FEATURE — Summer 2004
   

 

A Glorious World's Fair Transforms a University Campus

In the early 1900s, dreams of building a new University campus coincided with dreams of honoring the 100-year anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase with a World's Fair. The Hilltop Campus as we know it today grew forth from the realization of these two dreams.

by Candace O'Connor
All photos courtesy of Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis

In 1899, Washington University classics Professor Sylvester Waterhouse—an ardent fan of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago—began promoting the idea of a grand exposition, held in St. Louis, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. That event, he said, was a milestone in American history equal to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and it deserved a remarkable celebration "commensurate with the historic importance of the transaction."

What would such an exposition do for St. Louis? In the February 1899 Student Life, Waterhouse ticked off its advantages: "It would add numerous urban attractions that would gratify visitors. It would make the name of St. Louis known all over the world... It would bring capital to our state." Further, "it would show what genius in art, invention, electricity, and the myriad phases of science has accomplished."

As he and many other boosters had hoped, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition did take place, albeit a year late, from April 30 to December 1, 1904. Thanks to its president, David R. Francis (see sidebar), A.B. 1870, LL.D. 1905, and 118 directors, many of them Washington University alumni or board members, it was a stunning success. The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also called the 1904 World's Fair, attracted the participation of 60 foreign governments and all but two states, cost more than $50 million for its breathtaking buildings and exhibits, and drew 20 million (12.8 million paid) visitors to St. Louis.

In the end, it accomplished everything Waterhouse had foreseen—and something else as well. The Fair, which took place on 1,272 acres in western Forest Park and a little beyond, transformed the emerging University campus. Much to the dismay of undergraduates, eagerly awaiting the move from their dingy downtown campus at 17th and Washington, Robert S. Brookings, president of the board, leased the first five University buildings to the Fair.

Then, with $750,000 from this transaction, he quickly constructed four more, also used by the Fair. One of these, the David R. Francis Gymnasium, came in handy for another major campus event snagged by Francis: the six-day 1904 Olympic Games, the first Olympiad in the Western Hemisphere. During the Fair, these new buildings were joined by assorted temporary structures, mostly the buildings of 13 foreign countries, constructed east of University (now Brookings) Hall.

Altogether, they contributed to an exposition that Francis, speaking at the 1905 University Commencement, called "one of the great triumphs of peace." He praised Brookings for "erecting those graceful structures which we today dedicate to the uses of learning."

Alum Helps Shape City, Fair, and Campus
The guiding spirit behind the Louisiana Purchase Exposition Company was Kentucky-born David Rowland Francis, who had already served as St. Louis mayor from 1885-89, Missouri governor from 1889-93, and U.S. secretary of the interior under President Grover Cleveland from 1896-97. He also had long-standing connections to Washington University, where he had earned two degrees.

As a student, he was a "big man" on a very small campus; his own 1870 graduating class consisted of six male students. During his undergraduate years, he took on a string of leadership roles: editor of the Irving Union student publication, president of the tongue-in-cheek "Ugly Club," president of the young baseball team. Throughout his life, he never lost his love for the University. In 1882, he said: "For her, we, her children, entertain an affection which will be as lasting as memory, and a reverence which will grow with our years."

Like his friend Robert Brookings, Francis was born in 1850, and by the time he died in 1927, after serving as ambassador to Russia from 1916-17, "Our Dave"—as St. Louisans proudly referred to him—was internationally known for his achievements, as well as his tireless energy and ebullient personality. Another University graduate, U.S. Sen. Harry B. Hawes, LL.B. 1896, said at Francis' memorial service: "He was a big man who had big conceptions, surrounded himself with big men, and did big things."

One of those things was his success in bringing the 1904 World's Fair and Olympic Games to St. Louis, despite innumerable obstacles. As Hawes continued, "He invited the nation and the nation came; he invited the world and the world came... . They visited our city and they liked it. They found it was a city of homes, of generous impulse, of fine old traditions; a place good to live in, to grow up in, and in which to be buried... . Our progress today may be attributed largely to the inspiration of Francis and the wonderful group of patriotic men who ... united with him in this great enterprise."

Now, on the 100th anniversary of the Fair, it seems an appropriate time to trace the role of these "graceful structures" in the events that consumed the University and attracted the interest of the world, for 184 glorious days in 1904.

The original cluster of buildings
Not only did the University serve as a model campus during the Fair, but each of its buildings was put to use for exhibits, meetings, or offices. University Hall was the Fair's administrative headquarters, and Francis' own office was in Room 200. Next door was an anteroom (Room 220), where visitors waited to see him while enjoying champagne and cigarettes. For months after the Fair ended, the smell of alcohol and match scratchings on the wall lingered as Fair souvenirs.

Busch Hall—the first of the University's pioneer group of structures to go up in October 1900—was home base for the Fair's engineers and architects, including Louis Spiering (see sidebar below). Liggett (later Prince Hall), built as a men's dormitory with money from Elizabeth J. Liggett in memory of her late husband, tobacco magnate John E. Liggett, served as a dormitory for Fair visitors.

Cupples I had ethnological exhibits of the U.S. government, while Cupples II housed the Jefferson Guards, the Fair's private police force. In the engineering labs was a stash of plumbing supplies that had to be moved aside so that scholar Hugo de Vries could read a seminal paper on imitation theory; his session had been relegated to this building by the Fair's chronic shortage of space.

