Of the 20 million people who paid 50 cents each to visit the World’s Fair in Forest Park in 1904, it is likely that most departed with one of the thousands of souvenirs known to exist. Popular were a clear glass sandwich plate with a lacy edge, a souvenir spoon or a postcard.
For Mike Truax, the souvenir is a cherished toothpick holder handed down from his great grandmother, who attended the fair. But as Truax, president of the 1904 World’s Fair Society of St. Louis, knows, there are also much bigger mementos remaining from the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.
“Some of the more than 1,500 buildings, 1,200 statues and numerous exhibits spread out over 1,200 acres along 75 miles of roads and walkways also became ‘souvenirs’ on a large scale,” he says. “Several were moved but remain in the St. Louis area, while others were dismantled and transported out of state and remain in use 118 years later.”
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Truax says some structures remain where they were erected during the famous, seven-month event. And a few more were built after the fair closed Dec. 1, using its proceeds.
However, regardless of where the large-scale mementos ended up, only a few original buildings remain. Almost all were built to be temporary structures, which were easier and faster to construct and dismantle.
While the interior of the fair’s large ornate buildings, (or “palaces” as they were referred to, with some covering 20 acres) were made of pine, exteriors were “staff.” The mixture of plaster of Paris, concrete, water and hemp was inexpensive and yet durable for short-term use. Quick to make and easy to shape, nail and paint, staff was put to extensive use creating intricate Victorian ornamentation on building exteriors.
Staff was also used to fashion over 1,000 allegorical and historical statues placed throughout the fairground, some depicting themes of westward expansion.
Since they were made to be temporary, staff-based buildings were decaying after seven months of exposure to weather. Despite having transformed fairgrounds into a fairy-tale village, building exteriors had no value, and the staff ended up in landfills.
That was even the fate of the Inside Inn, a 2,257-room hotel promoted as the largest hotel in the world.
But it wasn't the case for all building materials. If your home in the area was constructed shortly after 1904, it may have been framed using recycled pine lumber from the fair, which was salvaged in quantities that could have built a city of 50,000 people.
Other buildings, exhibits and statuary were made to last, but not remain at the site of the fair. The St. Louis city ordinance that granted the use of Forest Park for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition specified the land must be restored to park use within a year.
St. Louisan Diane Rademacher is also an expert on what became of the fair. “My father was born in 1904, so I was always interested in the fair since it occurred the year he was born,” she says.
“Long before the 1904 World’s Fair Society of St. Louis was established, I had begun a scrapbook about what was saved from the fair." She eventually published "Still Shining: Discovering Lost Treasures From the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair."
“Many people still believe nothing remains from the fair, but that is not true,” she says.
What follows are some of the “plus size” mementos that can still be seen in St. Louis and elsewhere.
Many exhibits were in smaller, self-contained state or foreign pavilions that were capable of being dismantled and moved. Examples include:
• The Connecticut State Pavilion was meant to resemble an elegant country mansion built near Hartford, Connecticut, in the early 1800s. It was moved to Lafayette, Indiana, for use as a private residence. Today it is the Haan Museum of Indiana Art.
• The Press Building housed press correspondents and served as a space for receptions for the media. It was taken apart and partially rebuilt as a residence on Clark Avenue in Webster Groves.
• The Oklahoma Territory Pavilion was erected before Oklahoma became a state in 1907. It was cut into sections, stacked on flatbed railroad cars, and transported to El Reno, Oklahoma, to become the home for newly formed Elks Lodge #743, where it has remained in continuous use.
• The timber and stucco Wisconsin State Pavilion was reconstructed with some modifications as a stately residence on Scott Avenue in Kirkwood.
Buildings that resulted from the fair
Some St. Louis landmarks associated with the fair did not exist when the fair closed, Truax says. “Many people believe the open-air pavilion atop Government Hill, and known as the World’s Fair Pavilion in Forest Park, was built for the fair, and that the Missouri History Museum in the park was a building somehow associated with the fair.”
“Neither belief is true. The World’s Fair Pavilion was built in 1909, and the Missouri History Museum in 1913. Both were built using profits from the fair. However, the original part of the History Museum building does sit at the spot that was the main entrance to the fair.”
Permanent building from the fair
St. Louis Art Museum • The museum was constructed to be a permanent legacy of the fair. It was deeded to the city of St. Louis in 1906. Known then as the Palace of Art, it was flanked by two large but temporary wings made of staff.
Built before the fair
Washington University's Brookings Hall • The cornerstone for today’s Brookings Hall (then University Hall) was laid on Nov. 3, 1900, and construction was completed in 1902. It was among 13 buildings on the campus leased by the fair as administrative offices and exhibit space.
Francis Olympic Field • The current Francis Olympic Field and adjacent gymnasium (then the Physical Culture Building) on the Washington University campus were built in 1902, and part of the lease. During the fair, the field was used for Olympic competitions in archery, cycling, football, gymnastics, lacrosse, roque (croquet), tug of war, weightlifting and wrestling. Francis Gymnasium was finished in 1903 and was used as the main indoor Olympic venue for boxing and fencing events. Today, displayed on the eastern edge of Francis Olympic Field is a 16-foot-wide sculpture of the blue, yellow, black, red and green Olympic rings. Although this symbol of the games was not used until 1913, in 2018 St. Louis officials received permission from the International Olympic Commission to display the logo, giving recognition to St. Louis as one of only three U.S. cities to ever host the summer games. Los Angeles and Atlanta are the other cities.
