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The 1904 World's Fair: A vision of palaces and cascades

All it takes is a little imagination to see the gushing Cascades and brightly lit palaces of the 1904 World’s Fair on present-day Art Hill.
All it takes is a little imagination to see the gushing Cascades and brightly lit palaces of the 1904 World’s Fair on present-day Art Hill.
Amy Borrelli

In 1904, St. Louis seemed like the grandest place on earth. As host of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition – aka the World’s Fair – the city transformed a serene public park into a bustling beehive of amusements and Beaux Arts elegance.

The fair opened at Forest Park on April 30, 1904, and over the next seven months, 20 million people paid the 50-cent admission price to gawk at exotic native peoples, brave the 26-story-high Observation Wheel, and marvel over the beautifully lit Cascades and Festival Hall.

And then it was gone. Of more than 200 buildings created for the fair, the only original structures that remain are the art museum and the bird cage at the nearby St. Louis Zoo.

Fourteen other palatial exhibit halls and hundreds of statues created for the fair were composed of “staff,” a mix of plaster of Paris and wood fibers that was applied over wood frames and could quickly be whittled into amazing-looking facades – and intentionally easy to dismantle when the fair ended.

Today, standing at the bottom of the Grand Basin and gazing upward toward the St. Louis Art Museum atop Art Hill, the view is breathtaking, but one can only imagine the pageantry that once existed at this very spot.

During the fair, a three-pronged water fountain known as the Cascades flowed down what is currently Art Hill into the Grand Basin.

Festival Hall, at the top of the Cascades, stood 200 feet tall, with a dome larger than that of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Palace of Fine Arts – now the art museum – was hidden behind Festival Hall, and was the only permanent exhibit hall (to assuage anxious art collectors who were lending their treasures for display).

The Grand Basin that exists now is not the one created for the fair, but it is very similar in style and scope. After the fair, the basin was rebuilt with more permanent material, but fell into disrepair over the years, with crumbling railings and stagnating water. In 2004, as part of a $94 million project to restore Forest Park, the basin was drained, the promenades reconstructed and eight lighted fountains installed.

David R. Francis, the director of the 1904 fair, wrote, “I feel, when I stand on Art Hill and view the panorama spread before me, that I have seen a masterpiece of architectural achievement. It is as if the symbolized Genius of Construction stood at my side and slowly unfolded her bejeweled fan.”

Well, it’s no longer quite that grand a view, but it’s still pretty special.