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Remembering the Grand Spectacle of the 1939 World's Fair

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All photographs were taken by Harold Webber and printed by Henry Webber. A selection of these photographs is now on view until October 11th at The Civil Service Café and Gallery, 279 Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn.
All photographs were taken by Harold Webber and printed by Henry Webber. A selection of these photographs is now on view until October 11th at The Civil Service Café and Gallery, 279 Nostrand Avenue, Brooklyn.

"You should've seen it at night," my late grandfather, Harold Webber, used to say as he wistfully described to me the grand spectacle—with its massive architecture, state-of-the-art exhibits, and millions of visitors—that was the 1939 New York World's Fair.

At the time of the Fair, my grandfather was a 25-year-old amateur photographer and railroad enthusiast from the Bronx. He had attended Stuyvesant High School and Fordham University during the Depression, and he was about to embark on his 40-year career as a design engineer for Bell Laboratories. He and his younger brother spent their spare time photographing steam locomotives around New York and New Jersey. Through his charter membership in a train hobbyist's group, the Railroadians, my grandfather was asked to volunteer at the Fair's railroad pavilion. In exchange for his help, he received an unlimited admission pass to the Fair's 1939 and 1940 seasons, which granted him expanded access to the grounds and a unique vantage point from which to photograph the event.

Harold Thomas Webber (1914-2001)
Photomatic of my grandfather taken at the railroad pavilion, which was sponsored by twenty-seven of the Eastern Railroads and the largest exhibit at the Fair.

Railroads on parade
On view at the railroad pavilion, the 19th century Baltimore & Ohio engine (left), and the streamlined 1938 New York Central Railroad Hudson by industrial design titan Henry Dreyfuss (right) represented the height of sophistication and design innovation.

2014 marks the 75th anniversary of the 1939 World's Fair; it is also the 50th anniversary of the 1964 Fair. The city has been hosting numerous events to commemorate these occasions. Both fairs, which were held at Flushing Meadow Park in Queens, boasted innovative architecture and design by leading tastemakers, and debuted cutting-edge technology that still impacts us today—from television and nylon to the Ford Mustang and videophones.

The 1939 Fair had no place for contemporary troubles like Hitler's Third Reich. Instead, the Fair was both a celebration of the "World of Tomorrow" and a commemoration of the 150th anniversary of George Washington's inauguration on Wall Street. More than 150 exhibition pavilions covered over 1,200 acres, which were divided into seven "zones"—Government, Community Interests, Food, Communication and Business, Production and Distribution, Transportation, and Amusement—delineated by fountains, pools, and sculptures. The architecture of these pavilions, erected as temporary structures meant to achieve "unity without uniformity," demonstrated the American Streamlined aesthetic and the influence of International Style.

Numerous popular snapshots of the Fair exist alongside professional images taken by architectural photographers such as Samuel Gottscho and The Wurts Brothers. This series by my grandfather, taken in September of 1940 just weeks before the Fair closed, offers a distinct perspective: he artfully captured these architectural images at night with few, if any, people populating them. In spare, striking contrast, his photographs evoke the solemnity of the time, and conjure the sinister settings characteristic of the period's film noir.

Camera catalog and photography log
My grandfather took these images with a camera that his father, also an amateur photographer and mechanical engineer, had given him in 1938—a Bee Bee 6x9 folding roll film camera sold by Burleigh Brothers, a New York City photography store where my grandfather's brother worked. His log entries at right indicate where and when he took the pictures ("9-11-40, 7:30, Peri Trylon, Light: Night"); the type of film he used (Agfa Superpan Premium black and white film, noted as "SPP"); and how the negatives turned out when he developed the film: many "Excellent," some "Spoiled in Dev. [Development]." My father now owns the camera, and roughly half of the negatives remain.