Buildings added for the Fair
Lease income also freed up a 1901 donation by Eliza Eads How, daughter of engineer and Eads Bridge builder Capt. James Buchanan Eads, for a physics building in her father's honor. Eads became the headquarters for the Fair's Board of Lady Managers, made up of 23 women from across the United States.

Tower Hall, begun in October 1902, later named for lawyer and board member John F. Lee and still later for donor Karl Umrath, was a second Fair dormitory. During the summer of 1904, Brookings convinced the directors to offer free rooms to schoolteachers, in hopes that they would pass the word to colleagues about the Fair.

On a tour of Europe in February 1903, Francis—using his customary charm—managed to secure from King Edward VII the loan of Queen Victoria's Jubilee gifts, which were exhibited on the second floor of Ridgley. A series of international congresses met in the first-floor reading room (now Holmes Lounge), including some sessions of the Congress of Arts and Sciences, which brought a distinguished group of scholars to St. Louis to discuss human knowledge and progress.

The David R. Francis Gymnasium, named by Fair officials, highlighted physical culture, with up-to-date equipment provided by the Spalding Company, which the University kept after the Fair ended. Student Life raved about the gym's "locker room for 2,000 men, trophy room, rooms for visiting teams." A handsome stadium, the first concrete structure ever built for this purpose, went up nearby.

Temporary structures on campus during the Fair
Just east of University Hall, foreign governments built their showcase buildings. On the southern edge of campus, along Olympian Way (later Forsyth) were Mexico, Siam, Nicaragua, and Brazil, where Fair-goers stopped to sample coffee. Slightly north of these were Cuba, China, Italy, and Belgium, which mimicked the Antwerp Town Hall (after the Fair closed, it went to the Anheuser-Busch Brewery, where it became a longtime glassworks). On the northeastern edge of campus were Holland, Argentina, Austria, and Sweden, which was eventually moved to Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas.

Architecture Professor Has Designs on the Fair
Among the faculty members who took an active role in shaping the Fair was architect Louis Clemens Spiering (1875-1912), the subject of a new book, Meeting Louis at the Fair (Virginia Publishing Co., 2004), by St. Louis author Carol S. Porter. During his career, cut short by his early death, Spiering, who served as instructor in architecture from 1903-10 and assistant professor from 1910-11, designed pieces of the Fair, local homes, public buildings, and finally the Sheldon Concert Hall, directing its construction from his deathbed.

Spiering, born to a German-American family in north St. Louis, received some of his high school and technical education in Germany, where his family moved after his father's death. In 1892, he joined an architectural firm in Chicago and then left three years later to attend the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. In 1902, he graduated, and an old acquaintance, architect Emmanuel Masqueray, lured him home with a job offer: Masqueray, now chief of design for the 1904 World's Fair, wanted Spiering to work for him as one of the Fair architects.

Exactly what Spiering designed for the Fair remains mysterious, though he probably deserves credit for a number of things: bridges, restaurant pavilions, the Wireless Telegraph Tower, the Express office, and the design of the "Palais de Costume," an attraction on the Pike. He was also a consulting and supervising architect for the French and Austrian governments. The Austrian building, located on the University campus, was an odd structure in a Fair dominated by ornate, classical architecture, since it was designed in a severely rectilinear "Secessionist" style.

"Louis Spiering's exposition work shows his adaptability," says Porter at the conclusion of her book. "... But he refused to be enslaved by tradition, and his smaller structures did give 'expression to the feeling of the time'—the new time just ahead that he anticipated, embraced, but did not live to see."

Among these buildings, a standout was Great Britain's noble palace, a copy of Queen Anne's Orangery in Kensington Gardens, designed by architect Christopher Wren, with elegant plaster ceilings, period rooms—Elizabethan, Queen Anne, Georgian, and a replica of Kensington's Grand Hall—along with reproduction gardens. At the conclusion of the Fair, Brookings bought this pavilion and donated it to the University, where it became a temporary home for fine arts until Bixby Hall finally took its place in 1926. Brookings also purchased some of the structure's beautiful paneling for his own home on Lindell Boulevard.

China's exhibit, a reproduction of the summer palace of Prince Pu Lun, was exquisitely decorated with walls and doors made of carved wood and inlaid ivory; the bed was of ebony and inlaid with mother of pearl. The prince himself traveled to St. Louis for the opening ceremony and liked the Fair so well that he stayed for two months, then made a gift of the pavilion to Francis. Later, the paneling languished for years in the basement of Graham Chapel, until a faculty member bought it for $200.

West of University Hall was the Alaska building which sold fancywork made by American Indians. On the Aeronautic Concourse—a fenced, 11-acre space in front of Francis Gymnasium—balloon races took place and the Fair's three huge dirigibles were on display. Nearby were barracks for West Point cadets and National Guard Units stationed at the Fair, who regularly held parades just south of the Concourse.

After the Fair ended in January 1905, the University's grounds were still littered with debris and there was little landscaping, but the buildings finally opened to the impatient students. None cared about the mess; all were focused on their glorious new campus. "Let's start a subscription for a brass band," said Student Life, "and have a parade through Clayton and neighboring cities on our first night at the new buildings."

 

Candace O'Connor is author of the University's new history book.