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Before the Bubble Burst

The 1939/40 New York World’s Fair was an extraordinary experience for each of the reported fifty million visitors who passed through its futuristic gates and gazed at the majestic Trylon and Perisphere. It was the most ambitious international exposition since the Crystal Palace housed the first New York World’s Fair in 1853. Not just a trade show, it was endowed with mythic qualities; it was the “Fair of the Future,” “The World of Tomorrow,” and “The Dawn of a New Day.” It was a masterpiece of showmanship, the epitome of stagecraft — a real-life Land of Oz indelibly etched in the memories of those who attended and in the imaginations of those who did not. It was more than a collection of exhibits, it was a wellspring of innovation in corporate identity and promotion.

The Worlds’ Fair Corporation took as its locale a once beautiful tidal basin of the Flushing River long before turned into a festering bog and ash dump by Mr. Fishhooks McCarthy’s Brooklyn Ash Removal Company. Within a year it was miraculously it was transformed into Flushing Meadow, the park of the future. Heralded as a “scientific victory,” the most ambitious environmental reclamation project of its time.

Consistent with the “Theme Committee’s” precept that “super civilization…is based on the swift work of machines, not on the arduous toil of men,” the fair was conceived as a melange of provocative, often symbolically designed pavilions (some representing a trend in architecture parlante, or billboard architecture, in which a building’s exterior look revealed its interior purpose, i.e. the Aviation Building was shaped like a dirigible hanger), that were organized into thematic zones covering all aspects of human activity that wed man and machine; Transportation, Production and Distribution, Communications, Community Interests, Government, and Business Systems, Food, Medicine and Public Health, and Science and Education, and, the not so socially high-minded, Amusement zones.

The goal of the Fair’s leaders and sponsors was to sell the future. Digging America out of the economic hole it was in would not be easy, but like today, it was believed that increased consumption would fuel the engines of growth. Housing was top on the list. So the Fair provided a showcase for all those in the building industries – from construction to interior design – to strut their stuff. The Town of the Future was a series of model homes, designed by local architects in styles ranging from flat-roofed modern to pitch-roofed neoclassic. The jarring contrast between progressive and prosaic is interesting. Guess which houses sold the best. (Some of these brochures have base prices penciled in. Just think what they cost today.)

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