Although my grandfather developed his film from the Fair into negatives (the first step in turning film into photographs), he never printed the negatives into actual images due to the high cost of and wartime restrictions on the additional chemicals and papers needed to create prints. Instead, he filed the negatives away and went about his postwar life building his career and raising his four children with my grandmother in suburban New Jersey.

Fifty-five years later, in 1995, as he was cleaning out his things, he came across the World's Fair negatives along with several hundred more he had taken of steam locomotives throughout the 1930s. He gave all the negatives, plus a collection of vintage cameras and locomotive memorabilia, to his son—my father, Henry, who is also a railroad enthusiast and amateur photographer with a fully functioning darkroom.

My grandfather, who taught my father the art of film photography, emphasized to him the importance of developing film at all costs. "You can always print the negatives at a later time," he had said. As a surprise for my grandfather's eighty-first birthday in 1995, my father printed the remaining collection of 1939 World's Fair negatives and put it on exhibit at a New Jersey library with the title "Nite Sites." My grandfather was overcome.

Some of my fondest memories are my grandfather's coming of age stories in 1930s New York—stories that continue to color my experiences as a New Yorker today. This past February would have been my grandfather's 100th birthday. He died a month before 9/11 at the age of eighty-seven, but his images commemorate the experience of that time and the generational bonds forged over art, innovation, and our beloved city.

Theme Center, Democracity
Trylon and Perisphere: Henry Dreyfuss, designer; Harrison & Fouilhoux, architects; George Washington statue by James Earle Fraser and John Quincy Ward

This iconic image captures the centerpieces of the Fair with its 700-foot-tall Trylon and 200-foot-diameter hollow Perisphere, designed by pioneering industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss and built by architects Harrison & Fouilhoux. (Harrison was later the lead architect for the United Nations headquarters.) The Perisphere housed Democracity, a diorama of a utopian "city of tomorrow." In keeping with the Fair's theme, this view shows the back of a nearly sixty-foot tall statue of George Washington as he faces the future.

Times & Fates of Man sundial and Moods of Time pool
Sculpture by Paul Manship

Manship, best known for his gilded Prometheus sculpture at the Rockefeller Center rink, was commissioned to make the Fair's sundial. Standing eighty feet tall and shadowed by the Perisphere, it is surrounded by Manship's classically inspired statues that depicted the times of day.

Theme Center
A north- facing view of the Theme Center with four illuminated, 65-foot pylons representing the four elements in the Plaza of Light. Sculptor Carl Paul Jennewein designed the decorative figures on the columns.

Fountain
A close-up shot of the Jell-O shaped fountain seen in the previous image.

Silhouettes, Federal Building
This image was captured in front of the United States Federal Building designed by architect Howard L. Cheney.

Fountain
Two silhouetted visitors sit and stand along the left wall of this water lit fountain.

Pennsylvania
The "Court of States" consisted of the twenty-three states that participated in the Fair. The Fair's Board of Design allowed the state pavilions, the majority of which were grouped around the Lagoon of Nations, to incorporate traditional design and unoriginal architecture. The Pennsylvania building seen here was an exact model of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and housed an enlarged replica of the Liberty Bell.

My grandfather used his tripod-mounted camera with the proper lens aperture and a long, uninhibited exposure time to capture the stillness of the reflecting pool.

Florida
The Florida building, which was the only state pavilion in the Amusement Zone, sat on a 110,000-square-foot plot, the largest area for a single state. Positioned along the zone's Fountain Lake and surrounded by hundreds of tropical plantings, the building's Mediterranean Revival design, with its stucco walls, arches, and carillon—and a talking statue of Spanish explorer Ponce de León—recall the Sunshine State's colonial roots.

DuPont
Walter Dorwin Teague and R. J. Harper, designers; A. M. Erickson, engineer

Industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague was a member of the Board of Design and played a prominent role in designing many of its exhibits including those for E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Company, Ford Motor Company, Eastman Kodak, and the National Cash Register. For DuPont's "Wonder World of Chemistry," Teague's design included a spectacular 105-foot, test tube-shaped tower, which was meant to simulate bubbling chemicals when lit at night. Among DuPont's many innovative displays, arguably the most important was the debut of nylon: knitting machines at the Fair produced nylon pantyhose with which female models played tug-of-war to demonstrate the fiber's strength.