Special exhibits moved to the fair
Hardscrabble • The log cabin, built and occupied by Ulysses S. Grant in 1856, had belonged to several owners until 1903. Then it was sold to the C.R. Blanke Coffee Co. and erected on the fairgrounds for lunch concessions and coffee sales. After the fair, Adolphus Busch bought Hardscrabble and moved it to his estate in 1907, where it remains visible from Gravois Road.
Cahokia Courthouse • The historically significant courthouse was moved to the fairgrounds, where it was displayed as a curiosity with a historical provenance directly linked to the Lewis and Clark expedition. A French dwelling featuring French colonial architecture, it was built about 1737 in the village of Cahokia. In 1793 it became a courthouse, and for 20 years it served as a center of political activity in the Old Northwest Territory. From December 1803 until the spring of 1804, Lewis and Clark used the building as a headquarters as they collected information, met with territorial leaders, gathered supplies and corresponded with President Thomas Jefferson before beginning their expedition in 1804. After the fair, it was dismantled again and moved to Chicago in 1906. Cahokia residents demanded to get the courthouse returned, and it was reconstructed on its original site in 1939, where it remains.
Liberty Bell • As a result of a petition by 75,000 St. Louis schoolchildren, the Liberty Bell was brought to St. Louis and exhibited at the Pennsylvania State Building. It arrived by train decorated with flags and banners, and entered the fairgrounds pulled by a team of 13 horses representing the 13 original states. It now is on display, of course, in Philadelphia's Independence Hall.
The Flight Cage at the St. Louis Zoo • Erected by the Smithsonian Institution as part of the United States Government exhibition, the 228-foot-long, 84-foot-wide and 50-foot-high wire enclosure was meant to educate visitors to birds indigenous to the nation. St. Louis had legal authority to purchase the structure, which it did for $3,500. Within a few short years, it served as the impetus for St. Louis to develop a full-fledged zoo — the first municipally supported zoo in the world. The flight cage is temporarily closed to protect birds from avian flu.
The Observation Wheel • A highlight of a visit to the fair was a ride on the mammoth Observation (or Ferris) Wheel, reaching a height of 264 feet, with each of the 36 revolving carriages accommodating 60 people. Folklore persists that the axle was so large it was buried in Forest Park instead of being dismantled and sold for scrap. “I and other researchers held various beliefs about the axle, including that it might have been buried somewhere,” Truax says. “But after years of research, and the recent discovery of a newspaper report indicating it had been moved back to Chicago, I am now 99% certain that is no longer exists anywhere above or below ground. Other documentation from the salvage company indicates it was not only moved, but was cut up for scrap about 1919 when acetylene torches improved to cut the hardened steel.”
Statues and more
"Apotheosis of St. Louis" • The equestrian statue of St. Louis’ patron and namesake, King Louis IX, stands in front of the St. Louis Art Museum overlooking Art Hill. It was originally cast in staff for the fair and stood near the fair’s main entrance. It was sculpted in bronze after the fair and placed on a large stone pedestal in front of the art museum in 1906.
"Vulcan" • A gigantic cast-iron statue of the mythological god of fire and stone was displayed at the Palace of Mines and Metallurgy representing the history of Birmingham, Alabama, as a leader in the iron and steel industry. When the fair ended, the 56-foot statue was returned to Birmingham in pieces on seven railroad cars. Initially the colossus encountered several indignities. First it lay in the railroad yard in pieces due to unpaid freight bills; later, it was reassembled with the hands incorrectly attached. Today after several restorations, Vulcan remains the largest cast-iron statue in the world and stands on a 124-foot pedestal in 10-acre Vulcan Park overlooking Birmingham.
"The Signing of the Treaty" • At the base of a tall Louisiana Purchase Exposition Monument at the entrance to the Fair, a temporary sculpture made of staff depicted three diplomats signing the Louisiana Purchase Treaty. Shown in relief were French Minister Francois Marquis De Barbe-Marbois, U.S. Ambassador to France Robert Livingstone, and his assistant and future president, James Monroe. Instead of destroying the temporary sculpture, two bronze casts were authorized. One remains in St. Louis at the loggia of the Jefferson Memorial in Forest Park, home of the Missouri History Museum. The second is the focal point of a stone monument on an overlook of the Missouri River behind the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
Owney • While dogs and mail carriers do not always mix, that was not the case for Owney the dog, whose taxidermied body was exhibited at the fair as part of the U.S. Government’s exhibit. Owney’s journey began in the 1880s when he wandered into the Albany, New York, Post Office and was adopted by the mail clerks. Soon he was riding in railroad baggage cars across the country. Today, Owney remains on display in a glass case at the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C.
World’s Largest Functioning Pipe Organ • You can still hear the World’s Fair at the seven-story Grand Court at Macy's Center City in Philadelphia, where the pipe organ from the fair is played twice a day Monday through Saturday. In 1904, it was played daily in front of up to 4,500 visitors seated in Festival Hall, one of the most elaborate buildings at the fair. The original 10,059 pipes and 140 stops were later expanded to 28,000 pipes and 451 stops, making it the largest fully functioning pipe organ in the world and earning it National Historic Landmark status in the United States.
The Gingko Tree of Moberly • Gingko saplings were handed out as a souvenirs by Japanese exhibitors. One of the miniature trees returned with Moberly, Missouri, resident Frank Forney and was planted between the homes at 407 and 411 Williams Street so both homeowners would benefit from the shade. The gingko has flourished and is recognized by the International Golden Fossil Tree Society for both its age and for having a girth of well over 100 inches.