American World’s Fairs Icons that Have Stood the Test of Time

Posted on: June 20th, 2014 by Steven Piccione 6 Comments

Credit: Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons
An aerial-view print of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y.

The World’s Fair is one of the longest-running international exhibitions, in which countries gather to showcase premier inventions -- from Belgian waffles and ice cream to X-ray machines and electrical current systems. Ever since the first World’s Fair in 1851, which took place in London, host countries have constructed the most fantastic buildings, each outdoing the previous host.

During the Paris Universal Exposition in 1889, France erected the Eiffel Tower. In return, Chicago unveiled the never-before-seen Ferris wheel during the 1893 Columbian Exposition, which drew a crowd equal to a third of the U.S. population at the time. However, most World’s Fair buildings are constructed to be temporary, torn down after the one-time event.

Fortunately, not all World’s Fair buildings are demolished, and some even become the most iconic symbol of a city: Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay, the New York State Pavilion, and certainly the Eiffel Tower. The upcoming World’s Fair will take place in Milan next year, but let’s take a look at some of the most iconic buildings that were built for the World’s Fair that have stood the test of time here in the United States.

Credit: Snowesq, Flickr
Knoxville's Sunsphere, constructed for the 1982 World's Fair, has become one of the most iconic buildings in Tennessee.

The Sunsphere -- Knoxville, Tenn.

For the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, the Sunsphere was built to serve as a restaurant and observation deck during the event. An elevator ride to the top cost $2 and the restaurant served its aptly named “Sunburger” along with its special rum cocktail, the “Sunburst.” Since the closing of the event, the Sunsphere has become part of the Knoxville logo and a national landmark.

The Sunsphere was designed by Knoxville architectural firm Community Tectonics specifically for the World’s Fair, and it was intended to set the theme of the event: energy. The diameter of the sphere is 86.5 feet, which correlates to the 865,000-mile-wide diameter of the sun. It weighs more than 600 tons. Retired from being the staple of the fair, the Sunsphere now serves as a public park adjacent to the University of Tennessee's main campus.

Credit: Lucindalunacy, Flickr
The Giant Victorian Head replica once greeted visitors to the 1901 Pan-American Exposition and now serves as the entrance to the Buffalo Historical Society's Resource Center.

Giant Victorian Head Replica -- Buffalo, N.Y.

The 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo spanned 350 acres -- an area now called Delaware Park -- and is not only known for its Giant Victorian Head replica, but also for a major event in American history: the assassination of President William McKinley. On September 5, 1901, President McKinley gave a speech in the Temple of Music -- a stunning structure built for the World’s Fair that was torn down after the event -- and following the speech, McKinley greeted the public only to be shot by Leon Czolgosz. The bullet didn’t kill the president immediately; he died a week later after the wound became infected and took his life.

Credit: C D Arnold, Wikimedia Commons
The Temple of Music, right, is an example of a grand structure built for a World's Fair only to be torn down immediately following the event. 

As for the Giant Victorian Head replica, it was built to resemble the grand entrance to the fair. It depicts the face of a sleeping woman, and now resides at the entrance of the Buffalo Historical Society’s Resource Center. This replica serves to capture the positive aspects and outcomes of the event -- such as innovation and grandeur -- which are now overshadowed by the grim events that took place on September 5.

Credit: Preservation Partners of the Fox Valley
The Viking Ship was built in Norway and was sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, up the Hudson River, and through the Great Lakes to arrive in Chicago for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. 

The Viking Ship -- Chicago

Constructed for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the Viking Ship was built as an exact replica of the 9th-century Nordic ship Gokstad. The replica was built in Norway and then sailed to Chicago -- without the assistance of any modern technology -- in order to prove that the famed Leif Ericksson could have reached the New World before Christopher Columbus in the 15th century.

At 78 feet long and 17 feet wide, the Viking replica is held together with traditional Nordic tars and iron rivets. The ship also has decorative dragon heads fixed on both the bow and stern. It now resides in Good Templar Park in Geneva, Ill., just outside of Chicago. Even though the ship was hugely popular at Chicago’s World’s Fair, it suffered from years of neglect.

Credit: The National Trust for Historic Preservation
After nearly a century of neglect, the Viking ship was restored in 2008 and is now on display in Geneva, Ill., just outside of Chicago.

Fortunately, with the help of Preservation Partners of the Fox Valley (PPFV), local fundraising, and the Partners in Preservation program, the ship underwent a restoration in 2008 and now sits safely under a secure and enclosed structure for visitors to experience.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Steven Piccione

Steven Piccione

Steven Piccione is an Editorial Intern at the National Trust. He enjoys carbonated water, all things British, and living in a city warmer than Chicago. Follow him on Instagram at @stebbsjp.

Restoration, Travel

6 Responses

  1. Marty Biniasz

    June 22, 2014

    Update about Pan Am Buffalo relic. Giant head was recently torn down due to decay. Just like most Worlds Fair/expo buildings, it was constructed in 2001 to mark the Pan Am’s 100th anniversary and was not meant to be long lasting.

  2. Katie

    June 22, 2014

    Vermont building from the worlds Columbian exposition I’d in usr in Poland springs vt. You can tour it!

  3. Linda beal

    June 23, 2014

    The US Pavilion at Expo ’74 is used today as an ice rink and gathering place. After trying to keep true to its original design the tent portion was removed due to severe weather demands of the region so only the steel support remains. It is a beautiful sweeping example of mid century designand remains an iconic Spokane, Washington landmark.

  4. Richard Pizer

    June 24, 2014

    Correction for Katie’s post. The Maine Pavilion from the Columbian Exposition is in Poland Spring, Maine (on the grounds of the old Poland Spring Resort). It is beautiful and is available for visitors to tour.

  5. Ross Roth-Johnson

    June 24, 2014

    It’s a shame you didn’t mention anything about the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, MO. We have three big icons left in St. Louis’s Forest Park. Part of the St. Louis Art Museum, the 1904 World’s Fair Pavilion, and also out 1904 Flight Cage, which led St. Louis to further our zoo which is usually ranked as one of the best in the nation, and it’s also free. Here’s a link above to some information about the Flight Cage.

  6. Howard Blue

    July 5, 2014

    Don’t forget the huge and amazing map of NY City’s 5 boroughs that was created for the 1964 NY City World’s Fair. It fills a huge room.
    It was updated in the 1980’s and featured miniatures of every building that existed in the city as of a certain date in the 1980’s. It’s located in the Queens Art Museum in Corona Park, near the huge sphere that was also part if the ’64 World’s Fair