements and clippings, about the end of the Centennial. While reading newspapers from the first half of 1877, looking for signs of the blue glass craze, I was frequently distracted by stories about the aftermath of the Centennial.

The “International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine, ” to give it its official title, featured twelve thousand displays in its Main Exhibition Hall (the largest structure in the world) alone. The art gallery in Memorial Hall and its annex held more than seven thousand works of art. (Richard R. Nicolai, Centennial Philadelphia [Bryn Mawr, 1976], 13, 58, 60). It was no insubstantial pageant. Disposing of its goods and buildings might seem like one of the more ambitious deals offered by repurposedMATERIALS, for example, a prison or a college campus ready for redevelopment, except that most of the goods and buildings had to be removed from the Centennial site, which was required by law to be prepared for use as a park.

Repurposing was certainly on the minds of those who planned, and profited from, the Centennial. David Solis Cohen, in Our Show, a satirical imagining of the exhibition written in 1875, described a building to be made with walls of gutta percha, which would be broken up and distributed to school children “for chewing and erasing purposes.” He also expected children to take part in the destruction of the vast glass expanse of Horticultural Hall, which was “convenient to a line of soft rocks,” providing “innocent amusement to many generations of young America.” (In fact even a hurricane did not bring it down, but only led to its demolition in 1955.) For detailed accounts of the fate of Centennial buildings and property, you can consult Nicolai’s book (93-95) or a detailed list from the Free Library of Philadelphia: https://libwww.freelibrary.org/CenCol/what-bldgs.htm.

Here is the story of what happened to the great exhibition, as it appeared in (with one exception) the Philadelphia Inquirer.

First, valuable objects lent to the exhibition were to be returned or sent to new homes. Note the cranky tone of the comments about “the Bartholdi statue.” Certainly, it was rude to refer to France’s gift as an elephant, presumably a white one. But ten years later, when its builder, Gustave Eiffel, produced another indispensable monument, French protesters described it as a “giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack.”

There was less tangible business to be settled as well.

Movables were sold.

Some were offered by retailers.

The Sons of Temperance Ice-Water Fountain made its way to Independence Square.

Here is a link to a Library of Congress photograph of the relocated fountain, minus its gazebo:


Buildings had to be sold, donated, or adapted to new uses.

Some of the demolitions were controversial.

The Permanent International Exhibition, which retained the Main Exhibition Building and included many of the exhibits sent from abroad, was promoted, along with the display of art in Memorial Hall, to carry on the edification and entertainment provided by the Centennial. It opened on May 10, 1877, the anniversary of the Centennial, and continued until 1879, offering recitals, stereopticon displays, balloon ascensions, and telephone concerts. Demolition of the vast Main Exhibition Building began in 1881.

Featured Illustration: Daisy Shortcut, Arry O’Pagus, and A. B. Frost (David Solis Cohen and H. B. Sommer), One Hundred Years a Republic or Our Show; A Humorous Account of the International Exposition (Philadelphia, 1876). The director-general, Alfred Traber Goshorn, is called Alfred Timothy Goshorn in Our Show. His sad condition may result from an imagined encounter with cannibals, and not from the strain of running the show. The names of other officials are slightly altered in the book; if you read it you will see why.

P.S. This article just turned up in related search on the Centennial: Frank J. Prial, “Buildings from 1876 Centennial Live On in Spring Lake, N.J.” New York Times, 15 July 1976, available online.

Please see also my post about Our Show:

The Centennial, OUR SHOW, and the Streets of Philadelphia

3 thoughts on “Dismantling the Centennial

  1. Does the gazebo still exist somewhere… beautiful building. I saw the photo of the gorgeous fountain… does any of this still exist or is it all lost to posterity?


  2. Thank you for your comment! We know that the fountain (which had separate outlets for humans, dogs, and birds) was moved “at the close of the Centennial,” probably in 1877, and that it was taken down in 1969 and put into storage. Whether the wooden gazebo or pavilion ever made it to the square, I do not know. In some photographs of the south side of the square from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the fountain cannot be seen; that could be explained by the presence of crowds and trees. So far the Library of Congress photograph is the only one I have seen that shows the fountain in the square. But the gazebo, had it been there, would not have been so easily obscured. Indeed, its size might have been an obstacle to relocation. P.S. There are gazebos in Fairmount Park today, but they do not look like the one in question.

    Liked by 1 person

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