Last week the librarians here at the Wolfsonian-Florida International University had the pleasure of looking over a large body of world’s fair materials originally collected by museum founder, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. On Wednesday, Associate Librarian Dr. Harsanyi and I gathered and laid out an informal display of 1939 New York World’s Fair materials for a visit by FIU School of Architecture Professor Elysse Newman and her class. Professor Newman is currently teaching a course titled: “Space, Society and the Digital,” and she had specifically requested a few early international exhibition items and a large number of New York World’s Fair brochures, mechanical works, and other ephemera for her class to examine.


One such item was The New York 1939 official World’s Fair pictorial map created by Tony Sarg (1880-1942).




We also took the initiative of pulling a few other items not on the professor’s list, including a world’s fair model which invited the purchaser to build a paper and cardboard replica of the central buildings of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.


One of the more popular attractions at the 1939 NYWF was an exhibit housed inside a gigantic “perisphere” that, inseparably coupled with a monumental “trylon,” became a ubiquitous icon used to promote the fair.



As spectators wormed their way up the ramp to enter this 200 foot diameter spherical edifice, they stepped onto one of two twin rotating balconies from which they could look down onto a model “Democracity”—a “perfectly integrated garden city of tomorrow”—as it would have appeared from an aircraft hovering seven thousand feet above. A brochure with a cover design by Leslie Regan nicely captures the perspective the exhibit was intended to provide its patrons of the clean futuristic city of 2039.


Even more popular, however, was the General Motors “Futurama” exhibition housed in their Highways and Horizon’s building.


Designed by Norman Bel Geddes and constructed under the direction of George Wittbold, this exhibit seated spectators in 552 chairs mounted on a moving conveyor belt designed to carry them over an ambitious “1960s” cityscape occupying a 35,000 square foot space.


Another item that caught the interest of the visiting FIU students was a souvenir telescoping peep show, which, unfortunately, could not be displayed open due to its fragile state.

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Ironically, another of these viewers purchased more recently by Mr. Wolfson was on display in downtown Miami at an exhibition housed in the New World School of the Arts Gallery. Here the mechanical work was mounted in such a manner as to provide the gallery visitors with the extended three-dimensional perspective.


Curator/collections manager Lea Nickless has opened the Mitchell Wolfson Jr. Study Centre to Miami Dade College faculty and students and allowed them to select and curate exhibitions using those materials.

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Just this last Friday, Dr. Harsanyi, myself, and several other Wolfsonian museum curators and staffers crossed the bay to attend the opening of “Entrances and Exits: Resonating Impressions of World’s Fairs” an exhibition curated by Miami Dade students Luna Lopez and Maggie Genova-Cordovi and collaboratively designed by Chris Ingalls, Danilo A. Mantilla, and Inez Barlatier. Other Miami Dade College and New World School of the Arts contributors include, graphic designers: Amparo Baquerizas, Anthony Quintana, Jessica Martin, and Rebecca Flor; and marketing and communications consultants: Anika Batista, Katie Lynn Acosta, and Veronika Lugo. The show was assembled exclusively from rare objects and artifacts collected by Mr. Wolfson over the course of the last sixteen years, and the items perfectly complement—(and purposely add to strengths and fill in gaps)— the items that he donated to Florida International University in July 1997 as the basis of the Wolfsonian museum collection.

As I often teach a course on the Great Depression and New Deal era for the History Department at FIU, I was particularly pleased to see a couple of works on some of the fairs designed to stimulate local economies and to address urban unemployment by putting engineers, architects, construction workers, and concession operators back to work. One of them features the vibrantly colored modernist exhibition buildings constructed for Chicago’s Century of Progress International Exposition held in 1933 and 1934.

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Another more somber oil painting of the 1939 New York World’s Fair reduced the “World of Tomorrow,” to a diminutive, distant dream, barely noticeable in a larger landscape of defoliated tress, industrial smokestacks, and Hooverville shacks.

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One pictorial map of the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, for example, prominently pictures the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building.

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This edifice built by the George B. Post architectural firm could boast of being the largest building in the world for its time—until another firm quickly topped in typical architectural one-upmanship. It is also an important item for our own collection in that The Wolfsonian holds the firm’s beaux arts reference library, the first significant outside donation made to the rare book library after the museum opened to the public in November 1995.

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The opening night exhibit downtown dazzled the veritable flood of visitors with all sorts of paintings, posters, design drawings, souvenirs, and memorabilia.

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The exhibit included works of art from the first world’s fair—the so-called Crystal Palace exhibition held in London in 1851—to the international expositions held in the late 20th and early 21st century.

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I was drawn to a souvenir handkerchief which I immediately recognized as having been designed by Tony Sarg—the same artist responsible for the pictorial map we had put on display for FIU students earlier in the week.

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Other 3-D items on view in the exhibit were some pristine examples of pop-up views from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois I had never before seen.

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There were also some stunning accordion-style view books and miniature books from other fairs on display.

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 The exhibition is free and open to the public Tuesdays through Fridays from 12:00 noon to 5:00 PM, from April 11 to May 31 2013 at the New World School of the Arts Gallery, located at 25 NE 2nd Street. I heartily recommend local Miamians to avail themselves of the opportunity.

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~ by "The Chief" on April 16, 2013.

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