1876 – Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia



The Centennial International Exhibition of 1876, the first official World’s Fair in the United States, was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. It was officially the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine. There were more than 200 buildings constructed within Exposition’s grounds which was surrounded by a fence nearly three miles long.

The Centennial Commission sponsored a design competition for the principal buildings. There were two rounds, winners of the first round had to have details such as construction cost and time prepared for the runoff on September 20, 1873. After the four design winners were chosen, it was determined that none of them allowed for enough time for construction and limited finances.

The Centennial Commission turned to architect Henry Pettit and engineer Joseph M. Wilson for design and construction of the Main Exhibition Building. A temporary structure, the Main Building enclosed twenty-one and a half acres. It was constructed using prefabricated parts, with a wood and iron frame and took eighteen months to complete. Inside, the central aisle was 120 ft (37 m) wide, 1,832 ft (558 m) long and 75 ft (23 m) high. 75 ft (23 m) tall towers sat at each of the buildings corners. Exhibits from the United States were placed in the center of the building and foreign exhibits were placed around the center based on the nation’s distance from the United States. Exhibits inside the Main Building dealt with mining, metallurgy, manufacturing, education and science. The Main Exhibition Building was disassembled and sold in 1881. In terms of total area enclosed, this was the largest building in the world at the time.

Unlike most of the buildings constructed for the Exposition, Horticultural_Hall was meant to be permanent, and was designed by Hermann J. Schwarzmann and was his first building. Horticultural Hall had an iron and glass frame and was 383 ft (117 m) long, 193 ft (59 m) wide and 68 ft (21 m) tall. The building was styled after Moorish architecture and designed as a tribute to The Crystal Palace from London’s Great Exhibition. The building’s exhibits specialized in horticulture and after the Exposition it continued to exhibit plants until it was badly damaged by Hurricane Hazel in 1954 and was demolished.

Also designed by Hermann J. Schwarzmann, Memorial Hall is constructed of brick, glass, iron and granite. It is the only major structure remaining from the Centennial Exhibition in 1876. Memorial Hall served as the Art Gallery for the fair and was designed to become a permanent museum. The building was commissioned and paid for by the State of Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia. The budgeted amount for the hall was $1,500,000 and it cost just $64,000 more than planned.

Although smaller than other major buildings at the 1876 fair, Memorial Hall is still massive. Its footprint takes up an acre and a half. It is 365 by 210 feet, and 59 feet tall, with a 150-foot dome sitting on top. Below the building is a 12-foot deep basement. Perched atop the dome is a statue of Columbia standing 23 feet 6 inches tall.

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