Notice the "ghost" of a man located in the far right of the image, under the word "CHEMISTRY." He walked in and out of the frame before my grandfather's long exposure time had finished.

Glass, Incorporated
Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, architects and designers

The Glass Center was a pavilion shared by Corning Glass Works, The Owens-Illinois Glass Company, The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, and Owens Corning Fiberglass. Designed by the Empire State Building architects Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, it was constructed almost entirely of glass blocks, plate glass, and structural glass. Its gleaming, 107-foot tower was illuminated from within and set off by blue plate glass fins and a metal spiral outlined in neon tubing.

Glass, Incorporated rotunda
Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, architects and designers

Another view of the Glass Center highlights its great rotunda. Inside the pavilion, decorative panels depicted the history of the industry, looms wove fiberglass goods, and a crew of skilled glass blowers worked an enormous furnace of molten glass.

Westinghouse
Skidmore & Owings and John Moss, architects

The Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing pavilion was horseshoe-shaped with an imposing 120-foot "Tower of Light" that contained a waterfall, and flanked on either side by huge glass-enclosed structures—the Hall of Electrical Power and the Hall of Electrical Living. Part of the pavilion's draw was a talking robot named Elektro, and a time capsule scheduled for opening in 6939.

U.S. Steel
Walter Dorwin Teague and G. F. Harrell, designers; York & Sawyer, architects

York & Sawyer were prominent New York architects who first met while working in the offices of McKim, Mead & White. Known for their "majestic classicism," their commissions included buildings at Vassar College, the New York Historical Society, and numerous banks. This building was a blue stainless steel hemisphere turned inside out: the framing trusses were on the outside, and at night were outlined by glowing blue lights. Inside the two-story pavilion, murals, animated dioramas, and demonstrations showcased the history and process of steel making.

General Electric
Voorhees, Walker, Smith and Foley, architects

GE's copper-paneled structure was designed by the preeminent architectural firm Voorhees, Walker, Smith and Foley, known for Art Deco landmarks such as 1 Wall Street and 32 Avenue of the Americas. A huge stainless steel lightning bolt distinguished the pavilion, which contained a 10-million-volt artificial lightning display; a complete television studio; a model electric appliance store; and an x-ray exhibit where visitors could view mummy skeletons.

Kodak
Walter Dorwin Teague and Stowe Myers, designers; Eugene Gerbereux, architect

My grandfather created this image from the side of the Eastman Kodak pavilion that gave him the best representation of the building's semicircular form and irregular, wedge-shaped wing. Although desolate in this photograph, the pavilion hosted lively exhibits about scientific advances in motion and still photography and included sets for visitors to take souvenir pictures. In the Great Hall of Color, a panorama of enormous screens projected color photographs.

Amusement Zone
The state-of-the-art Amusement Zone included the 70-foot high, 3000-foot long roller coaster seen here and the Parachute Jump (now defunct at Coney Island) along with a host of other attractions. It covered 280 acres and bordered The Fountain Lake, which had been renamed Liberty Lake by 1940.

Fireworks
Firework displays were a weather-permitting nightly feature of the Fair. Using his tripod, my grandfather took a long-time exposure with his lens cap protecting the film between the several bursts it took to complete this image. The structures in the background, from left to right, are the pavilions of Florida, Firestone Tire, and Westinghouse.
—Special thanks to my father, Henry Webber

Sources:
· 1939 and 1940 official guidebooks to the Fair from my grandfather's collection
· Paul M. Van Dort, www.1939nyworldsfair.com

For more information about the photographs, and/or to purchase prints, please visit http://webbersphotography.blogspot.com/